The history of Jefferson Chalmers goes way back.
It was once the marshy home of thousands of members of the Fox Nation Indian tribe, many of whom were killed in a little-known massacre in the mid-1700s. During the next century, the area developed quickly because of its proximity to the Detroit River. It was once part of Hamtramck Township, which changed boundary lines multiple times. The community, later known as Fairview Village, was ultimately split into Grosse Pointe Park and Jefferson Chalmers.
“Fairview was a neighborhood of Horse Power, Men, and Machines,” says Nicholas Sinacori, the author of a book by the same name and the president of the Village of Fairview Historical Society.
Changes are on the horizon in Jefferson Chalmers, with millions of dollars coming to the neighborhood in the form of commercial and residential development, streetscape improvements, and park upgrades. But those changes will have to be rooted in the area’s deep history.
Sinacori has spent the past 45 years researching Jefferson Chalmers, the place where his grandfather built a house in 1925. “I remember my grandfather telling me that he loved the proximity of this house to the water,” he says from the family home.
Thanks to stories like this, retold from elder family members, Sinacori began his historic pursuits in his early teens. He’s uncovered the history of horse culture, automobile culture, area politics, and religious institutions that all played a role in developing Fairview.
“The area started out with French and Belgian residents, later Irish and Italians,” Sinacori explains. “The ethnic composition of the neighborhood played an active role in prohibition because alcohol was an important part of their cultures.”
Jefferson Chalmers historian Nicholas Sinacori
The ethnic makeup of Fairview also contributed to another noteworthy piece of history — horse racing.
In his book, Sinacori writes that in the late 1800s, horse racing was the premier entertainment activity of the day; a social event where business was often conducted. The premier Detroit racetrack was the Hamtramck Race Course which, located in what is now Indian Village. In 1860, the course was remodeled and named the Detroit Driving Club Course at Jefferson and Van Dyke avenues.
40 years later, it would be the site of the infamous race between the auto manufacturers Alexander Winton and a young upstart named Henry Ford. “He was a lucky man,” Sinacori says. “Ford had luck on his side so many times in his career. There was no way that he was supposed to win that race. But Winton’s car broke down and a legacy was born.”
There is now a marker that denotes the origin of the Detroit Driving Club Course near Jefferson and Algonquin which was erected with Sinacori’s assistance.
You can see a lot more of Fairview’s history in the names of the streets, which was assimilated into Detroit in 1907. At least a dozen streets in Jefferson Chalmers are named after horses, including Algonquin, Navahoe, Montclair, and Devonshire. Many other streets are named after prominent business owners from the earliest days of the settlement. But, without the diligence of Nicholas Sinacori, much of this valuable area knowledge would be lost.
Village of Fairview historical marker
Today, Jefferson Chalmers has been identified one of Mayor Duggan’s 10 Strategic Neighborhood., and will soon experience redevelopment and expansion.
This process, however, will prove a little trickier than others because of the historic legacy of the area. “Jefferson Chalmers is kind of like a historic district, but not really,” explains Dr. Jacqueline Taylor, lead historian and cultural landscape specialist for the city of Detroit.
In her role with the Department of Planning and Development, Taylor researches historic neighborhoods and helps the city maintain its historic integrity. “Jefferson Chalmers is what we are calling a Conservation Overlay District, which is kind of like a historic district but not as strict zoning-wise.”
The designation ensures that changes are in line with the aesthetic and history of the neighborhood. This will be important as the city prepares to infuse millions of dollars into its redevelopment.
Houses in Jefferson Chalmers
Late last year, the city announced a $5.4 million development of two vacant buildings in Jefferson Chalmers which will create 23 new residential units, over half of which will be designated as affordable. Part of the Jefferson Chalmers Neighborhood Framework Plan, co-crafted by residents and the city of Detroit, the plan focuses on four initiatives: neighborhood stabilization, parks and greenways, mixed-use development, and streetscapes.
Jefferson East, Inc. (JEI) through its wholly-owned subsidiary, EJDevCo, and Shelborne Development will partner with the city of Detroit to complete the rehabilitation of the Marlborough Building and the IDAO Building. Prior to the project, the Marlborough Building had sat vacant for over 30 years. Both the Marlborough and the IDAO Building are in the part of the neighborhood that is a historic district and all care will be taken to preserve their integrity and aesthetic.
Amidst all this transformational change soon to happen in the neighborhood, the city and JEI are touting the most important component of the plan: its people. “We all know that the history of Detroit is very rich,” Taylor says. “We want to celebrate historic things that have happened here, which is critical to helping Detroiters feel like we are here for them.
“We want people to move here, of course, but we want current Detroiters to feel valued for staying and to benefit from this development.”
This article is part of our “On the Ground” series, where a journalist reports from a dedicated neighborhood for weekly coverage. Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation.
Photos by Steve Koss.