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Bringing back the Jefferson Chalmers Business District

Posted at 6:33 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 18:33:57-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — It’s a historic and cultural landmark but the Vanity Ballroom also stands as a symbol of the demise of the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, located on the city’s lower east side.

Renovating the ballroom is a key part of the redevelopment plan for the Jefferson Chalmers Business District. More on that later. First -- meet Derric Scott.

“We’re excited, the community’s excited,” he says.

Scott is CEO of the East Jefferson Development Corporation, an independent subsidiary of the non-profit Jefferson East, Inc.

A new restaurant is coming to the neighborhood. Detroit Soul will occupy what was once the S.S. Kresge Company five and dime department store.

“They’re doing their design work and then in the next three months, their build should start and finish, and hopefully by Thanksgiving folks are having a good meal in there,” he says.

As we walked along East Jefferson, Scott says dealing with environmental contamination in these buildings adds about 25 percent to the redevelopment costs. That makes it more difficult to obtain needed financing and adds to the timeline for completing projects.

One long-standing business is Riverfront Building Supply and Hardware. The owner is Al Barrow—the great-nephew of heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis.

“When I opened up, you know, Detroit had hit rock bottom. People said, why you want to open up now, I said, because it’s my community,” Barrow says.

And his business remains essential to the neighborhood to this day.

For Scott and his team, providing affordable housing options is another focus. He took me inside one of two nearby 1920’s apartment buildings – buildings that are being completely renovated.

Twenty-three units in all, eight in this building, will soon welcome families.

“1,200 inquiries on our units and we had roughly 200+ applications for 23 units. We don’t have an issue filling the units right now, it’s really an issue of prioritizing the folks at most need, especially those that are at risk of displacement,” Scott says. “We did a sneak peek with some residents who thought this was too high quality for the neighborhood and I said, ‘if that’s only critique you have, I’ll take it.”

Now back to the Vanity Ballroom, the two-story art deco building with an Aztec theme abandoned for over 30 years. It is the last of Detroit’s big band era dance halls.

While it is in rough shape today given years of neglect and abuse from the elements, looters, and vandals, it remains salvageable.

But it won’t be cheap or easy says Josh Elling, Jefferson East’s CEO. He tells me it will take up to 15 million dollars to bring the historic ballroom back to its former glory.

“The good news for those folks that have given up hope is this building has solid bones the structures still good, it’s a well-built building,” Elling says. “The rich jazz and blues heritage of this neighborhood needs to be celebrated but it also needs to be brought back in a way that is inclusive and welcomes in all residents, those that just moved here and those who have stuck it out for 50 or 60 years.”