A few blocks south of Wayne State University are the remnants of Detroit’s Chinatown.
It’s small and easy to miss. A few signs still cling to vacant storefronts on Peterboro and Cass. Fading murals celebrating diversity go largely unnoticed.
And gone are four decades of grocers, retailers, restaurants and Chinese Americans, chased out by drugs, prostitution and violent crime two decades ago.
Now Peterboro, which served as the heart of Chinatown from the early 1960s until the last restaurant, Chung’s, closed in 2000, is on the verge of new life. Key to the transformation are a tattoo artist and Midtown Inc., the influential nonprofit that has revived the city’s art and cultural district.
Matt Hessler, a Detroit resident who owns a tattoo shop in Rochester, purchased one of two popular Chinatown properties on the west side of Cass Avenue at Peterboro for $225,000. He plans to open a tattoo shop where retailer Mantra had operated. Hessler evicted Showcase Collectible, a vintage and curio shop, after the pair couldn’t reach an agreement on a new lease.
“I wish they could have stayed,” Hessler told me, saying he really liked the store.
The plan is to provide space for four businesses in the 8,000-square-foot building.
“I’m going to restore it to the Chinatown era,” he said.
The adjacent corner building on Cass and Peterboro – formerly Chung’s restaurant – is now owned by Midtown Inc., which hopes to preserve the building. Its president, Sue Mosey, said there are no specific plans yet for the building.
Before Chinatown was established in the Cass Corridor in the 1960s, it was located downtown at Third, between Michigan and Howard. The original Chinatown was larger, with more than 2,000 residents.
The original Chinatown was demolished in the early 1960s for so-called urban renewal and slum clearance.
Of the Chinese Americans who decided to stay in Detroit, most moved north to Cass and Peterboro. Chung’s opened in 1960, followed by grocers, retailers, a residential community for seniors and a school. Thousands would turn out for parades during Chinese holidays.
But the honeymoon was short-lived as crime began to devour the Cass Corridor in the mid-1960s.
“Flowerpots! The pimps and the hookers and the drunks will just fill them up with trash,” complained one resident, Hayne Leung.
In 1970, Tommie Lee, owner of Bow Wah restaurant at Cass and Peterboro, was shot to death during a hold-up.
The relentless crimes led to a rapid decline in the population until most of the Chinese Americans had left by the mid-1980s.
The area has been largely dormant since. But investors and city boosters believe the former Chinatown site is ready for a revival.
To its south is the 45-block entertainment district to be anchored by a new home for the Detroit Red Wings, estimated to produce more than $200,000 million in other development. To its north is Wayne State University and the blossoming entertainment and cultural heart of Detroit.
The Cass Corridor is considered the missing link between downtown and Midtown.
Who buys the vacant land likely will determine the new identity of Chinatown.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.