Unexpected beer garden pops up in Detroit's West Village

Posted on October 14, 2011

Detroit —Some 100,000 lots are vacant in Detroit, and do-it-yourselfers keep dreaming up ways to use them. In the West Village, an entrepreneurial partnership is putting a new spin on the urban garden.

On Van Dyke just north of Agnes, Suzanne Vier and Aaron Wagner have turned two empty lots into a beer garden that will materialize at noon on five Sundays and disappear again at nightfall.

“Tashmoo Biergarten is a European-style beer garden with a Detroit sensibility,” says Vier, 39, who lives in Midtown and operates the Detroit-based Simply Suzanne granola company.

She should know. She’s lived in Eastern Europe and recently witnessed the proliferation of pop-up beer venues in New York City.

Tashmoo — named after a sunken ship — is adjacent to a party store and across the street from an abandoned house that sports a familiar neighborhood watch poster with giant owl eyes. But the open-air gathering place is true to its European roots with its communal trestle tables nestled under a massive shade tree.

It’s in the center of the area known as The Villages, which includes East Village, Indian Village, West Village, Island View and English Village, Berry Subdivision and the Gold Coast. Aside from All That Jazz in the River House, the area has no neighborhood bar.

It could be a niche begging to be filled, judging by attendance at Tashmoo, and organizers hope it could eventually become a for-profit business.

The pop-up venture’s opening day Sept. 25 drew about 1,000, getting a bump from a real estate open house that day in the neighborhood. The second Sunday’s attendance was closer to 600. It has three Sundays to go before it disappears like Brigadoon on Oct. 23.

Vier describes the Michigan craft beer selection, five each week, as “session” beers, which are typically moderate in alcohol content. So Tashmoo is not a place where heavy drinkers are going to get smashed and wreck the place. Food vendors include People’s Pierogi, Corridor Sausage and Porktown Sausage.

It’s a place for people to meet their neighbors. It’s kid-friendly, with a cornhole court and board games.

“We want families to come to the biergarten,” says Wagner. “And we didn’t want them to be saddled with baby sitters.”

You don’t have to be from The Villages to hang out. Helen Broughton, 36, came from Detroit’s East English Village and says, “I want this kind of thing in my neighborhood.”

Historical connection

So what’s up with the name?

One of the beer garden’s lots used to belong to the head engineer of the White Star Line, which owned a ship called Tashmoo, which traveled to an amusement park of the same name on Harsens Island until it sank in 1936.

“That’s part of why we used the name Tashmoo,” says Wagner, a West Village homeowner. “The other part is we found out in our research ‘tashmoo’ is a Native American word for ‘meeting place,’ and that just seems perfect for what we want to do with the beer garden.”

“I wanted West Village to have something communal, something everybody could enjoy.”

Help from friends

Vier and Wagner have not been alone in this venture, which they hope eventually will become a for-profit business.

They’re borrowing the lots from Eastside LAND, Inc., a nonprofit subsidiary of Warren/Conner Development Coalition, which facilitates commercial development on Detroit’s east side.

The liquor license and insurance are from The Villages Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that wants to lure more businesses to the area and is keeping profits from beer to fund the eventual construction of a permanent structure for a three-season beer garden.

Some 50 volunteers have built a fence and tables from reclaimed materials, designed T-shirts and work the beer-ticket table and taps. For some, it’s an opportunity to prove that for-profit business can thrive in Detroit.

“It’s no different than what the state does giving tax credits to for-profit businesses so they can flourish and they’ll relocate here,” says Donna Gardner, 45, of Detroit’s Midtown.

“It’s just another mechanism of economic development: volunteering.”

Others have a less lofty motivation.

“I wanted to volunteer and get more involved with the community and drink beer at the same time,” says Giuseppe Palazzolo, 22, who lives in New Center.

“It’s a win-win situation.”