03 Jan Detroit’s Renaissance Era
As published on www.usatoday.com
“It takes heart to fight something that so many consider a lost cause.
A strong mind to breathe life into that cause and prove so many wrong.
Keep your heart true and your mind strong, Detroit.” – FEL300FT
At first glance during a visit to downtown Detroit, signs of rebuilding and regrowth are evident and all around: Sleek, new condo buildings are sprouting up, a railway is being built through the center of the city, historic theaters are undergoing major renovations, and there’s an exciting vibe that you can feel when visiting.
A terrific way to get a real sense of that vibe and excitement is with Detroit Experience Factory, which offers free weekly public tours, as well as customized tours. Co-founder Jeanette Pierce’s enthusiasm about her hometown was infectious on a recent tour. As we rode through D-Town, Jeanette shared the city’s history – the good and the recent not-so-good. We saw burned out, boarded up and abandoned houses, and on the next block, shiny new condo high-rises.
Jeanette also shared the facts: Detroit drew 1 million people from 1910-1930 with the boom of the auto industry, and today is the same size as Portland, Ore., and Atlanta with 700,000 residents; the city welcomes 16 million visitors annually; its theater scene is second only behind New York City with 13,000 seats; and 154 bars and restaurants can be found within a one-mile radius downtown, with another 150 just beyond and more opening seemingly every day.
In Mid-Town, the Willis Canfield Retail District (which I’ve dubbed WillCan) is a two-block area that’s booming – 20 businesses have opened in the past two years. One of WillCan’s anchors isTraffic Jam & Snug, a Detroit institution which has made its home in the same spot for decades and is the first brew-pub in all of Michigan. Not only that, but it houses its own bakery and houses the state’s smallest licensed dairy, producing its own cheeses and ice cream.
Right next door to Traffic Jam & Snug, nationally-acclaimed Shinola crafts its high-quality, American-made sleek watches and bicycles in-house and before-your-eyes. Across the street, City Bird is “a real-life Etsy,” with myriad locally-made goods to peruse, and next door Nest, a home goods version of City Bird.
That sense of creativity continues at Ponyride, a collaborative 30,000-square-foot maker-space for burgeoning entrepreneurs where “it’s OK to fail, like a kid,” according to Executive Director Karla Henderson. These entrepreneurs pay 50 cents per square foot to create their dreams, includingFloyd, Detroit Denim Co., Beard Balm, Anthology Coffee and Smith Shop. Public tours of Ponyride are available each Wednesday.
Creativity seems to live and breathe in Detroit, as is evident by the number of works of street art. Incredibly-painted murals can be found throughout the city, and perhaps most of all at the Z Garage downtown, where each parking level is brilliantly painted with vibrant murals. It’s like paying to park in an art gallery!
Back downtown, Detroit’s Riverfront went through an $80 million transformation itself over the last decade or so, with another $40 million in an endowment to sustain the area. Instead of abandoned warehouses and overgrown fields, the riverfront reopened in 2003 for everyone to enjoy.
“Detroit is a big city with a lot of neighborhoods,” said Mark Wallace, president & CEO of Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, “and the river is where the city all comes together.”
The newest jewel along the riverfront has to be the newly-opened Outdoor Adventure Center, managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and housed in the completely-renovated Globe Building dating from the late-1800s. Inside, people can experience outdoor adventures through hands-on activities, exhibits and simulators, giving them a taste of Michigan’s great outdoors right in the middle of the city.
Detroit’s renaissance isn’t limited to its infrastructure, though. Hotels are increasingly coming onto the scene, including the newly-renovated David Whitney building that now houses an Aloft Hotel, as well as fantastic restaurants with incredible menus and innovative decor. New on the dining scene are Selden Standard, named 2015 Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press and featuring plates cooked in a wood-fired oven and grill; and Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, open just over a month to rave reviews and toasts of its chartreuse-inspired sips. On the other end of the spectrum, Roma Café has been serving its classic Italian dishes in Detroit since 1890.
With all of the new taking center stage, Detroit’s history is still as alive as ever. The oldest aquarium in the USA can still be found on Belle Isle, which was designed by New York’s Central Parklandscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead in the late-1800s; the Guardian Building stands tall in all its 1920s Art Deco skyscraper splendor; and Henry Ford’s legacy lives on at the museum and his Greenfield Village – you can even take a ride in a vintage Model T!
As Jeanette said at the end of our Detroit Experience Factory tour: “The more people travel, the more they love Detroit. Detroit is a city big enough to matter in the world, but small enough that you can matter in it.” That can be said not only of the city’s residents, but for those who visit as well.