The image conjured up in your mind when you think of Detroit is most likely starkly different than its reality. If the answer to “What are you doing this weekend?” is “going to Detroit,” nine times out of ten, the next question would be “Why?” As in, why on Earth….
Nonetheless, my better half and I recently took a trip there from Toronto, not so much to see the city, but to see friends who grew up in the area. They’ve lived in different parts of the city, starting with 9 Mile (yes, one mile in proximity to 8 Mile, with an early 2000’s movie of the same name starring rapper Eminem), then to the suburbs, and finally downtown where our host Matt bought a loft in the past year.
The early going of our drive wasn’t promising: We had a slow and frustrating 6+ hour trek through summer traffic congestion, a trip that should take four hours, max. We arrived in Detroit a tad irritable, and were welcomed by wide open boulevards, introducing us to an often-overlooked city that seems to be experiencing a renewed sense of pride.
I visited Detroit about 20 years ago, and honestly, there wasn’t much going on then—it seemed a bit deserted, devoid of any excitement.
Downtown Detroit is no longer bleak, but rather where art, food, music and sports converge. The energy in the air is palpable—and we were thrilled to explore it.
This new Detroit is in stark contrast to the Detroit we think we know, a heavily industrial city with few industries other than automotive, which experienced a monumental decline over generations due to international competition, culminating in bankruptcy in 2013.
This rendered Detroit a prime environment for economic and racial tensions to peak, and crime rates soared—such were Detroit news headlines for decades. During the early 60s, Detroit was considered a leader in race relations; but the riots of 1967 proved there was still much to be done to help bridge the racial segregation gap. 2017 marks 50 years since the catastrophic riots, and this year’s drama film, Detroit, explores the events that left the city changed forever.
It’s a good education for the past. But why should you visit now?
There is an upside to Detroit’s hardships – it’s become a magnet for explorers, artists, dreamers, and inventors with more ideas than money.
Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy was the largest of its kind in US history, but the city has since emerged from it, and is stronger than it’s been for years. Through it all, Detroit has been reinventing itself into a place where people want to be.
Over the past 10 years, artists have been moving there from more competitive and expensive cultural centres like New York and Chicago; the low cost of housing and warehouse rentals, ideal for art studio space, continues to be a draw, and the scene is thriving. Although I have much more to see on my next visit, The Belt, a downtown street-art alleyway, is a feast for the eyes.
A couple more...
Music has also played a big part of the city’s DNA, with Detroit being most renowned for Motown greats like Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson, who helped usher in a new sound, melding together soul and pop, a sound that quickly gained widespread popularity. Motown is truly a Detroit genre, and is a blend of the words “motor” and “town”. Fast-forward a couple of decades, the Detroit Techno genre emerged, created by The Belleville Three out of the neighbouring suburb Belleville; The Detroit Free Press summed up their contribution perfectly: “In the ‘80s, Detroit techno was like a splash of new possibilities that seeped into the headspace of musicians and producers around the world, and the effects still reverberate in the songs that fill today’s dance clubs and pop charts.”
Detroit has a new look, and while that may be a feast for the eyes, the body needs a feast, too. Detroit delivers.
We stopped for a bite at the trendy Townhouse restaurant, which pretty much has the best burger in America. The service was impeccable, inviting and friendly, drop by to say hi.
We also love their motto, which sums up the passion that is so palpable in the city now.
My weekend jaunt had me wanting to find out more about this storied and misunderstood city. Books are great for that sort of thing of course, and a quick search offered me a lot of choice. I downloaded Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. This no-holds-barred account of Detroit’s history is eye-opening, but also explores and examines how the past has influenced all the amazing things we’re now seeing happen within its city limits.
Mark examines a wide range of topics, but what struck me the most is the idea of urban prairies. Detroit’s mid-century population was nearing two million, with the current count at less than half that number, so, close to 700,000. Many abandoned houses remain, but the most dilapidated were torn down, leaving large expanses of land—not something you often see in a metropolitan area. These abandoned expanses made way for the emergence of urban farms and gardens, some 875 locations according to a 2009 census, ushering in yet another industry to rebuild the city: A new brand of DIY.
I caught up with Mark to find out a bit more, and he says: “Urban farming was one of the huge, buzzed-about trends when I first started reporting my book, way back in 2009. Detroiters had mixed responses to the concept, but in certain of the neighborhoods, nature had already begun to reclaim the city blocks, and using some of the land that way made an elegant kind of sense. Detroit is a massive place, and there's still room for all manner of experiment.”
Another form of DIY—house renos. More than five years ago, interior designer Laura Breisch bid on a house scheduled for demolition by the city, and it was awarded to her for $5,000.
Her goal? Make it shiny and new again.
Peek at the progress of the other rooms at Curbed Detroit.
Further on design, Detroit embraced the 1920’s Art Deco movement, and has beautiful buildings to prove it. Art Deco in Detroit by authors Rebecca Binno Savage and Greg Kowalski explores the design style, stating the “city boasts some of the finest examples of Art Deco in the country.” But even industrial buildings are being beautifully restored and repurposed.
Concurrently with the rise of the auto industry, pharmaceutical manufacturing became one of Detroit’s key industries at the outset of the 20th century. We stayed with our host at his loft, which is in the now converted Frederick Stearns Building—a Michigan historic site since 1981, and former home to one of the city’s former chief pharmaceutical companies.
The private entrance with original factory windows.
In the suite’s bedroom, the arch of bricks marks where the top of the now-filled in oven used to bake pharmaceuticals once was.
A rustic windowsill worthy of a library.
I would be remiss if I didn’t delve a bit further into what cars mean to Detroit. After all, the auto industry is the catalyst that propelled its growth during the early 1900s. Car culture is so ingrained, that the Cadillac luxury automobile brand got its namesake from Detroit’s 16th century founder, French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.
While getting from point A to point B, it was interesting to see how residents express themselves through their cars. Vintage cars, new cars, muscle cars.
Detroit continues to innovate in the motor vehicle space, with Chrysler truly taking the art of design to heart.
As seen on the Netflix original series Abstract, Ralph Gilles, Chrysler executive and designer, on cars: “It has to impart a soul. People say, I fell in love with my car, it projects my personality so perfectly.”
“Everything should be art… It should look good, it should sit on the road and represent not only the brand well, but be an attractive craft from Detroit.” He goes on to say of his work on the Chrysler 300: “The Hip Hop crowd took it under its wing. The vehicle looks great, and it was affordable. It was a pretty big deal for us. We created the vehicle that someone won’t just own, but cherish, will create a community around. It’s amazing.”
Beautifully designed vehicles like these help elevate brands that people may not think of as luxury—such as Chrysler—keeping the industry alive and in demand.
Detroit has reached the silver lining, are we can’t wait for what happens next.
But before our next trip, we want to catch up on the below recommended reading.
Interior designer Laura’s book picks:
How To Live in Detroit Without Being A Jackass by Aaron Foley
This book covers topics such as how to do business, how to drive, how to party, how to talk about the city, and how to buy and renovate a house. Readers will not only be informed but they will also be laughing along the way.
Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love and Home by Amy Haimerl
As Amy and her husband restore a 1914 Georgian Revival, a stately brick house with no plumbing, no heat, and no electricity, Amy finds a community of Detroiters who, like herself, aren't afraid of a little hard work or things that are a little rough around the edges. Detroit Hustle is a memoir that is both a meditation on what it takes to make a house a home, and a love letter to a much-derided city.
Our host Matt’s book picks:
The Virgin Suicides (available in audio format, why not give it a try?) by Jeffrey Eugenides
In a quiet suburb of Detroit, the five Lisbon sisters--beautiful, eccentric, and obsessively watched by the neighborhood boys--commit suicide one by one over the course of a single year. The Virgin Suicides is a modern classic, a lyrical and timeless tale of sex and suicide that transforms and mythologizes suburban middle-American life.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Cal, the narrator—also Callie—is a hermaphrodite. And the explanation for this takes us spooling back in time, through a breathtaking review of the twentieth century, to 1922, when the Turks sacked Smyrna and Callie’s grandparents fled for their lives. Back to a tiny village in Asia Minor where two lovers, and one rare genetic mutation, set our narrator’s life in motion. Jeffrey Eugenides pays homage to his home town with parts of the novel taking place in Detroit.
Oh yeah, and I couldn’t leave without buying a shirt at the Eastern Market.