A One Detroit Driving Tour of Southwest Detroit with Ozzie Rivera and Consuela Lopez

Last Updated by Bill Kubota on

A One Detroit Driving Tour of Southwest Detroit with Ozzie Rivera and Consuela Lopez
February 24, 2018 – Bill Kubota, Detroit’s One Detroit

As part of One Detroit’s continuing community coverage around Metro Detroit, we’ve been taking some rolling tours of different parts of the city.

One of our more popular tours took us through Southwest Detroit with resident local historian Ozzie Rivera and community leader, Consuela Lopez.

02 Detroit w DISTRICT 6.jpg Southwest Detroit comprises a big chunk of its geography. While it’s west of downtown, much of it sits directly south of the rest of the city. But it’s not called South Detroit except in the Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

These days, Southwest is better defined because of districts drawn to elect city council members.   

Before 2013, all councilmembers were elected by a citywide vote. With District 6 came what is generally speaking the Southwest we know now, represented by Raquel Castañeda-López which includes the neighborhoods of Corktown, North Corktown, Woodbridge, Mexicantown, Hubbard-Richard, Springwells Village, Delray, Oakwood Heights, Boynton, Condon-Chadsey.

We start out at historic St. Anne’s Church, officially Ste. Anne de Detroit, officially the second oldest Catholic parish in the U.S., behind the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in Florida. The current church was built in 1881, but retains the cornerstone of an older structure dated 1818 and an engraving dating the parish to 1701 when the first church stood where Detroit’s Hart Plaza is today. Inside the church, you’ll find the tomb of the beloved Fr. Gabriel Richard (1767-1832), a co-founder of the University of Michigan.

04 Detroit railroad tunnel then and now.jpg The tour continues along Bagley Avenue past the now historic Honeybee Market. Rivera points out the train tunnel coming out from under the Detroit River barely visible from the overpass. “Do you see that?” Rivera says, “I used to see undocumented white folks come across from Canada when I was a little kid!”

Rivera and Lopez roll through the Corktown neighborhood named for the Irish immigrants that settled there. “Southwest, as we know it, got its start with Corktown,” Lopez says. It’s the oldest neighborhood in the city.

With the revitalization of the city and its proximity to downtown, real estate prices have quickly risen in recent years and has become the focus of national media, with its decaying train station and a celebrated barbeque restaurant.

Corktown is also where the Detroit Police Athletic League is building a playing field and stadium for kids at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull where Tiger Stadium used to stand.

Further down Bagley, Rivera and Lopez pass Clement Kern Gardens, a subsidized housing development named for Monsignor Kern (1907-1983), revered priest of nearby Most Holy Trinity Church, where Rivera served as an altar boy. Kern was known as the “labor priest,” because of his support of union causes.  The Michigan Catholic reported in August of 2017 on the efforts of activist Mary Turner to have new street signs by Most Holy Trinity installed in honor of Kern. “Like how Ste. Anne has Fr. Gabriel Richard, St. Bonaventure (on Detroit’s east side) has Fr. Solanus Casey, we have Fr. Kern,” Turner says to the Michigan Catholic.

07 Fisher 18 and workers 1925.jpgOur tour moves up to Michigan Avenue rolling west of Grand Boulevard to Clark Street.  A century ago, this intersection was home to GM’s Cadillac Division.  Cadillacs rolled off the assembly line from the Clark Street complex from 1921 to 1987. Rivera also remembers two other now demolished GM plants that employed thousands in Southwest at that time: the Cadillac Fleetwood and Fisher (Ternstedt) plants on Fort Street in the Delray neighborhood.  You can see silent film of Cadillac’s operations in the mid-1920s here courtesy the Detroit Historical Society, which also include shots of Fisher Body Plant 18, then the world’s largest body plant for Buick, later to become the Cadillac Fleetwood plant.

08 Alnour Middle East and Mexican foods Michigan Avenue 2017.jpgFurther west on Michigan we enter Chadsey-Condon, another multicultural neighborhood with new arrivals from Yemen—in part because it’s close to Dearborn, home to many from the Middle East. Lopez points out a grocery store featuring Arabic and Mexican foods. “You’re not going to see that in a lot of places,” Lopez says. 

The tour dips down to the most southern part of Southwest into the Boynton neighborhood, often called by its zip code of 48217, the most polluted in Michigan.  “There’s a lot of cancer here,” Lopez says. Higher asthma rates are a problem, too, tied to the concentration of heavy industry.  “A lot of people would have called this the original Southwest Detroit back in the day,” Rivera says.  The neighborhood was famous for a bustling thoroughfare on Visger Road where the cities of Detroit, River Rouge and Ecorse converge.  “This was the home to a very well established, stable, working class and middle class African American community,” Rivera says, “It was the most politically active zip code of census tract in the city of Detroit.”

10 Scene along Vernor.jpgTurning north, the tour takes us back up to Vernor Highway through Springwells Village and Mexicantown.  Stores and restaurants line the strip that runs four miles in a line toward downtown.  “Certain times of the day,” Rivera says, “it’s faster to walk from one block to another.”  Lopez adds. “Vernor is our Woodward.”  There’s a wide array of Mexican and Central American restaurants in this part of Southwest and the best place to start is along Vernor.

Past the historic Holy Redeemer Church, they arrive at their final destination: Clark Park at Clark and Vernor.  “It’s kind of the spiritual center of the community,” Rivera says.   According to the Clark Park Coalition, the park was closed by the city because of money problems, but local residents started the coalition to help the city open it again.  The park offers programs throughout all seasons of the year, including a full size ice hockey rink.  Now, Rivera says, it’s a star within the Detroit Parks system.  See more about Clark Park in this story produced Student Reporting Labs fellow, Evan Gulock, that aired on PBS NewsHour.

DPTV’s American Black Journal and One Detroit hosted a program from Southwest Detroit in April 2017 that at looked immigration, education and the environment.  See our complete coverage here.

While we talked about the Delray neighborhood in the program, it wasn’t part of our video tour. Delray has been depopulating because the Gordie Howe International Bridge from Canada will land there. Plans have been in the works for years, and more recently, property needed for the project has been acquired.  In January 2018, the Canadian government announced it has begun the search for a Chief Executive Officer to head the bridge authority.

One Detroit looked at how the bridge plans were affecting Delray in a story that aired on DPTV’s MiWeek:

 

One Detroit has also been looking at environmental issues in the 48217 zip code airing in MiWeek in 2017:

One Detroit - Four million people. One story.

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