East downtown Dearborn’s CulturAlley project will transform alleys from passthroughs to destinations

Standing at the intersection of Schaefer Road and Michigan Avenue in east downtown Dearborn and it’s easy to wonder if this part of town is never not busy. Morning, noon, and night, these two thoroughfares teem with traffic — and with good reason. There’s just so much going on here. The area is chock full of small businesses, anchor institutions, creative hubs, and community assets. Just at this intersection alone, there’s the architectural gem that is the historic John H. Schaefer Building, which houses numerous restaurants, offices, and other businesses; City Hall Artspace Lofts, the live/work space for artists in the repurposed historic City Hall; and the Arab American National Museum, with its beautiful mosaic-tiled facade doing its part to carry on the legacy of striking architecture and design at the corner of Schaefer and Michigan Ave.

 

Now, as for the alleys that run behind the Arab American National Museum and the Schaefer Building? Not so much. It’s not that they’re unsightly. It’s just that there’s, well, a lot of potential there.

That potential is about to be realized.

Renderings courtesy of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority.
It was September 2022 when Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the recipients of $83.8 million in grant funding as part of the Revitalization and Placemaking (RAP) program. Made possible by the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Michigan’s RAP program is intended to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects by awarding $100 million to community development and placemaking projects statewide — the remaining balance of grants will be announced at a later date.

“These investments will help create vibrant places that attract and retain talent, add new housing options, enable business creation and attraction, and provide resources for Michigan citizens and communities,” Gov. Whitmer said at the time of the announcement.

More than 185 Michigan communities applied for the grants and just 22 of them were successful. Dearborn can count itself as one of the fortunate few.

Diana Abouali, Director of the Arab American National Museum. (Photo courtesy of Salam Center Studio)The East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority (EDDDA) was awarded a $787,718 Public Space Place-Based RAP grant for their CulturAlley project, a reimagining of the pedestrian alleys just north of Michigan Avenue, on the west and east sides of Schaefer and behind the AANM and Schaefer Building, respectively. The project will activate the alleys in myriad ways, transforming them from convenient shortcuts to destinations. The CulturAlley project will serve as a gateway to east downtown Dearborn and reflect the Arab American communities and artists that shape it. It will be a more-than-welcome addition to the area, says Diana Abouali, Director of the Arab American National Museum.

“Beautifying these alleys is commensurate with how a city should treat a museum,” Abouali says. “To ensure that the passage leading up to the museum is cared for properly reflects a respect for the institution that we represent.”

Renderings courtesy of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority.

What’s planned

Plans for an activated alleyway have been in the works for a while now and the announcement of the RAP grant means that the city can look to spring of 2024 as an estimated date for construction to begin. In the meantime, they’ll continue lining up project funding from a variety of sources. Corporate donations and other grant opportunities will help the city raise the remaining balance; the project is expected to cost approximately $2.3 million in total.

“The EDDDA (East Downtown Dearborn Development Association) Board of Directors has long recognized the importance of revitalizing the pedestrian alley as a vital area for the community to gather,” says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, Executive Manager of the East and West Dearborn Downtown Development Authorities. “Conversations with surrounding businesses and stakeholders have been very positive that this project will be transformational to the area, and create a vibrant, walkable and accessible community space.”

 

The Detroit-based architectural firm SmithGroup has been tasked with designing CulturAlley — and responding to the community’s wants and needs.

“They presented some plans, we discussed it, they took feedback, and then they went back to the drawing board a bit and incorporated our suggestions. We need to have access to our loading dock, for instance. So they were careful that they addressed the concerns and issues that we had, and incorporated those into a more final draft of what it's going to look like,” Abouali says. “I really appreciate that they're trying to address the Arab community here and its culture and really integrating the alley project with the museum. It’s cohesive and coherent with the building and what we do.”

Renderings courtesy of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority.
CulturAlley will beautify the two alleys, providing space for neighboring businesses, like Prime Eatery in the Schaefer Building, to host outdoor dining. Gathering areas and public performance space will draw visitors to the area. Artwork and design elements will reflect the Arab American community here. And improved infrastructure will tie it all together, including enhanced lighting, green stormwater infrastructure, and a mobility hub for scooter and bike rentals.

Two design options are being weighed. The first includes custom pavement inspired by the AANM’s art collection and overhead sails inspired by the museum’s blue mosaic, as well as themed garden dining space and an expanded stage. The second offers a more open concept, though many themes and motifs are present throughout both of the initial designs.



A cultural gateway

That the city and community stakeholders view the CulturAlley project as a gateway to east downtown Dearborn dovetails nicely with the Arab American National Museum and its own mission to provide a cultural gateway to the community here. The museum accomplishes this in numerous ways, including the museum itself, the events that it organizes, and the programming it executes. Community outreach programming, like their Yalla Eats! walking tours of east Dearborn markets and restaurants, provides a bridge to the community, introducing visitors to the neighborhoods’ wealth of dining options, highlighting the variety of foods and regions represented here and the people that make it happen.

Dearborn Fresh Supermarket, an anchor for the community here, is part of the Yalla Eats! walking tour from the Arab American National Museum.
“Programs like Yalla Eats! is what makes being in Dearborn so special for the museum,” Abouali says. “I think we really need to take advantage of where we are, which is a very unique city in the United States.”

 

It’s also important that the alley designs incorporate artwork that reflect what’s being done at the AANM, Abouali says. Art, be it the visual arts, poetry and prose, or music, is a big part of what the AANM does. Recently, the museum debuted a new exhibition from artists Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian titled “Souvenirs From the Future.” The Arab Futurism ethnographic exhibit presents “artifacts” from a SWANA-inspired (Southwest Asian North African) city from the future.

Artists Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian. (Photo: Houssam Mchaimech)
“The future here is more positive than most futuristic visions. So much sci-fi is all dystopian and so hopeless but what about considering a better world?” says Demirjian.

“A world where we can take care of ourselves and each other, while free from the constraints of time and money? We’re hopeful,” adds Elsayed.

Here in Dearborn, their own city of the future will soon include CulturAlley, a gateway to east downtown — and a destination.