By Greg Piazza
Before there was a “Fashionable Ferndale” there was Palmer Park. An enclave of some 50 apartment buildings and five houses of worship, the “Park” as it was called sat in a triangle shaped subdivision with stunning architectural masterworks by notable Detroit architects. It was the heart of the Detroit LGBT community from the early 1950s down to the 1990s. I lived there from 1974 to 1991 and consider it the best times of my life.
Vacancies were not advertised either in the paper or by outdoor signs. Getting a unit was usually by referral. Since I had no referral the chances of my getting a unit seemed slim. In June of 1974, having graduated from Wayne State and said goodbye to my first partner, I set out to find a unit in the Park. I had the “GM look,” dark suit, dark tie, white shirt, highly polished shoes and a crew cut. Resume and references in hand, I spent two days knocking on doors. Applications completed, credit checks done and interviews concluded, I finally found a unit at 361 Merton (The Merton Manor). A spacious one bedroom with breakfast nook. The rent was $145 a month which was about average for a one bedroom in the Park unless you were lucky enough to have a porch or balcony, which was $5 extra.
For a young gay man Palmer Park was home. Back then on Six Mile between Third and Hamilton, you would find Bookie’s (aka Gagen’s) favored for drag shows; Chosen Books between Menjo’s (disco divas) and The Glass House (aka the Crews Inn and Don’s Beef and Ale for the neighborhood bar style). Across Woodward was Tiffany’s with its barn wood interior and great food. At Seven Mile and Woodward you would find a Cunningham’s; the first location of the Backstage; the Outlaw leather and cowboy bar; Heaven, the E-ramp and the Gas Station. There was Ted’s Restaurant, open 24/7 and packed after the bars. At the counter sat a drag queen; a cop; a leather man and a male hustler. Until the wee hours of the night cars circled the Park and guys walked the streets in a search of a one nighter.
Nearly everyone in the gay community had a connection to the Park. It was our village and we mixed with young straight professionals and community activists who created a juried art fair that was held in the 80s. We also created a citizen’s patrol and advocated for the area through the Palmer Park Citizens Action Council, the precursor to today’s People for Palmer Park.
I quickly fell in love with the range of architecture and unique buildings. I started to research the history of the district. This lead to the listing of the apartment district on the National Register of Historic Places. I developed a tour of the buildings which ran during the art fairs. In 2011 I revived the tours and 200 people attended. In 2012, 400 people attended. This October we expect upwards of 600 people to marvel at one of four of Albert Kahn’s apartment buildings; an Art Deco marvel which is one of the first completely cast concrete residential structures in Detroit; almost the entire career of one firm covering 40 years and Temple Israel designed by William Kapp designer of Meadowbrook Hall.
Largely vacated after 1995, the apartment district did not decay as other neighborhoods did. It lost two buildings and two marginal buildings are scheduled for demolition. Today, one long time property owner is committed to keeping his family’s buildings intact in memory of his parents. Another is gut renovating 11 buildings. They are doing historically sensitive rehab leaving detail work when possible and totally rebuilding interiors. Today the air is filled with the noise of hammers; the whine of saws evoking the furious pace of the 1920s when the Park was born.