WDET reporters have been spending the past few weeks in Windsor, talking to residents as part of our “Crossing The Lines” series. That’s our examination of what unites us and divides us as a region.
One of the things we’ve discovered is that the Walkerville neighborhood is seeing a resurgence.
Drive through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, go through Canadian Customs, make a couple of right turns, then head east on Wyandotte Street from downtown Windsor. After a few minutes, you’ll run into several blocks that set themselves apart from much of the rest of Windsor.
Small shops and restaurants of varying types line the busy street. Cars and buses stream by, but nearly as many pedestrians stroll down the sidewalk at a much slower pace.
This is Walkerville.
“First and foremost it’s the architecture. It’s the design,” said Francesco Vella. He’s the owner of the Olde Walkerville Pharmacy.
Vella said, “There are no freeways. There are no huge parking lots. It’s smaller. It’s a little more dense and people can walk where they want to go.”
Vella’s business is designed to look like an old apothecary from the early 1900’s, complete with wood paneling and a noticeable absence of aluminum shelves. That turn of the century look is part of the neighborhood’s charm.
Walkerville was founded in 1858 by Hiram Walker – the merchant who became famous and wealthy by making Canadian Club whiskey. He made Walkerville a company town and supervised much of its development until his death in 1899.
The town was annexed by Windsor in 1935, but Walkerville went through the same economic ebbs and flows over the decades that the rest of Windsor did.
Vella said when he purchased his building about seven years ago, Walkerville wasn’t considered anything to be special. He said, “It was kind of a run-down area. There were some businesses here before. The economic collapse didn’t help.”
He said, “There were some shady characters outside. I remember my first year being open, there were some strange people outside.”
But the neighborhood has seen a revival in recent years, in large part because of the efforts of local merchants like Vella.
Dan Wells owns the Biblioasis book store on Wyandotte Street. He specializes in antique books. Wells ran a book store in downtown Windsor years ago, but his landlord there wanted to dramatically raise his rent. So, Wells closed that store and eventually moved to Walkerville.
He said, “it came down to economics. After my experience with that landlord, I did not want to get in a situation again, where I wasn’t in control of where I wanted to be,where I could be forced out by somebody else. And I couldn’t afford to buy a building downtown.”
Walkerville has retained much of its charm over the years. Early 20th Century homes line side streets shaded by decades-old trees. Friendly neighbors say hello to the merchants as they pass by.
Wells said, “It’s been voted one of the best old house districts in the country. It’s maintained its architectural integrity in a way that very few communities do.
He added, “and as it’s developed over the last decade…it’s become one of the cultural hubs in the city where it’s not just bookstores, but some of the best restaurants.”
Just a couple of blocks down Wyandotte is one of those restaurants – Willistead’s. The bar and grill stands out from many of the other businesses in the area because of its modern, artistic look, and because it has the rarity of its own parking lot.
That’s where owner Mark Boscariol does his part to energize the neighborhood with monthly “Night Markets”.
Boscariol said, “We close the adjacent alleys and streets. The neighboring businesses get involved. We get about 5,000 visitors, 800 at one time. And it’s families. We get a very diverse age group. We get old people, young people. We put up a children’s area. And it’s like a neighborhood block party.”
Boscariol said Walkerville is thriving, in part because of events like the Night Market. But there’s more to it than that.
Boscariol said, “Organically, Walkerville just evolved by itself. And what happened was you had a lot of owner pride. Pride in building owners. Pride in business owners. Pride in residents and they got involved.”
He added, “They kind of leap-frogged downtown to make this neighborhood. It’s really Windsor putting its best foot forward.”
That’s a sentiment shared by entrepreneur Mary Lambros. She’s the founder and owner of Lorelei’s Bistro. Lambros has played a large role in Walkerville’s recent revival – not so much because of her restaurant – but because of what’s next door – the Walkerville Theatre.
Lambros said, “So, we decided we would call the lawyer, put an offer in on it, because at that point, the city was about to own it for taxes. And we bought the theatre thinking we were going to tear it down and make ourselves a parking lot. That didn’t happen.”
Instead, Lambros said she took one look at the stage and decided she had to save the derelict building for the community. She and her husband worked to renovate the Walkerville Theatre, originally built in 1918, by the same architect who designed the Fox Theatre in Detroit.
Lambros’ efforts have created another destination in the area – a venue where plays and musical performances can be held. It will also be a venue that attracts more visitors to the unique neighborhood.
Lambros said the key to the successful revitalization of Walkerville is pretty simple. She said, “We all are trying for the same thing. We don’t consider ourselves competition to each other. We consider each other to embrace this area and that’s what’s making it strong.
So, instead of worrying about what your neighbor’s doing, embrace what your neighbor’s doing and support it.”
Lambros is now working to turn a 1910-era building across the street into a center for local artists. She knows she’ll have the support of her fellow merchants to give Windsorites and Detroiters another reason to visit Walkerville.
The next Night Market in Walkerville is scheduled to take place on Friday, September 30th.