Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Palmer Park's turnaround and neighborhood revival

Photo by Marvin Shaouni
(originally published 1/28/14 in Model D)

1: A brief history of an exquisite neighborhood

In the 1870s, lumber baron and U.S. Senator Thomas Palmer inherited 160 acres of land from his mother in the area we know today as Palmer Park. (For a longer history that includes the pre-Palmer days, check out this delightful Souvenir and Illustrated History of Palmer Park from 1908.) After continuing to acquire neighboring parcels over the next decade, Palmer eventually came to own around 800 acres in what was then known as Greenfield Township.

Senator Palmer used much of the land as a horse and cattle farm, while his wife Lizzie employed noted landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot to design a resplendent park that included two lakes, islands, and miles of winding paths.

In the 1890s, the conservation-minded Palmer deeded the park land to the City of Detroit, on the condition that the virgin forest on site be preserved. Subsequent years found the remainder of Palmer's vast land holdings around the park and forest turned into a golf course, the august Palmer Woods neighborhood (north of the park), and the Palmer Park apartment district (immediately south).

The first apartment building to be built in the apartment district was the Albert Kahn-designed Walbri Court in 1925. What followed were 40 dizzying years of glamorous, upscale apartment construction, resulting in dozens of buildings variously designed in the Egyptian, Spanish, Mediterranean, Venetian, Tudor, Moorish Revival, Georgian, Art Moderne, and Modern styles.

This exquisite neighborhood -- bordered by Woodward to the east, the park itself on its northern edge, Pontchartrain Blvd to the west and McNichols to the south -- was home to much of Detroit's Jewish community from the 1920s until the late '70s, when Temple Israel moved from Palmer Park to West Bloomfield.

In the meantime, it had also become the locus of Detroit's gay community. From the '50s until the '80s, the apartment district was Detroit's "gayborhood," where large numbers of gay men lived in close proximity and walked to nearby, gay-owned restaurants, bars, and stores.

Gregory Piazza lived in the district from 1974 to 1991 and remembers it as "the most exciting place I've ever lived." Piazza, who is responsible for the district'snational historic designation, recalls that the gay population stabilized the neighborhood in the wake of the Jewish migration to the suburbs; but gays, too, were soon leaving in droves, heading north to Ferndale and Royal Oak in the wake of a long crime wave that, they felt, the police were not taking seriously.

From the '80s to the first decade of the 21st century, Palmer Park earned and maintained a reputation for seediness. The apartment district destabilized as the money moved north, the buildings began to empty out and decay, and the park became known as a hotbed of drug activity and prostitution. Rochelle Lento, who moved to Palmer Woods in 1991, quickly realized that the historic park she was so excited to live nearby was no place to take her children.

As recently as 2007, Clinton Griffin, who moved back home to Detroit from abroad to take care of his grandparents and raise his young great nephew, decided there was "no way" he would be taking his child to the park to play, even though he moved into a building that overlooked it.

2007, though, is also the year that the district and the park's twinned revitalization really got started -- that's when husband and wife developer team Mark Leipsitz and Kathy Makino-Leipsitz fell in love with the apartment district and started dreaming.