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Muskegon's phoenix: The life and flight of Midtown's Third Street

A mural at the corner of Third Street and Monroe Avenue.

In Midtown Muskegon, life is good. Where once there were abandoned buildings, shops and restaurants are opening. People who left the city are coming back to start businesses. Third Street is rising.

Perhaps like Muskegon itself, Third Street has never been easy to define.

 

Its denizens, past and present, are proudly diverse: business owners originally from Vietnam and India, restaurateurs from Houston and New Orleans, artists who grew up in Muskegon. Its visitors too have been an eclectic bunch, with the street being filled by everyone from politicianslegislators from throughout Michigan attending the 1892 Democratic State Convention, for which a gathering space was built on Third Streetto crowds at the countless shows played at the Ice Pick, a club that once attracted punk fans from across the region, and country, for a little more than two decades, beginning in the mid-1980s.

 

Businesses there have ranged from the Walt Plant Television & Appliances Store, run by generations of the Plant family for 118 years at 1119 Third St., to restaurants offering ethnic food that can otherwise be difficult to find in the city (like Valy Vietnamese Oriental Food, Gifts & Market, Curry Kitchen, and Naan Pizza, all of which are there now).

 

Third Street’s residents, patrons, and owners have celebrated the openings, and mourned the closures, of businesses and nonprofits; they’ve been a part of a Muskegon that has gone from an economy heavily rooted in industry to one that’s increasingly diverse. The section of Third Street now known as Midtown (the area from Muskegon Avenue to Jefferson Street) saw its buildings spared from the demolition that knocked down the historic structures that once dotted streets like Western Avenue to make way for the Muskegon Mall in the 1970s. And they’ve seen these Third Street buildings in Midtown empty and full, abandoned and boarded up, and, now, once again, brimming with life.
Businesses lining Third Street in Midtown Muskegon are thriving.

 

Midtown has been inextricably intertwined with Muskegon’s past, present, and future, but the area has also long been its own unique enclave, a walkable stretch of land in the downtown Nelson neighborhood. It shares space with both commercial venues and residences alike, the street lined with century-old brick buildings and colorful homes filling pedestrians’ sight lines with yellow, blue, and green wallsbackdrops to porches that, for years, have held guitarists plucking strings into the night and July 4 barbecues and children’s birthday parties and all of that which we call life.

 

Like much of Muskegon, Midtown's Third Street has been called “gritty,” a descriptor that, while sometimes used as a negative euphemism by those blind to the pulse and vibrancy of city life, has been embraced by the area’s business owners and residents. After all, Third Street has seen its fair share of ups and downs, owners and residents explain; it has faced shuttered shops and boarded up buildingsand it has always found a way to not just hang on, but, ultimately, to thrive.
Cornerstones like Valy Vietnamese Oriental Food, Gifts & Market, which has been operating for more than a decade, and Curry Kitchen, which
debuted in 2012, have paved the way for other successful shops, a series of which have celebrated their openings over the past year: Naan Pizza, Hamburger Mikey, Third Coast Vinyl, and Shop SZN. The Muskegon YMCA relocated to Third Street in 2016, and The Griffin’s Rest, a gaming store, hopes to open around Thanksgiving. Property owners too have big plans for the area, including the redevelopment of the Matson Oldsmobile dealership, a massive property that spans much of the street across from the new shops, and the 20,000-square-foot property at 1185 Third St. potentially becoming a hub for local vendorsthink something akin to the Union Market in Washington D.C.

 

In other words: Third Street is rising.

 

If you build it, they will come: Curry Kitchen brings business (and a lot of flavor) back to Third Street

 

Five years ago, Raj Grewal and his wife, Kismat Grewal, decided to open Curry Kitchen at 1141 Third St. in an effort to expand options for ethnic food in the community.
Raj Grewal owns Curry Kitchen and Naan Pizza.

 

“When we came to Third Street, it was pretty empty,” says Grewal, who, along with his wife, is originally from Punjab, a state in northern India.

 

“When we opened five years ago, the building we were in had been closed for three years,” Grewal continues, referring to Mia & Grace, a beloved farm-to-table restaurant that opened in 2008 in the space that was once Bob’s Big Boy and is now Curry Kitchen. “There was nothing where [Hamburger] Mikey is now. There was not much here. When we started, all the other businesses came.”
Tessla Smith, left, and Amber Brown prepare pies for the dinner rush hour at Naan Pizza.

 

The Grewals, who live in Muskegon and also own the Curry Kitchen in Grand Rapids, had so much success with their restauranta place of vibrant blue walls and the tantalizing scents of cumin, coriander, and saffron wafting from the kitchenthat they decided to open another business next to Curry Kitchen, Naan Pizza, seven months ago.

 

“Nobody had done the naan pizza concept like we had; we use the same sauces we use at Curry Kitchen and we use the wood-fired oven,” says Grewal, who notes his favorite pizza is the butter chicken. “We’ve come up with a lot of our own recipes using butter chicken, tikka masala sauce, eggplant, mango chutney, jalapenos. Customers have suggested things that we’ve incorporated in our recipes too. We offer a lot of vegetarian options.”
The butter chicken naan pizza.

 

In addition to his businesses’ own growth, Grewal is thrilled with the movement he sees happening along Third Street in general.

 

“It’s a nice area for Muskegon with a lot of cool choicesIndian, Naan Pizza, burgers; there’s a lot of new businesses coming in,” he says. “People will have a lot on Third Street.”

 

Hamburger Mikey: Burgers and fries, with a side of iconic Muskegon

 

When Tim Taylor and his step-father and mother, Mike and Mary Jane Burling, bought the building at 1129 Third St. five years ago, they weren’t yet sure what their plans were for the space that was once The Ice Pick, a spray painted, all-ages punk haven that had its heyday in the 1980s and '90s. But the family knew their city was “on its way back, and we wanted to be a part of that,” says Taylor, a native of Whitehall, Michigan who has lived in Muskegon for the past 12 years. Plus, Taylor explains, he and his parents were thrilled to purchase a piece of Muskegon history.

 

“Huge acts came through The Ice Pick; you’re sitting in the most iconic building in Muskegon,” Taylor says.
Hamburger Mikey is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary.

 

As the three owners were trying to “figure out something that would fit in this neighborhood,” they ultimately decided upon a business that embraced the traits they loved about Third Street: no frills, filled with community and laughter (and sometimes even dancing), supportive of everyone who came their way: attorneys from the nearby Muskegon County courthouse, parents and young children who live in the neighborhood, teenagers from Muskegon High School, surgeons from Mercy Health, culinary students from Baker College, Muskegon Lumberjack fans, and many others. So, on Nov. 22, 2016, Hamburger Mikey, named after Taylor’s step-father, was born.

 

“Our opening day, we had a long line down the street, past the record store,” Taylor says, referring to Third Coast Vinyl. “Muskegon really came out for us.”

 

Now, almost a year later, Hamburger Mikey, an old-school burger and fries joint that gets their beef from Meat Block, a family-owned business that’s been in Muskegon for a little over a century, has served up about 36,000 burgers. And their accolades are coming fast and furious: the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce named the restaurant one of nine “agents of change” in the city, they’re a finalist for the much-coveted Celebrated Service Award (public voting for that begins Nov. 8), MLive ranked them in Michigan’s top 10 for the state’s best french fries, and, just five months after opening, they landed second place for best dish at this year’s Taste of Muskegon.
Tim Taylor works his magic on Hamburger Mikey's fries.

 

Hamburger Mikey has served more than 36,000 burgers since it opened almost one year ago.
“It’s thanks to the amazing staff we have,” says Taylor, who lives in the apartment above his burger joint and previously worked at Mia & Grace
. While Mia & Grace has shuttered, the couple behind the restaurant, New Orleans and Houston natives Jamie and Jeremy Paquin (who’s now the head chef at Grove in Grand Rapids) remain close with their old neighborhood, and Jamie designs Hamburger Mikey’s burger of the monthconcoctions that range from October’s cordon bleu with house made blue cheese sauce, seared ham, and a beer onion bun to November’s Thanksgiving burger, which includes seared turkey, cranberry sauce, and a bun partially made of stuffing.

 

As for the staff, it’s clear they love their owners; Taylor, the Burlings, and the employees are a tight-knit group. Jerry Maxwell, an employee who’s been involved with Hamburger Mikey since the beginning, and Taylor have even recently acted together: the two are now in a horror movie, “Ruin Me,” which was filmed in Muskegon and has been making the rounds at film festivals across the world, from Austin to London.

 

“People used to be scared to come up this far from downtown, but they’re not anymore,” Maxwell, a California native who moved to Muskegon in 2005 and has since purchased a home in Muskegon Heights, says in reference to Midtown, located about half a mile from the downtown shops along Western Avenue.

 

“We really helped to clean up the area; we put in extra garbage cans,” Maxwell continues.
Hamburger Mikey's owners and employees are a tight-knit (and pretty much always hilarious) group.

 

This resurgence in business, both in Midtown and in Muskegon’s downtown in general, has brought a new energy to the area, Taylor and Maxwell say.

 

“Not that long ago, you’d see tumbleweeds going down the street at night or on the weekend; now there are people,” Taylor says. “There’s a welcoming of new business in Muskegon. We have customers in here from Grand Rapids, from New Era, from all over. People want to be here. People want to be in Muskegon.”

At Third Coast Vinyl, it's all about music & community

 

Music runs in Paul Pretzer’s blood.

 

A self-taught guitaristhe and a friend bought a couple of guitars, put on a Ramones album and learned to playPretzer has played in a series of bands stationed in Muskegon, including Jim Jones and the Kool-Ade Kids, a punk rock group that played at The Ice Pick; managed record stores in the 80s and 90s; and collected albums for as long as he can remember. He's able to pretty much wax poetic on any music genre, band or singer, whether you want to talk obscure jazz or chart-topping rock. Ask him about his favorite music, and he’ll groan.

 

“I like everything,” Pretzer says. “I joke that I don’t trust people who say they like only one kind of music. What I listen to, it depends on what mood I’m in. If it’s a super rainy day, maybe I’ll listen to some Tom Waits or Amy Winehouse. I grew up on the Rolling Stones.”
Paul Pretzer, owner of Third Coast Vinyl.

 

All of that is to say: it is not surprising that Pretzer is running a successful record shop, Third Coast Vinyl, at 1115 Third St., a building owned by the nonprofit Pioneer Resources.

 

“It was about two years before we opened that I had this idea of opening a record store in the back of my head,” says Pretzer, who grew up in Grand Haven and was a high school English teacher prior to his new life as a vinyl shop owner. “One day, I was sitting in a coffee shop grading papers, and I said, ‘I’m done.’ In one calendar year, five people I graduated with had passed. I might have 30 years left, but do I want to be sitting on the couch grading papers? I love teaching, but I wanted something different.”
Third Coast Vinyl.

 

That “something different” has translated to a thriving record store that, like all of the other stores along Third Street, has been warmly embraced by the community.

 

“The reaction from Muskegon has been great,” Pretzer says, standing against the shop’s bright red walls inspired by “Twin Peaks” (also, for all of you David Lynch fans, be sure to look for the Agent Cooper artwork adorning the wall by the cash register). “Especially in those first months, people would come in and say, ‘Thank you for opening here.’ Not just for opening a record store, but for being part of the things happening here in Muskegon. People are grateful that businesses are opening up here.

 

“I’ve been involved in Muskegon for a long time; my dad was the director of Hackley Library, and I’ve seen it have a difficult time transitioning from the past,” he continues. “I know a lot of people who feel we’ve turned a corner. You can sense there’s something in the airnot just on Third Street, but downtown too. It feels really nice to be a part of this.”

 

The music community too is growing, Pretzer says.

 

“Muskegon used to be part of a thriving live music community, and I feel like we’re getting back on our feet,” he says. “We’re getting events down at the Frauenthal [Center] again; The Accidentals did an in-store [performance] here, and they’re playing at the Frauenthal." [We spoke to Pretzer last Friday, just before The Accidentals took the stage in downtown Muskegon.]

 

“There’s live music happening around the city, at Unruly, at Frauenthal, at Pigeon Hill. The Frauenthal could be like the State Theater in Kalamazoo; there’s no reason not to be having two or three contemporary music shows a month there,” Pretzer continues. “You have so much going on downtownyou’ve got the Muskegon Community College campus, Baker College. You need things for people to do.”
Third Coast Vinyl opened just over one year ago on Third Street.

 

Looking to the future, Pretzer says he imagines expanding in-store events, such as live music performances and poetry readings, as well as an increasingly cohesive business community.

 

“We want to do neighborhood events; we’ve talked about doing a parking lot festival, a street fest where we can enhance the neighborhood feel,” Pretzer says. “What can we do to make it feel more like a community?”

 

And, the shop owner says, he’s excited to see Third Street, and Muskegon, continue to grow.

 

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are looking at moving here, doing business here,” he says. “It’s the last place on Lake Michigan that’s as affordable as it is.”
Kevin Malone, owner of Shop SZN.

 

Shop SZN: A focus on empowerment, innovation, and creativity
 

When Kevin Malone, a 2007 Muskegon High School graduate and current Nuvo Cosmetology school student, opened Shop SZN (pronounced “shop season”) at 1143 Third St. this past May, he was moving into a building that had sat entirely empty.

 

“It was 1,400 square feet of open opportunity,” says Malone, who, in addition to running Shop SZN and being a full-time cosmetology student, has a background in art and designsomething that is particularly helpful when it comes to his business, which offers custom screen and vinyl printing. It also sells clothing (including several brands from local designers, such as Parachute Gear out of Grand Rapids and Cop ‘n Go from Muskegon), accessories, and music. Beginning in 2018, Malone expects to open a full service salon in the shop.
Shop SZN made its debut this past May.

 

Hoping to inspire others in Muskegon’s creative community, Malone is focusing on the shop not just being a commercial venue but a space where artists, designers, and musicians can gather.

 

“It’s an artistic store,” Malone says. “I did the artwork in the store, and the color scheme of the shop is blue and green, which represents balance, harmony, growth, and stability."

 

Ultimately, Shop SZN is about being “empowering, innovative, and creative,” explains Malone, who, like his neighboring shop owners, is inspired to be a part of a growing city.
Clothing at Shop SZN.

 

“There are a lot of changes in the city; I really like the Grand Valley State innovation hub,” Malone says, referring to the Muskegon Innovation Hub that provides support for entrepreneurs in the area. “I like their building; it’s a beautiful landmark. I use the innovation hub for networking purposes.”

 

Eventually, Malone says he’d like to expand Shop SZN to other cities.

 

“I’d like to turn it into a small corporation and have four different locations,” he says. “The business is called Shop SZN; there are four seasons, so I’d like to have four shops.”

 

The Griffin's Rest: A haven for gamers

 

Get ready to fly your nerd flag.

 

The Griffin’s Rest is set to be the newest addition to Third Street, and the incoming gaming shop will offer two floors of space for Muskegon’s large and growing “nerd community,” owner Kiel Reid says.

 

“In Muskegon, we know there’s a big nerd community: people into comic books, fantasy, board games, and they don’t have a place to congregate or purchase things the day of,” says Reid, who grew up in downtown Muskegon, graduated from Muskegon High School in 2004 and recently moved back to the city after living in Chicago for about a decade.

 

Ultimately, Reid hopes The Griffin’s Rest, which is expected to open sometime around Thanksgiving following extensive renovation work on its 100-year-old building, will “build a strong community for the gaming community."

 

“We want to have a space where people can have their nerd flag fly,” Reid says.
Kiel Reid, owner of The Griffin's Rest. Photo by Anna Gustafson

 

The store will consist of two floors, with the downstairs selling a variety of merchandiseincluding board games, comics, cards, miniatures, and moreand the second floor offering several rooms where people can play games and hang out. People from all walks of life will be welcome at the shop, and Reid has no doubt there will be a diverse crowd.

 

“Gaming is a big spread of different people: people in corporate jobs, kids who just got out of high school and are struggling to get by. They’re at the same table, enjoying the same game,” says Reid, who’s hoping to sponsor gaming clubs at local schools and offer a welcome environment for neighborhood teens.

 

“I grew up in downtown Muskegon; I got into trouble around here. I remember when there was nothing to do except get in trouble,” Reid continues. “I want to provide an alternative for those kids. You don’t have money to go to a restaurant; you can’t go to a bar. Why not go to the gaming store and spend five bucks on dice and play with your friends?”

 

A self-described jack-of-all-trades (Reid has been involved in landscaping, telemarketing, street sweepinghe’s done “almost everything but own a game store”), he’s excited to bring his business acumen and gaming know-how to a store and a community that he’s incredibly passionate about.

 

“When I was growing up, it was difficult to find a job for just about anybody,” Reid says. “There was no sense of urgency to make Muskegon grow at that time, around 2004. People were struggling; they were trying to hold on. We didn’t know what we wanted to be. Over the past five years, Muskegon has decided we’re gonna be a great place for people who live here and for people who visit us as well. That’s a challenge for any city, but I think Muskegon’s pulling it off.

 

“There’s a lot more unity here,” he continues. “We realize no big corporation is going to put a factory here and save us. We’ve gotta save ourselves.”
A mural on Third Street.

 

As Midtown grows, so does interest from investors & developers

 

Increasingly, investors and developers are turning to Midtown, and there are a series of properties in the neighborhood that are slated to become significant projects in the years to come.

 

Steve Carey, a native of Ada, Michigan who’s now working in government affairs and business development in Washington, D.C., purchased the expansive 20,000 square foot brick building at 1185 Third St. this past summer, and he has big plans in mind for the historic property that has been part of the community for more than a century.

 

“Think of Union Market in D.C. They’ve gutted this warehouse, and now there’s sushi, hamburgers, donuts, all this great food,” says Carey. “Eventually, I’d like to do that on Third Street.”

 

Carey, a U.S. Marines Corps veteran who has also invested in residential properties in Muskegon, first started thinking about investing in the city upon seeing a talk on the blue economy by Dr. Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute. The blue economy refers to an economy that’s tied to the water—right now, one in five jobs in Michigan is connected to water industries and that’s expected to grow.

 

“I think all of West Michigan has great promise, but Muskegon I think has the greatest potential because it’s so undervalued,” Carey says. “I know other people are starting to see its promise, and it’s just a matter of time. I think within a year or two, people with much deeper pockets than me will be in Muskegon.”

 

At 1185 Third St., Carey says he’s thrilled with the historic aspect of the building.

 

“I love the depth of its history; I am excited about this building,” he says. “I love the brick. The interior has such potential. It tells the story of decades of different generations of people who have experienced Muskegon”

 

While specific plans for the site have yet to materialize, Carey says he’s set on preserving and celebrating the building’s history.

 

“I wish we could keep in mind that these buildings tell stories. Muskegon tore down a lot of history and memories decades ago,” Carey says, referring to the demolition of many of the downtown buildings to make way for the Muskegon Mall in the 1970s.

 

“I just love this building on Third Street, and I’m happy to be part of the resurgence happening in the city,” he adds.
A painting decorates the space between Curry Kitchen and Naan Pizza, businesses in a building owned by Kathy Dennison Adrianse.

 

Another major player on Third Street is Kathy Dennison Adrianse, who owns 1121 Third St., where The Griffin's Rest will be, and 1133 Third St., where Naan Pizza and Curry Kitchen are located.

 

“The building at 1121 Third St., that was a building that had been condemned and totally shut down for at least 10 years,” says Dennison Adrianse, who lives in Grand Rapids and owns a second home in Muskegon. “It was up for auction, and I thought it looked like such a cool building. I bought it, and I’ve been working on it for the past 13 months. We’re getting the water turned on, the electricity is on. We could have torn it down and saved money, but we have a very improved building with a lot of charm.”

 

Dennison Adrianse’s company, Lighthouse Property Management, too has made a significant investment in Muskegon in recent years.

 

“This is my company’s third year in Muskegon, and we’ve finished our 400th house in Muskegon County this year,” she says. “We’re bringing houses that were condemned up to code and getting them ready for families to move into. It’s providing a ton of jobs and putting families into homes that are safe and updated.”

 

First introduced to Muskegon five years ago, when she and her husband were looking for a place to go boating, Dennison Adrianse says she quickly became enamoured with the city.

 

“My husband and I were driving through Muskegon, and we fell in love with the port and channel and lake and beach,” she says. “Then, we started going into different restaurants, and the people we met were so nice. We purchased a second home in Muskegon.

 

“The more we went over there, the more we felt like we could be part of the change happening,” she continues. “The first year we were over there was when they came out with the Watch Us Go campaign, and it was like an explosion. I have clients from Canada who’ve bought 10 or 12 houses in Muskegon. People are obsessively watching all the good news that’s coming out of Muskegon.”

 

As for the future of Third Street, Dennison Adrianse says she’s looking forward to the redevelopment of the long-shuttered Mattson Oldsmobile dealership showroom and office at 1144 Third St., a property that takes up much of the space located across the street from shops like Curry Kitchen and Hamburger Mikey. Brad Martell, of Grand Rapids, owns the property. Jodi McClain recently won six free months of rent at 1144 Third St. and expects to open her spa, East of Eden, there in the near future. Even with the spa, there will still be significant room left for development.

 

“If anybody has a desire to start their own business or be an entrepreneur, they need to come to Midtown and find a spot there,” Dennison Adrianse says. “We’ll make them a spot or create a spot for them there. They won’t be alone. They should come down, and we’ll make it work.”

 

“It’s cool because Midtown is very gritty and very grassroots,” she continues. “Everyone there, we’ve become very good friends. We care about each other."

 

This story is part of Rapid Growth's "On the Ground-Muskegon Lakeshore" series, which aims to amplify the voices of the community members who make up Muskegon's waterfront neighborhoods. Over the next three months, our journalists will be embedded in the city's lakefront communities in order to dive deeper into topics important to residents, business owners and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Anna Gustafson, please email her at AKGustaf@gmail.com, or connect with her on Facebook.

 

Support for this series is provided by Downtown Muskegon Now, the Muskegon Business Improvement District, the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Pure Muskegon, Watch Muskegon, and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

 

Photography by Jenna Swartz unless otherwise noted. To connect with Jenna, visit her website and Facebook page.

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