Joel Landy is as much a collector as a developer — and his current fascination with trains has gained so much steam that he’s engineered a miniature railroad coursing through his domain
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Joel Landy has lost his keys, and that’s a serious problem. They not only grant him access to his home and car, they also open the doors to his Midtown kingdom: the Burton Theatre, the Addison Building, Atlas Global Bistro, the Leland Lofts, a number of historic Victorian homes, and the dozens of rental units he owns — more than 50 parcels in all. Considering the breadth of his holdings, his key search could prove exhausting.
During the hunt, Landy surveys his Detroit backyard, an almost pastoral patch bordered by three scale miles of miniature train track that he laid to connect his properties. “I call it ultra-light rail,” he says, pointing to a portion of track circling a koi pond. “I beat M-1 [commuter rail] to the punch. I’m one of the feeders in the neighborhood — my Peterboro-Charlotte Railroad.” Landy likes to boast that it’s the first light rail in Detroit in 50 years. When he demonstrates, chugging along on his battery-powered, three-seat locomotive, it’s tough to argue with the guy.
A major catalyst for Midtown’s current resurgence, Landy, 58, has invested $30 to $40 million in the area (by his own estimate) in the last 12 to 15 years. He has also had a hand in close to $1 billion in other Detroit projects. Cleveland-based developer John Ferchill called Landy for advice on his redevelopment of the Westin Book Cadillac; so did the team behind The Ellington Lofts.
But Landy doesn’t like to self-identify as a developer. “I’m a developer to banks and the city,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2004. “But more of a word for me would be ‘community developer.’ ” Whether it’s developer or community developer, he doesn’t exactly look the part. “First impressions, you’d scratch your head,” says Bob Slattery, a fellow Midtown developer. “But he’s such an intelligent guy.” Picture a tall, hippie version of Albert Einstein with a shock of graying blond hair that dots the ‘I’ of a long, thin face. Landy is a string bean of a man, with a blond mustache hugging his upper lip, and grease-stained hands. You can pick Landy out of a crowd, all right.
“My favorite gift to him was Skin So Soft, because his hands always looked black,” says longtime friend Alan Lichtenstein, executive director of Broadway (Nederlander) in Detroit. “And he always wears black. Whenever I see a nice black-cotton T-shirt at the store, I buy it for him.”
Though his eccentric-cool appearance is a look right out of the New York or Los Angeles art scene, Landy is no carpetbagger taking advantage of cheap city real estate. The son of first-generation Russian immigrants, he was born in Detroit, grew up in Oak Park, dropped out of Cass Tech in the 11th grade, and spent a few years in Chicago before coming back to the Cass Corridor (as Midtown was still called then), where he’s been a mainstay for the last 30-plus years. “I went to the Old Miami [bar] with a friend in 1977 and got drunk and stayed over at his house on Peterboro,” Landy recalls. “I looked at his garage in the morning — it was this carriage house — and said, ‘Can I live here?’ ”
He stayed for two years, heating the place with wood, until the 10,000-square-foot estate he lives in now became available. He split the cost of the property with two other partners, paying just $1,500 each. Landy bought the other guys out a few years later and has been living in the house since.
“It was just so great,” he says of the old days. “When you had no neighbors, you could do whatever you wanted. And the people outside — at that time there was no crack; it was just winos and alcoholics — they were harmless. So we had big fences and a swimming pool and our own little world.
“Then, I kept buying stuff around me because I didn’t want idiots moving in next door. I had all this property, and I had to do something with it. So I learned to be a developer — learned to work with nonprofits, learned historic tax credits, and was already into historic preservation.”
His role as a Detroit developer didn’t begin in earnest until the late ’80s, though.
In the 1960s, Landy ran a printing company that was responsible for all the Grande Ballroom promotions, crafting posters for the MC5, The Stooges, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and other rock ’n’ roll luminaries who passed through the mythic venue. His print shop’s next-door neighbor, the Fifth Estate, at the corner of the Lodge Freeway and Warren, afforded him the opportunity to write for the underground newspaper. In 1969, he moved to Chicago, where he wrote for another alternative paper, The Chicago Seed. The entire Seed staff lived in his rented, $200-a-month townhouse on LaSalle, where activists Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden were among those who came and went. Landy also started Radio Free Chicago, an underground radio show on WTLV-FM, and helped run the Aragon Ballroom.
In 1972, Landy moved back to Detroit, where his career took another turn. “I don’t know how I started fixing foreign cars,” Landy says. “I had one that I fixed, and people just started asking me to fix theirs.” The hobby, which explains the grease-stained hands, turned into J&L Foreign Auto Center at Gratiot and Conner, which he ran for nearly 25 years.
“I think you need a certain kind of mentality to fix cars to make a living, and I think Joel just felt that it wasn’t worth it,” Lichtenstein says, explaining Landy’s reasons for selling the auto shop.