Inside the transformation of Detroit's Avenue of Fashion, celebrating Black-owned businesses in the city

'If we want our city to grow, we've gotta grow it from the neighborhood outward.'
Posted at 4:03 PM, Feb 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-12 18:26:02-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — As we celebrate Black History Month, we want to commemorate a historic area for African American-owned businesses in the city of Detroit.

Livernois in Detroit is home to the Avenue of Fashion, which spans three to five blocks. It's been there since the 1960s, but it has gone through an amazing transformation since 2019, and one man and his family have been here through the bust and now the boom.

The Avenue of Fashion has been called the shopping mecca for African Americans.

"I think people should know this is one of the highest concentrations of Black-owned businesses on one street in America ... we don't talk about that enough and we should," said Rufus Bartell.

Today you will find everything from fashion to a furrier to spas.

"Now it's more of an eclectic mix of things. You got bars, you got restaurants, you got professional services," said Rufus.

Rufus is listed among Who's Who in Detroit, and he had a big hand in its resurgence.

Rufus is the owner of the fabulous fashion boutique called Simply Casual in the 1900 block of Livernois in Detroit. It's been here on this famous block since 2005.

He said it's been difficult these past 18 years during the transformation of the area.

"Very difficult, I eat, sleep and I drink it," he said.

Rufus who is the youngest of 14 children was the first to take the plunge of business ownership along the Avenue. Following the lead of his dad married to his mom for 69 years, he worked at Ford Motor Company and always had a side hustle.

"When my dad was having all these kids, he needed extra income so he started a janitorial business," he said.

Simply Casual is just one of more than 18 to 20 storefronts Rufus, his family and friends have ownership in along the Avenue of Fashion.

"The Avenue of Fashion was a focal point of shopping districts in the city of Detroit, late 50s going into the 60s, obviously everything started going outward to the malls," said Rufus.

That's when the boom happened with Northland, Fairlane and Eastland Malls. The area went through a slump, but Rufus kept his eye on the Avenue of Fashion.

"I walked the street for a whole year before I moved into this building, so for 18 years I advocated for the area," he said.

The Avenue of Fashion is located in the University District, where you will find immaculate homes in neighborhoods like Sherwood Forest and Palmer Woods. The late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and many other famous names had homes in the University District.

"We need more amenities, so my goal and my vision is to create more amenities to drive value to the surrounding neighborhood; you got one of the strong zip codes in the whole city over here," said Rufus.

Construction along the Avenue in 2019 followed by COVID caused a lot of businesses to close up shop, but Rufus stayed the course.

"If we want our city to grow, we've gotta grow it from the neighborhood outward and there's certainly a lot of attention on downtown and rightfully so, but the elephant in the room is redeveloping the neighborhoods," he said.

The Avenue of Fashion only makes up about three of four blocks, but with the help of the mayor and his vision, Rufus wants this area expanded from 8 Mile all the way to the Lodge.

"People understand what it was, but we, along with others, are making it even better," he said.