The Saginaw Saga

Life returns to the 900 block of West Saginaw

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If there are seasons in the life of a city block, it’s been a long winter on the 900 block of West Saginaw Street, in the heart of the city’s near west side. 

Photographs from half a century ago show a classic neighborhood commercial block. Locals shopped at grocery stores like Piggly Wiggly, Kroger and Schmidt’s. Kids tugged their parents from American Bank & Trust toward the candy counter at the D&C five and dime store down the street. People walked up to Updyke Pharmacy for prescriptions, men got their hats at Gordon’s Men’s Wear, cops munched donuts at Paul’s Pastries, thirsty patrons wet their beaks at Pasquale’s, the Westown Bar or McCleer’s Saloon. 

Today, crosstown traffic sweeps past a bleached reef of bare walls and blank boards. Even Toolan’s liquor store — the only going concern on the north side of the block — gave up on facing the street years ago, parked a planter in front of the door and directed patrons to the back. 

But spring is coming. Last Wednesday, Re’Shane Lonzo, a prominent Black business leader and owner/CEO of DRM International Learning Center, a growing, Lansing-based medical and job training center, bought the hulking former Park’s Furniture complex. The five storefronts that run from 900 to 916 W. Saginaw were formerly owned by Neil Park. Lonzo plans to move the learning center, now housed at 809 Center St. in Lansing, to the first floor of the former Park’s complex and remodel the second floor for rental apartments. 

Park presided over his decaying fortress of furniture and nearby properties for decades. His death in February 2022 accelerated an already nascent renaissance. Earlier this year, Lonzo bought a long-vacant building, also formerly owned by Park, at 923 W. Saginaw. Next door, at 927 W. Saginaw, Lansing Everett High School grad, NBA player and entrepreneur Desmond Ferguson is planning a local outlet for the popular Moneyball Sportswear firm. Just to the west, at 913 W. Saginaw, Lansing-based Strange Matter Coffee has turned the former bank into a roastery and supply warehouse. Lansing native Aaron Williams renovated the bank, along with a spiffy Art Deco building with a curved glass-brick wall at 909 W. Saginaw, next door, that went up for sale in September.  

It will be a tall order to bring back the bustle of bygone years, but nearly every moribund storefront on the block now has a caring steward and bright prospects. Spring often looks like winter at first, but the crocuses are peeping through. 

 

‘It was alive’ 

Aaron Williams was born just down the street from West Saginaw’s 900 block, at St. Lawrence Hospital. As a kid, he was trundled off to American Bank & Trust, the same building he renovated last year and sold to Strange Matter Coffee, to manage his first passbook savings account. 

“Then we’d go to the five and dime and end up at Paul’s Pastries,” Williams said. “That was the highlight of the day.” 

Williams calls Gregory Eaton, venerable owner of Gregory’s Soul Food Bar & Grill for over 50 years, his “consultant.” Eaton is also his uncle. 

Last week, Williams was showing Eaton, who is 82, the renovated building at 909 W. Saginaw, next to the old bank. The curved glass brick window threw gold September light into the main room. Everything inside, from the flooring to the fixtures, was brand new. The place even smelled like a new car. 

“This was a neighborhood bar with great hamburgers,” Eaton mused. A series of businesses moved in and out over the years here. In the late 1960s, it was Celentino’s pizza and the Westown bar. 

“It was alive,” Eaton went on, waving in all directions. “There were people walking all over. The bank was here, the gas station was there, you had a bakery across there. Great twisters, glazed doughnuts and stuff. We’d stop and get them on the way to school. And Toolan’s, and Bob’s Market and Shaheen’s Grocery. You don’t see people walking here now.” 

On April 4, 1968, 10-year-old Aaron Williams was buying a donut at Paul’s when he heard over the radio that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.  “I didn’t even know who Dr. King was, but I learned,” he said. 

Williams went to Sexton High School and MSU and worked for 37 years as an engineering manager at General Motors. The work took him out of Lansing and around the world, from China to Russia to Latin America, with a base of operations in the Tech Center in Warren, but always kept his eye on his old neighborhood. 

“I thought it would be nice if we bring it back — the community, the businesses, the church — and that’s what’s happening right now, right in front of my eyes,” he said. 

He started with the former Standard Oil station (also home to P.J.’s Car Clinic) at 901 W. Saginaw, vacant for decades, now home to a busy auto tinting shop. 

Most of the buildings on the south side of the 900 block had been dark for decades, except for fires in trash cans. Williams couldn’t wait to turn the lights on. 

Working with a generator at first, his crew began to renovate the old service station, tearing out asbestos and wrangling wires and pipes in the cold and the dark. They installed bright new garage doors, thanks in part to a façade grant from the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. 

“This was the shiny object that lit up this whole corner, that started drawing people in,” Williams said. 

That brilliant corner caught the eye of Terri Taylor, now the owner of Touch of Tint. 

“She brought her husband back and they bought it on the spot, cash,” Williams said. “We weren’t even finished working yet.” 

As Williams made the rounds of the block last week, he found Touch of Tint technician Curtis Farris busy working on three vehicles, with half a dozen more parked in the lot. Some days, the shop handles 20 to 50 vehicles a day. 

But Farris hasn’t been too busy to notice the buzz on the 900 block. 

“It’s great to be a part of it,” he said. 

Next door to the tint shop, the Rev. Andrew Brodie, 76, worked with the patience of a nest-building ant to move a chest-high stack of two-by-fours, freshly dropped on the sidewalk that morning in front of 907 W. Saginaw, currently owned by St. Luke Community Baptist Church. 

The handsome 1925 brick building has many nice touches of decorative masonry. Above the entrance is a distinctive white stone carved with the name “McComb.” 

One by one, Brodie carried the fresh-smelling boards into the first floor. He said he gave the building to his son, Frederick, who will use them to begin converting the top floor into apartments. The first floor will continue to serve as church sanctuary. 

“He’s doing new bathrooms, new floors, everything,” Brodie said. “It’s going to look good. I wouldn’t mind living there myself when it’s done.” He laughed. “No taxes, no rent.” 

Roasting in the vaults 

Many stories are embedded in the old buildings along the 900 block. Former Lansing Councilwoman Jessica Yorko was walking past the old American Bank & Trust building, now the Strange Matter coffee roastery, at 913 W. Saginaw in 2010, when she observed a buzz of activity. 

The owner of the building, Joseph Covello, had just died. 

Covello owned several properties in Lansing, including Joe Covello’s Lounge, a gay bar, on the Michigan Avenue “sin strip” in what is now the Stadium District. He was a master of bartering and lent money to people who couldn’t otherwise get it. 

“He bought the bank building because he didn’t believe in banks and stashed his money there,” Yorko said. “They were cleaning it out and finding money everywhere. They found $250,000 in the vaults and lining the underside and topside of one of the big interior doors.” Aaron Williams confirmed Yorko’s account. 

Strange Matter owner Cara Nader said the building still contains two large safety deposit boxes the cleaners never opened. They rusted shut decades ago. 

“It would cost hundreds of dollars to get them all open,” she said. I’ve talked with a few locksmiths, and I’m sure at this point they are empty, but now you have me curious.” 

Nader bought the building in October 2021.  

“Driving around the city, running errands for the stores, I’ve been in love with the building for years,” she said. “It has gorgeous windows and I saw a lot of potential in it.” 

The circle top windows and Art Deco cornices are highlighted with limestone. Heavy rectangular stones weigh down the base of the street-facing wall. 

“As soon as it was listed on the market, I jumped on it immediately,” Nader said. “It’s built of steel and concrete. Our building inspector told us we could park our vehicles on top of the building.” 

Strange Matter uses the place mainly for roasting and production, both for retail and mail order trade, and storage. 

Farther west, between the former bank and the Rite-Aid Pharmacy on the corner of West Saginaw and Martin Luther King Jr. two more long-neglected buildings are heading for a new life. 

Earlier this year, Re’Shane Lonzo bought 923 W. Saginaw, the former D&C five and dime. She has not yet announced her intentions for the space, but the building next door, 927 W. Saginaw, was purchased at about the same time by Moneyball, a popular sportswear company founded by Lansing Everett High School graduate and former NBA player Desmond Ferguson. 

Ferguson confirmed the sale by email last week, but declined to give any specifics about the project until there is an official announcement. 

Yorko welcomes the advent of Moneyball as a business with broad appeal and community roots. While on the Council and before, Yorko worked on many projects in the immediate neighborhood, including the community murals nearby at the old Shanora's Beauty & Barber Supplies and the establishment of a bike lane along West Saginaw. 

“All kinds of people buy and love Moneyball gear, including me," Yorko said. "The neighborhood is extremely diverse in terms of income, race, ethnicity, age and fashion. I think a Moneyball store will do great in that location.” 

“It will be nice to see more life around the block,” Nader said. “There’s so much value in a lot of these old buildings. It just requires someone to do the work.” 

 

Crossing the Rubicon 

To take the big leap and check out the action on the south side of West Saginaw, you have to walk across the street, and that’s a problem. 

Saginaw Street was given a fatal dose of steroids in 1964 to become M-43, converting to four lanes of high-speed, one-way traffic. 

Janell Freeman, the real estate agent handling the renovated building at 909 W. Saginaw, was born at St. Lawrence Hospital and grew up in the neighborhood. 

“It changed when they widened the road,” Freeman said. “You couldn’t park in front of these businesses. People fly down that street and the businesses started to suffer.” 

“That’s the craziness of having a four-lane highway coming through a neighborhood,” said Brian McGrain, the city economic planning and development director. “This was the I496 of its day, before we had I496.” (I496 opened in 1970.) 

“Our current master plan is the opposite philosophy,” McGrain said. “We’re now interested in livability within the city, not getting people out of the city. Back then, everybody was enamored with autos, enamored with speed, with getting people across town.”  

Lansing has already converted many of its one-way paired streets, most recently Grand and Capitol avenues, to two-way traffic. 

“Almost nobody remembers that Shiawassee and Ionia were one-way pairs,” McGrain said. “We are undoing what we can.” 

However, Saginaw Avenue and its eastbound counterpart, Oakland Avenue, present special problems. Like northbound Larch and southbound Cedar streets, Saginaw and Oakland avenues are state trunk lines under the control of the Michigan Department of Transportation. 

Federal designation of Saginaw and Oakland avenues as a business route of I-69, and the federal dollars that designation brings, further complicate the process. 

“MDOT’s mission, to facilitate large movement of traffic, somewhat conflicts with ours,” McGrain said. “We’ve been concentrating on the ones we have more control over.” 

 

Park’s and devastation 

Once you make it safely across the street, the view is grim, but there are signs of life. 

On the west end of the block, a former dry cleaner’s and Laundromat at 926 W. Saginaw is being renovated and marketed for rental. There are construction permits in the door window and a hand-lettered poster reads, “Your ‘dream’ shop. LOCATION LOCATION.” 

The east end of the block is a different matter. Neil Park, owner of Park’s Furniture and several other buildings in the area, let his furniture outlet slide downhill for over 30 years. Toward the end, it was more of a collection agency than an active storefront. 

“He’d sell to low-income people,” Eaton said. “The furniture would wear out before you paid for it, but you got a deal, and he’d put you in furniture cheap, and he got it on the back end.” 

McGrain said the interior of the building is “essentially unchanged” from 20 years ago, when he went inside on behalf of a former employer. 

Park was, by many accounts, uncooperative, belligerent and quick to let his guns do the talking for him. 

“City inspectors used to come and inspect his buildings,” Williams said. “They talked about how Park would never let them in. He’d come to the door with a 9 mm. He would not have anything to do with the city.” 

In the mid-2000s, Park hosted all of the community planning meetings for the First Annual Westside Summerfest, spearheaded by Yorko and neighborhood musicians and promoters. After the event, which was billed as “Celebration of Community and Diversity,” Park took a different tone, accusing Yorko of bringing “riff-raff” behind his business. “When I asked him what he meant by ‘riff-raff,’ he started mumbling a bunch of old-timey racist-sounding stuff,” Yorko recalled. “So I asked him if he was referring to Black people as ‘riff-raff.’ Then he pulled out a gun, slammed it on the counter, and told me to get out of his store.” 

The city ordered the store closed in November 2020 when inspectors found “imminent safety issues.” As recently as early 2022, McGrain said, city officials feared the city might have to “urgently take the building through demo.” 

“We had some concerns,” McGrain said. “We fenced off an addition on the east side and shored it up to make sure it’s not an imminent danger.” 

Williams called the Park Furniture complex, from 900 to 916 W. Saginaw, the “big one.” 

“In the dark ages, a couple of years ago,” he said with a laugh, “everybody was talking about Park’s Furniture. I was just minding my own business, taking care of my property, but we were all keeping an eye out.” 

Park died Feb. 18, 2022.  

“When they put the For Sale sign out, I couldn’t believe it,” Williams said. “It was a game changer.” 

McGrain said the structures are “in need of some TLC, but they have cool features,” he said. “It has the tin roof, nice arches.” 

DRM International Learning Center, where Lonzo is CEO, aspires to become “the most respected and influential healthcare education facility in the region,” according to its website. The former Park Furniture complex has more space and higher visibility than the current home of DRM, a modest office on Center Street, near O'Leary Paint. 

Lonzo, a longtime entrepreneurial force in Lansing, formerly worked at Lansing Community College, the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Lansing School District. Her husband, Steven Lonzo, is principal at Willow Elementary School. 

DRM provides a range of training in fields where demand is growing — health care fields such as hospice care, dementia and Alzheimer care, and employment training programs in the construction trades, along with seminars in resume building, interviewing skills and job skills. 

The prospect of a grass-roots, community-based project aimed at uplifting local job seekers in a long-derelict chunk of West Saginaw’s 900 block is another sign of spring.  

“It’s good to see someone purchasing it, someone who has plans, who is willing to do the right things,” McGrain said. “She has an architect on her team. She has some grand visions she’s willing to put her time and money behind. I wouldn’t call it a renaissance yet, but there’s a lot of activity and investment going on in that area.” 

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