Chene Street Chronicles: Max’s Jewelry Store
Researched & written by Eric Hergenreder for eherg.com/
Chene Street was named after the Chene Family, who settled in Detroit early in its French history. At this time Detroit was a smaller farming community whose central hub was located along the Detroit River. Most of the city's farms were ribbon farms, which consisted of long strips of land beginning at the water, assuring every farmer had access to irrigation and transportation. The Chene family operated a large farm for a number of years with help from slaves and servants. There were Chene relatives all over the city, but the farm located where Chene Street currently lies was the most well-known. This land had been granted to the family by Louis XIV of France and eventually would also be home to the Alexander Chene House, a home that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and demolished in 1991 to make way for the E. Jefferson IHOP.
The Rosenbaum family began immigrating to American just after the turn of the century. They were a Jewish family from Poland and they left their home country to escape persecution by the Germans. The oldest son, Max, moved into a home on Chene Street on Detroit’s east side. This area was becoming more and more Polish, also housing some of Detroit’s rising black population. Chene Street started to become a commercial mecca, housing some 200 storefronts, most of which were owned by the influx of Polish Immigrants and black Detroiters who came from the south. Although the Polish and black communities were discriminated against at the time, this area began to thrive because of the unique skills and trades these merchants possessed.
The Rosenbaum boys opened their first Jewelry shop in 1914, then called Fredro Jewelry Store. The business did quite well, but the store did have its fair share of setbacks. In 1919, Max was robbed by five men while working at the shop at 1093 Chene. They pointed automatic revolvers at him, instructing him to open the safe and cash registers. By the time it was all said and done the thieves had stolen $6,000 ($100,000+ today) worth of diamond rings, gold watches, jewelry, and cash. Even amidst this major setback, the family would eventually open a second location down the street. These two businesses were merged when Max’s Jewelry store opened at 5553 Chene Street in 1927. The building featured a large marquee with Max’s sprawling down the sides and two clocks facing each way down the street. At the time this area was home to a number of Jewish-owned businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing stores. Most of these business owners either lived in the Chene Street area or in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood on Detroit’s north-west side.
Times were good for the Rosenbaum family. So good in fact that the eldest brother decided to open another Max’s Jewelry Store in Hamtramck. The two-floor business located at 1000 Joseph Campau opened sometime around 1940, remaining open for 54 years. Max operated this store until his death in 1980, having left the Chene location to his younger brother Sam after setting up shop in Hamtramck.
The Chene location was the more unique location and was quite dazzling on the interior as well. The building featured glass cases on both sides of the main room and a middle-row of tables to show off larger items. Every morning all the jewelry would be removed from a safe in the back of the building and placed into displays, returning home to the safe at the end of each workday. The back of the building also housed an office for bookkeeping, a bathroom, and a small office for Sam. A large cash register sat on the back counter just before the half-wall partition that housed the offices began.
Sam Rosenbaum would be the proprietor of this location until the 1940s when he retired. Although he was no longer in charge of the business, he frequented the establishment until his death in 1954. He handed the business off to his son, Charles, who had been working at the family business since he was a child. Charles often went by Charlie Ross, which may have been an attempt to hide his Jewish heritage, but he was known by his full name outside of the workplace. Charlie was a proud business owner and an influential member of the Chene Business Association. As the population of Detroit began to decline, the neighborhood around the shop went with it. St. Stanislaus, the Roman Catholic Church that serviced the Poles of the neighborhood, closed its Junior High and High School by the mid-70s. Other shops and businesses on the strip began to close as well.
Undeterred, Charlie continued to operate his jewelry shop. As Detroiters left for the suburbs and big-box stores became the norm, the store struggled to keep up with the times. Charlie did not buy as much merchandise as the chain jewelry stores so he couldn’t keep his prices as low as theirs. The 1967 rebellion also took a toll on Charlie. He was robbed at gunpoint, not only losing all the jewelry in his safe, but his precious coin collection as well. The worst part about these thieves, at least to Charlie, was that they were from the neighborhood. He knew who they were, and they had to have known about him and his shop. It was like robbing your family in a sense, and it just felt wrong.
It was a combination of these negative factors throughout the 1960s and Charlies daughter’s wishes for her father to leave the city of Detroit that led Max’s on Chene to close up shop in 1974. Even as the city tried to clean up the area after the rebellion, adding colorful artwork to a number of storefronts that were looted, including Max’s, Charlie couldn’t justify staying in the neighborhood in his old age. He moved the business to Ryan Road in Warren, an area that had seen a rise in its Polish population as swarms of families left Detroit. He wouldn’t stay long though, as he sold the property a few years later and moved to Florida to retire. When he sold, there was only one Max’s left, his brother’s shop in Hamtramck. There was another storefront at 4771 Michigan Avenue that was run by Harry Rosenbaum at one point, but after his death it became too much for the brothers to handle. They sold that location shortly after his death to help support Harry’s widowed wife and children.
After Max’s left it’s Chene Street location, the neighborhood fell further into despair. In the late 1970s, General Motors began planning a new assembly plant in Poletown to replace the soon-to-be-defunct Detroit Assembly in southwest Detroit. They began purchasing property and acquiring land through eminent domain, demolishing everything in their path. They evicted 4,000+ residents, demolished 1,400 homes, shuttered 140 businesses, and demolished a number of historic churches in the process. This combined with the addition of the Detroit Incinerator, built in 1986 just west of Poletown, proved to be quite problematic for the already shrinking neighborhood. The factory created a gaping hole in the neighborhood and the incinerator made the chances of gaining new family-oriented residents very unlikely.
At some point after Charlie left Chene Street, a furniture store called Apollo Furniture began conducting business in the old jewelry store. The once bustling shopping metropolis was a shell of its former glory, and so was Max’s. The new owners painted over the marquee with what looked like basic acrylic paint so poorly that it was barely legible. Although different, the store remained open, serving those left in the neighborhood. It eventually closed and sat vacant for a good amount of time. Sometime before this the Eastown Bar across the street closed up shop as well. CE Enterprises, a computer installation and electronic repairs shop that was formerly an A&P Grocery store and then a hardware store attached to Max’s to the south, also closed up shop. The storefront to the north of Max’s, which has since been demolished, formerly Van Dyke Pastry Shop, was one of the surviving Polish footprints of the neighborhood until its closure.
Driving down Chene Street these days feels like something out of a movie, with very few storefronts remaining and even fewer of those remaining still open for business. Around 2012, a fire tore through Max’s empty storefront, leaving the property in full disrepair. In 2016 Max's was a filming location for Michael Bay's 'Transformers: The Last Knight,' which added vintage, albeit fake, ghost signs on its north outer-wall for a 3-hour dry cleaner and the E. Donaldson auto-mechanic shop. It is currently owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority and sits wide open, as it has for over a half-decade. I took the non-historic photographs in this article on March 23, 2018 around 2am. A week or so before these photographs were taken a number of buildings down Chene Street had demolition notices pinned to their exterior. Although Max’s has not yet been threatened with demolition, the future does not look very bright for the historic jeweler that served Poletown for decades.
Update: I inquired within the Detroit Land Bank Authority about Max's on Chene because I wanted to purchase the property and refurbish it into a community center, but they informed me that they were already in negotiations with a buyer. Although this saddened me because I was hoping to purchase the property, I am very hopeful that Max's might be saved. They may just be purchasing the building for the land it sits upon, but I remain optomistic.