Roland Hwang, president of American Citizens for Justice, speaks about the loss of a historic building at 3134 Cass Ave. during a July 31, 2023, press conference. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

Asian American community leaders are mourning the loss of a historic Detroit landmark that was reduced to a pile of rubble just as efforts to save the building were gathering momentum.

The Saturday demolition of 3143 Cass Ave., a 140-year-old building that once provided resources for immigrant families but has long sat vacant, wipes away one of the last signs of Detroit’s former Chinatown neighborhood. A group of Asian American advocates and public officials who gathered Monday outside the fenced-off site said future plans for the property should highlight the area’s cultural significance. 

They called on Olympia Development of Michigan, a real-estate firm owned by the powerful Ilitch family, to build something that provides a community benefit instead of adding to its bloated portfolio of surface parking lots. Advocates argue Olympia, which owns the site and paid for the demolition, has a responsibility to ensure Chinatown is properly recognized.

Olympia razed the building more than three years after the city issued a demolition order and days after Detroit’s City Council asked to delay the tear down. The real estate firm bought the long-vacant building in 2015. Olympia declined to say what it plans to do with the site. The company owns several other parcels on the same block and has a larger collection of land in Cass Corridor slated for development as part of its long-stalled “District Detroit” project. 

“We have an opportunity to talk about what this community should add to this property to acknowledge the history of Chinatown and have something that serves the community as it stands,” said Roland Hwang, president of American Citizens for Justice, a civil rights organization founded on the second floor of the building 40 years ago.

A pile of debris stands at 3143 Cass Ave. where a former vacant building that once provided important resources to Chinese American immigrants in Detroit. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

The Cass Avenue building was at the center of civic life for immigrants who were displaced from the original downtown Chinatown neighborhood in the 1960s. It housed the Chinese Merchants Association, which served as a quasi-governmental body aiding residents with legal disputes, employment, finding resources and forming social clubs. The building included a restaurant on the first floor and a theater where Chinese operas were performed. 

“It’s more important now than ever that we’re listening to descendants of Detroit’s Chinatown as  well as the Asian American community to find ways to preserve this history before it’s too late,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit. “Seeing the demolition on Saturday was devastating for many of us. I believe the city and Olympia have an opportunity, if they choose to take it, to work hand in hand with the Asian American community to celebrate history and recognize the importance of the community.”

James Lee’s family owned the former Shanghai Cafe and said his grandmother received help from a merchant’s association with a dispute over ownership of the restaurant. Lee said lives were changed in the now-demolished building, and there needs to be stronger recognition of a vanishing history that younger generations of Chinese Americans feel disconnected from.

“That’s on us to figure out, but it’s also the cultural dynamics of this era where many ethnic groups don’t get their history told, and this is why,” Lee said. “Our country is going through a crazy conversation about history. It’s important to recognize we don’t always learn the full history of things.” 

James Lee holds a photo of family members who owned and operated the former Shanghai Cafe at a historic building at 3134 Cass Ave. that was torn down this month. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

Several attendees Monday referenced the changing education curriculum in Florida and other states to soften the destructive aspects of American slavery. They drew a connection to what they see as the erasure of history in Detroit, arguing city leaders have an obligation to ensure Chinatown isn’t forgotten. 

“A lot of that conversation is centered around what we teach in our classrooms, but we know we also learn our history from our families, from the community and on our streets in our neighborhoods,” Chang said. “I want to pose the question today: What kind of history are we going to be teaching and what kind of history are we going to be celebrating?” 

Hayg Oshagan, co-chair of the City Council’s Immigration Task Force, said Olympia should build a community center at the site while the city formalizes a historic designation that recognizes the Chinatown neighborhood. Oshagan said Asian Americans want more than just a historic plaque. 

“You know what they call a place of markers for what used to be alive? They call it a cemetery,” Oshagan said. “This should become a vibrant center of the community. This should be a place where we celebrate the contribution of the Chinese American community to the building of the city as well as the contribution of all immigrants to making our city a great place to live.”

Advocates were surprised their calls to preserve the site weren’t entertained. Hwang said Monday’s press conference was scheduled before the building was torn down over the weekend.

A demolition order from October 2019 shared with BridgeDetroit shows the city classified the structure as a dangerous building and received approval from the council to demolish it. An Olympia spokesperson said work was done to secure the building at the time. 

Several years passed until the Detroit’s Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) gave Olympia an option on May 10 to hire a contractor to tear the building down or to contest the demolition order. Olympia obtained a demolition permit on July 1. 

Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero led an effort to save the site after learning about the planned demolition earlier this month. The council unanimously voted last week to give more time for a review of the site’s historic significance. Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett dashed hopes that the council could block the demolition with a legal opinion finding the vote lacked legal authority. 

Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero speaks at a July 31, 2023, press conference about efforts to save a historic building at 3134 Cass Ave. in Detroit. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

An Olympia spokesperson said the demolition “was well underway” when Santiago-Romeo became involved. BSEED visited the site last week and declared the building a safety concern. 

“It has been the position of our inspectors for some time that this building is a public safety hazard that needs to be addressed,” BSEED Director David Bell said last week. “We are now of the opinion it needs to addressed immediately.”

Francis Grunow, a Detroit resident and historic preservationist who has challenged the Ilitch family’s development vision for the area around downtown, said the events follow a familiar pattern of OIympia neglecting buildings until they need to be demolished.

Grunow acknowledged the building was in a state of disrepair, but said worse structures have been rehabilitated. He pointed to the successful redevelopment of the nearby James Scott Mansion as an example. 

“With the Ilitches doing these projects, it’s about will and money,” Grunow said. “They have the will not to do something, but they have the resources to do it. That was the lost opportunity here. They could have worked with people and they didn’t. It’s happened over and over with them.”

A spokesperson for Olympia said “it seems odd” that historic preservationists did not fight to protect the building when it was put on a list of dangerous buildings in 2018 and later slated for demolition. Advocates who attended the Monday event said a dangerous building designation doesn’t always lead to demolition.

“We were shocked to see how fast this went through,” Oshagan said. “There was no reason to fast-track this. It’s unfortunate, it’s disappointing. Arrogance is not a good trait in politics. Neither is greed. Neither is cynicism. All three were at play here, unfortunately at the expense of part of the history of the city.” 

Detroit artist Anthony Lee speaks about his experiences trying to uncover the history of Chinese Americans in Michigan during a July 31, 2023, press conference. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

Anthony Lee, a local artist with murals on the city’s east side, grew up in the suburbs of Troy and Sterling Heights but moved to Detroit over a decade ago. Lee said it took him years of digging through the internet and interviewing residents to piece together the history of Chinese Americans in Detroit. 

“I arrived to all of this unanswered context,” Lee said. “It took me 10 years of research to find out why (Asian Americans) moved to the suburbs. I know other young Chinese people will come to this area and this is an opportunity to make it right and have something to receive them. I have hope for kids of the future that they didn’t have to go through the trenches like I did to find myself and where I am, the history and context.” 

Michael Boettcher is an urban planner who guides residents and visitors through Detroit History Tours. He said the Chinatown neighborhood was a destination for historic tours, and the education will be incomplete without a physical building to visit. Boettcher said the demolition leaves him concerned about the future of other historic buildings, some recognized and others not. 

“(Olympia) is not going to listen to anyone, they’re going to tear down what they want and wash their hands of it,” Boettcher said.

Bell has said the demolition was needed because the building posed an immediate threat to public safety. James Lee said the city’s demolition order gave the Ilitches “cover” to abandon any chance of rehabilitating the historic site. 

“Ultimately this is political to me,” he said. “They are intentionally ignoring the community, hoping it blows over. It’s worked in the past.

“Today is a setback. We hope this is the start of reconciliation. People come to Detroit and say ‘where’s Chinatown?’”

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