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Supporting Southwest Detroit

Grassroots business association helps keep this Detroit neighborhood walkable, inviting and lively through help from small businesses and community projects

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West Vernor Highway is a main artery through Detroit's southwest side. Lined with locally-owned businesses ranging from small shops to the well-known Mexican restaurants, the vibrant street embodies all that is Southwest Detroit.

"So much of our life in Southwest Detroit is lived on West Vernor," says Kathy Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

When immigrants first moved to the community to work in the auto industry, they also "came here to live," Wendler says.

"They needed barber shops and grocery stores and shoe shine places and doctors offices," she adds. "So this district grew up around that huge group of laborers that created that."

In 1957, around the time Northland Mall was built, the SDBA was established to encourage shopping local. Today, there are about 1,700 small businesses in the zip codes considered Southwest Detroit, Wendler says.

The SDBA also strives to improve quality of life in the neighborhood for the residents.

"It's the people who live here who make those businesses possible," Wendler says.

The group has improved the neighborhood's parks, beautified spaces with murals and mosaic benches, and has added ornamental bike racks to accompany the bike lanes.

Because "the city struggles to reinvest," SDBA is currently working to put in all new streetlights along West Vernor, a city street.

The neighborhood also has a business improvement district called The West Vernor and Springwells Business Improvement District, something the area's voters approved in 2007, SDBA's website notes, meaning commercial property owners assessed themselves a tax the city collects and sends to a board, which determines how to use the money based on business input, says Theresa Zajac, vice president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

"We are the only area in Detroit that has a formal Business Improvement District," Zajac says, adding its allowed the neighborhood to add 83 trashcans, institute a graffiti removal service and add secondary employment police officers on bikes and on foot in the shopping district.

While parts of Detroit become more walkable, Zajac boasts Southwest has "been walkable for a long time," making it "more lively."

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