Light Up Livernois

REVOLVE Detroit is hosting the Detroit Design Festival on Friday, September 20, 2013. The Art + Retail on the Ave project is launching that day and there will be tons of happenings going on along Livernois Ave.

Friday, Sept. 20th, the Detroit Design Festival is being hosted on Livernois by Revolve Detroit. "Light Up Livernois" is an event celebrating the next chapter on Detroit’s historic "Avenue of Fashion" with an evening of design, art, shopping, and entertainment.

For an intriguing view of Detroit at a tipping point, take a stroll along Livernois near Seven Mile Road, a strip dubbed the Avenue of Fashion back in the city’s glory days.

In fact, go there today between 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. during an event called Light Up Livernois, where 10 previously vacant storefronts come back to life as a cafe, a bakery, a ceramic studio and some pop-up retail shops amid live entertainment and a backdrop of newly painted murals.

Something is happening there — a project called REVOLVE Detroit — and we don’t know yet what it will yield.

What we do know, with increasing certainty, is that Detroit’s comeback cannot truly gain traction until pockets of economic revival start sprouting in neighborhoods beyond the 5% of city land occupied by downtown and Midtown, where buzz is building over high-tech startups, housing demand and even a Whole Foods store.

“Ultimately, it’s got to spread across the whole city, from the Fist up to 8 Mile,” said Walter Bailey, 65, a Detroit artist who worked on three new murals this month as the Livernois community rallied around REVOLVE Detroit.

The event got jump-started in May by winning a $200,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a coalition of foundations.

Another $50,000 came from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and soon people in the neighborhood were voting on what kinds of new shops and activities they’d like to see funded with the cash.

Art in Motion, a ceramics studio founded by two instructors from Pewabic Pottery, Kay Willingham and Audrey Long, was the top vote-getter among 45 entrepreneurial proposals.

“People wanted something to do, they want to see activity in the community,” said Willingham, a Cass Tech graduate who attended Spelman College in Atlanta before returning to complete degrees in management and psychology at University of Detroit Mercy. Art in Motion will be selling ceramics, teaching classes, hosting community events and providing studio space upstairs for other artists.

“I’ve lived here in this neighborhood for 45 years,” Willingham said Wednesday, as workers hustled to complete work on the shop before Friday’s big debut.

“I used to shop the Avenue of Fashion with my mom when it wasthe Avenue of Fashion,” she added, with emphasis on the past tense, acknowledging that businesses suffered as the city’s population and services eroded. “So yes, I have seen the transition, but I think we have an opportunity for a win-win here now.”

April Anderson, a Chadsey High graduate with an MBA from University of Michigan, also is taking the entrepreneurial plunge. She’s opening Good Cakes and Bakes, an organic bakery across the street from the new Regal Cafe, where a three-dimensional mural from Walter Bailey adorns one of the walls.

Bailey also assisted Baltimore artist Michael Owen, who was tapped to design two large exterior murals with the images of famous Detroit musical figures Steve Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, hip-hop producer J Dila and and techno pioneer Derrick Mays.

Optimists about Detroit’s future cite the energy downtown and up the Woodward Avenue creative corridor, while pessimists tend to dwell on the negatives of population erosion, high crime and municipal bankruptcy.

Michael Forsyth, director of the REVOLVE program for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., sees the Livernois-7 Mile area, called the University District for its proximity to UDM and Marygrove College, as a perfect laboratory for creative experiments on how to re-activate a neighborhood.

There’s no denying that the Avenue of Fashion lost many longtime businesses and customers to the onset of suburban malls in the 1950s, the riots of 1967 and the exodus of jobs in the years that followed. But the nearby residential neighborhoods of Sherwood Forest and Palmer Woods are in better shape than most in the city, and the presence of college students and faculty nearby is a plus. There also are several successful businesses on Woodward north of 7 Mile, including the venerable Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and more recently, the 1917 American Bistro and Rufus Bartell’s Simply Casual apparel store.

“This is the place for creative solutions, to try pop-up stores where, for very little upfront investment, you can analyze your sales and customers, understand what you can afford to pay for rent, and you’ve got real data to show lenders,” Forsyth said.

And most persuasive, he said, he tells people that are 1.5 billion reasons to start a business in Detroit, because that’s how many dollars Detroiters spend on retail outside the city.

One thing that’s in short supply around Livernois and 7 Mile is parking. So for Light Up Livernois, shuttles will be running from UDM to 8 Mile from 6 p.m. until midnight.