If I had to pick the next neighborhood in Detroit ready for a major comeback, it’ be West Village. Located smack dab in the middle of some of Detroit’s most opulent and well-preserved gilded age neighborhoods, West Village is an eclectic mix of a fashionable single-family homes and sturdy brick apartment buildings. And it’s right up the street from Jefferson Avenue, where spacious parks and Italian Renaissance and Art Deco apartments left over from the Roaring Twenties remind you that, yes, Detroit really was one of America’s most important cities. One look at the orange terracotta brick and Corinthian columns of The Kean apartments and you get it.
There’s a unique culture in and around West Village, too. It screams Detroit – the shouts at the pick-up basketball games at Erma Henderson Park; the rap blasting from car stereos on the waterfront; the idle chatter of old, gray-bearded men in lawn chairs. It’s all beautiful, musical, a black Detroit that you don’t hear enough about outside the city, because all the outsiders can hear are gunshots.
Yet the streets are quiet, the communities diverse and tight-knit. About the only thing West Village is missing are businesses, regular meeting places and sources of entertainment. Maybe 10 or 20 years ago the neighborhood still had that, but some of the vacancies have been getting a bit long in the tooth.
Luckily, though, that’s about to change. With the help of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and The Villages Community Development Corporation (say that five times fast!), some interesting new restaurants and stores are set to open soon along Agnes in the first floors of the tony Parkstone Apartments and West Village Manor. We’re not talking McDonald’s or Rite Aid, either, but destination spots similar to Slows Bar BQ in Corktown. Difference makers.
I was able to attend the “soft”, or unofficial, opening of Detroit Vegan Soul last Thursday, and let me tell you, these people aren’t messing around. From the sparse but elegant decor and indie jazz playlists to the hip waiters and decorative wheatgrass planters, Detroit Vegan Soul is a carefully orchestrated affair that serves dishes with a Zen-like, razor sharp focus.
And does it have soul! Who would’ve ever thought of serving up vegan catfish sandwiches? Genius! Of course it doesn’t quite taste like fresh, Missouri River catfish, but breading tofu with cornmeal and then topping it with a creamy tartar sauce is so delicious in its own right that such practical concerns fail to register. Put that on a bun with crisp lettuce and you’re off to the vegan races, my friend. This is the kind of inventiveness the vegan movement has desperately needed. Leave it to a couple of North Carolina transplants, owners Kirsten Ussery and Erica Boyd, to figure it out.
My waiter – and I’m pretty sure his name was printed on the side of his horn-rimmed glasses – event went so far as to compare Detroit’s West Village to Brooklyn, and inside Detroit Vegan Soul, that didn’t sound crazy. It’s definitely a great location. The original homes of some of Detroit’s most illustrious figures are just a block away, and all the little alleyways and old school lampposts bring to mind a more innocent time.
The prices weren’t bad either, with dishes around $10. No, the portions aren’t exactly supersized, but it’s about what you’d expect from a health-conscious restaurant. Detroit Vegan Soul officially opens September 28th, and if what I saw is any indication, it’ll be a smashing success and a new cornerstone for historic, ever-evolving West Village.