The much-anticipated Jazz on the Ave music, fashion, fun and food festival, a summer season highlight, again surpassed the expectations of organizers and patrons of the historic shopping district, with throngs of residents strolling the Avenue, shopping for deals on mostly one-of-a-kind works of art, ethnic fashion boutiques with men, women’s and children’s apparel and designer home goods.
The annual event on Livernois Avenue between Seven and Eight mile roads originated as a day for entrepreneurs and business owners to show customers appreciation by offering deals and special giveaways for their support and patronage. Lined with fantastic eateries including the Kuzzo’s Restaurant, American Bistro, the International Avenue Café and most recently Bucharest Grill, the Avenue of Fashion is once again becoming a shopping destination for locals and residents around the city.
Having fallen on hard times during Detroit’s economic downturn that caused many businesses — many of which were black-owned in the popular retail mecca — to close while a handful struggled to keep their doors open, the Avenue of Fashion’s comeback is an encouraging tale, but is fraught with some misgivings and tension between business owners and city officials.
“One of the main issues is the lack of cooperation we get from the city for events like this. [The Avenue of Fashion Business Association] always has good deal of difficulty getting the street closed down to accommodate the celebration and the celebrants for the safety and attendees,” said Brianna Williams, owner of dcreated boutique, a children’s apparel ad gift store. “But next month there is going to be a classic car show on the Avenue held by the police and they had no problems getting the streets blocked off,” says Williams. “Why is the business association constantly denied?”
But Williams adds that the tension between business owners and politicians downtown runs deeper and is a more complex issue, but an increasingly common one for residential and business district throughout the city. “There is a level of distrust that’s causing us to have to dig our heels in, as gentrification makes its way to the Avenue and insinuates the shopping district with high-end trendy venues that don’t cater to the needs and tastes of the people who live and shop here now.”
Things are getting so acrimonious in the Avenue shopping district that Jazz on the Ave event was marred by an ugly scene when Mayor Mike Duggan appeared to participate in the occasion and salute patrons. Eyewitness accounts report that an overly zealous Avenue of Fashion advocate, began shouting obscenities and using racial epithets when the mayor tried to speak. The guy went off screaming and cussing the mayor calling him a white m***** f*****, who didn’t give a damn about black people, black business or black neighborhoods,” said one eyewitness. “The guy actually began chasing the mayor and ran him off the Avenue.”
“All I know is this guy started yelling that Duggan hadn’t done anything for black businesses, and only cared about bringing in white dollars downtown,” explained The Avenue International Kitchen proprietor, Vincent Sheffield. “As business owners on Livernois we continue to be totally responsible for these type of customer appreciation days. But the fact is that we are not appreciated by the power structure downtown, and we get virtually no assistance,” Sheffield continues explaining that all cost for the Jazz on the Ave/Customer Appreciation Day is solely financed by business owners.
Livernois is a major thoroughfare for commuters living and working in Detroit and the nearby suburbs and is bordered by the affluent Green Acres/ Sherwood Forest area. Access and traffic flow are critical components for business success on the Avenue of Fashion. The recent installment of bike lanes along Livernois is posing some congestion problems according to some area business owners. And a proposed plan to remove or reduce the current barrier island and making the street a one- or two-lane street, may compound the problem and cause drivers and prevent drivers and shoppers from stopping in stores and restaurants along the street, or avoid the area altogether, causing additional financial strain to the number of specialty boutiques, art galleries and longtime family businesses.
Proponents of the city’s plan to reconfigure Livernois Avenue criticize the plan as being a mask for moving black business owners out and white business owners in, effectively destroying the character of the retail district and erasing its rich
However, in a Avenue of Fashion business meeting earlier in the year with City of Detroit Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox, Cox took great pains to engage business owners in the decision-making process for road and sidewalk improvements, and assured them that his office would work diligently to satisfy the requirements and wishes of current business owners and guaranteed transparency and fairness in the process. “My job is to get you to yes,” Cox told the anxious entrepreneurs.
Cox, the former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia and the architect of the city’s most ambitious neighborhood revitalization plan to date, directed his staff to establish a website to identify development goals and benchmarks for city projects, with the pilot project involving the blocks adjacent to the intersection of Livernois and McNichols, aka the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project which focuses on 100 vacant buildings and 257 empty lots that will be converted to productive landscapes.
The vision for the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project is to transform a quarter square mile area by addressing every publicly owned vacant lot and house. Removing blighted structures, beautifying vacant lots and creating homes for new residents will contribute to stabilization, increased property values and improved quality of life.
“The Avenue of Fashion was, and still is, known all over the world,” said Dolphin Michael, president of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association. “Our mission is to revitalize the area, provide jobs for those in the community and to maintain and
grow a community where we (black people) can have ownership and be empowered in our own community.”
There are currently 166 businesses in the Avenue of Fashion retail district with approximately 100 of those being open and active.