Food & Drink

Near a notorious Detroit corner, The Congregation signals a new beginning

November 08, 2020, 10:53 PM by  Nancy Derringer

If Detroit can be said to have sacred ground, it is 12th and Clairmount – ground zero for the 1967 civil unrest that many Black residents refer to as an uprising, where a long-oppressed population finally rebelled against years of police abuse and said: Enough.

Inside The Congregation (Photo: Nancy Derringer)

As most residents know, the fallout changed this part of the west side profoundly. What was, pre-1967, a retail strip bustling with foot traffic and Black-owned business is long gone. 12th Street was rechristened for civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Old photos of the corner might as well be of another city, so little of it remains.

So what is this coffeehouse doing there?

Lay all that history aside, first.

“This area has a strong history with small businesses,” said Betsy Murdoch, the managing partner who is running The Congregation, the coffeehouse in question. “Mom-and-pop businesses.”

To be sure, The Congregation isn’t precisely on that corner. The blind pig where the first bottles were thrown at police was about a block away. A park and historical marker occupies that space now. But this is, Murdoch says, the first new business in the area in 30 years, a converted church now serving lattes and cafe fare with the usual modern-coffeehouse details – wifi, exposed brick, Edison bulbs, local artists’ work on the walls and a performance space for DJs or guitarists.

The Congregation, as its name suggests, occupies the building once owned by the New St. James AME Church. The restoration is respectful – if you’re not offended to learn the church’s pews were made into a bar, and liquor is now served on them. Comfortable seating is arranged in conversational clusters. There’s a kids’ area, and a wide table where the choir once sang, big enough to accommodate a small business meeting. 

A bricked-over bay window was opened and stained-glass details added to the new window. An expansive new deck stretches from the south side of the building, and overlooks a grassy lot studded with picnic tables. The overall impression is: Well-financed, upscale, here for the long haul. And that’s just what Murdoch says she and her partners were going for.

Murdoch previously worked in marketing for Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co., and that company’s coffeehouse/cafe at Alexandrine and Woodward is clearly an ancestor of The Congregation. But while 12th and Clairmount is a long way from Midtown, it’s also a short walk from Boston Edison, whose handsome homes are attracting new residents (including Murdoch and her husband). And those newcomers are in search of a place like The Congregation, a so-called “third place,” i.e., one that is neither home nor office, but contains elements of both. Customers socialize with friends, meet clients or just exchange their familiar walls for some different ones.

Managing partner Betsy Murdoch on the deck (Photo: Nancy Derringer)

The new owners of the church did their homework, Murdoch said.

“We flyer’d the neighborhood. We went to block clubs and neighborhood association meetings. We offered to host meetings,” she said. “We told them from the beginning that we want to be community-focused.”

What that means, she said, is an emphasis on programming – music, yoga classes, meetings of all sorts. Programming, along with the food menu and a liquor license, gives customers an excuse to stop by any time of day, from espresso mornings to nightcap evenings, which keeps revenue flowing.

Melia Howard, the city-employed district manager for the area, confirms that The Congregation was avidly welcomed.

“When they opened, they had tons of community support,” Howard said. “The place was literally packed. People were spilling over on the outside.”

Business was threatened only days later. The coffeehouse had barely opened in March when pandemic-related executive orders from the governor shut it down to all but carryout service. Murdoch laid off nearly the entire staff and started filling orders herself. But, she said, the partnership had “buffer room” accounted for in their budget. She won’t disclose what that budget was, other than to say it was “substantial,” adding that sales have outperformed their targets ever since The Congregation reopened.

The outdoor seating area (Photo: Nancy Derringer)

Murdoch and her partners have plans to expand. They want to renovate a basement space into something useful. They’ve bought an adjacent house and are planning another restaurant there. And while the history of this area can’t be changed, Murdoch said, “We’re not here to deny or suppress anything that’s happened here. We’re members of the neighborhood, too.”

Earlier gallery:

Bar-Coffeeshop in Updated 1920 Detroit Church Restarts After Ill-Timed March Launch, July 17

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