Detroit

Driving from the airport towards Downtown Detroit on a drizzly Thursday afternoon in spring, I begin to wonder if the stories I’ve heard about a city on the brink of collapse have been exaggerated.

The highway carrying me into the city is well maintained and full of cars. There are shops, industrial sites and residential areas set back from the road, all in seemingly good condition. In the distance, the sports arenas and Art Deco office towers of Downtown create an elegant skyline. So far, so functional.

But the details soon come into focus. A few kilometres from the city centre, rows of burnt-out houses and vacant lots overgrown with weeds begin appearing. Many buildings that seemed impressive from afar are actually gutted or abandoned, and now appear forlorn. Perhaps most striking is Downtown itself, which is eerily quiet during what should be evening peak hour. I pass just a handful of pedestrians on the way to my hotel, which is centrally situated between the baseball stadium and some of the city’s tallest towers. I am the only guest in the lobby.

These days Detroit has a population of about 700,000 people, but it wasn’t always that way. At its peak in the 1950s, the city was home to more than 1.8 million people. One in every six working Americans was employed directly or indirectly by the booming automobile industry, with the epicentre squarely in Detroit. With it came factories, hotels, a bustling Downtown and a growing population, along with the highest per capita income in the country. So, when the city filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history in 2013, with debts of more than $18 billion, it was not just a fall from grace, but a failure of the American dream.

In 2015, the Michigan city’s defining characteristic is perhaps its emptiness. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about Detroit’s future, the fact it is under-populated is undeniable. The challenges that the city faces today - from insufficient tax revenue and crumbling infrastructure to worker shortages - all stem from one fundamental truth: that the system was built for twice as many people as currently use it.

And yet, Detroit’s new businesses, entrepreneurs and workers convincingly argue that a population boom is imminent. The ‘Detroit comeback tale’ that is gaining traction in publications such as The New York Times may indeed be coming true, fuelled by the expansion of the city’s manufacturing and hospitality sectors.

More than any other urban centre in America, Detroit needs growth in order to survive. The test in the coming years will be whether it can generate and sustain enough excitement to lure people back - and whether those new workers can fix the structural problems that now plague the city. The city’s population shortage and general lack of visitors present a number of advantages for tourists. Because Detroit is half empty, hotel rooms are plentiful and reasonably priced. Major venues such as the Detroit Institute of Arts (with its collection, including Monets, Picassos and Cézannes, worth about US$8 billion) are rarely crowded. For the most part, traffic runs smoothly and there is no shortage of taxis. And that dinner reservation? Don’t worry about making one - you’ll get a table.

The city’s woes are creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, too. In its prime, Detroit was a hub of factories, and many Detroiters who once worked in skilled manufacturing jobs are still here, waiting to be employed. Land and buildings are cheap - so cheap that Asian investors have started buying up land parcels and simply holding them, willing to bet that their value will rise one day. For those wishing to start new manufacturing companies, there are scores of old industrial buildings that can be rented or bought for next to nothing.

I visit two young manufacturing businesses that are being touted as examples of the ‘new Detroit’. I drive north along quiet roads, past Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts, to the headquarters of luxury goods manufacturer Shinola. Since its foundation in 2011, Shinola has expanded rapidly, selling its range of locally made watches, bicycles and leather products both in Detroit and further afield in upscale stores in New York and London. The company is headquartered in the same building as the College for Creative Studies, a private design university whose students occasionally go on to be employed by Shinola.

“Detroit is synonymous with manufacturing and innovation,” Shinola CEO Steve Bock tells me as we tour the building, “and it’s that history and legacy that drew Shinola to Detroit to open our watch factory and headquarters.”

Bock explains that, although its bicycles are manufactured in Wisconsin, most of Shinola’s operations are conducted within the city limits. “In four years we have grown from four employees to more than 400,” he says, “of whom 300 live in Detroit.”

Eat & drink

Nowhere is Detroit’s optimism more apparent than at the slew of new restaurants and bars that now dot the city. The dining destination generating the biggest buzz is Selden Standard in Midtown, which has a friendly neighbourhood vibe and an inventive menu. Those who don’t mind a trip to the suburbs should check out Bistro 82 for French cuisine served in a relaxed environment. For French food in a more central location, head to Antietam and enjoy the well-balanced dishes and immaculate Art Deco decor. More casual, but no less satisfying, is Johnny Noodle King, which serves up world-class Japanese ramen. For drinks, Wright & Company is popular with young professionals, offering cocktails and small plates in a warm space that features exposed brick and a pressed-tin roof. Support local alcohol production at Detroit City Distillery, where the gin, whisky and vodka are all made on the premises. Or, for a classic bar with comfortable booths and an authentic Detroit crowd, try Downtown Louie’s Lounge.

Culture

Like many cities in the US, Detroit is defined by its music. In the 1950s, it became an important jazz centre, but it is best known for its R&B and soul of the 1960s and 1970s - the so-called ‘Motown Sound’. More recently, the city spawned a style of electronic music called techno, nurtured Madonna in the early stages of her career, and produced the most successful white rapper of all time, Eminem. On screen, Detroit has been immortalised in films such as 8 Mile, Dreamgirls and True Romance. If you enjoy arthouse films or vampire movies (or both), 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a must-watch - it’s full of evocative Detroit set pieces and captures the edginess of the city today. The global financial crisis of 2008 had a serious destabilising effect on the city: it led to the collapse of the US auto industry and, subsequently, to a huge unemployment spike. While Shinola was not able to re-employ all those who lost their jobs, the company is symbolic of the city’s determination not to be wiped off the map.

Across town in west Detroit, in a residential neighbourhood dotted with light-industrial blocks, is another new production facility. Since launching in 2012, Detroit Bikes has become one of the largest bicycle manufacturers in the US, producing up to 100 bikes a day at its 4600-square-metre factory. Like Shinola, the emphasis is on quality materials and expert craftsmanship.

According to the company’s outreach coordinator, Mike Gentile, Detroit Bikes plans to increase its staff from 20 to 40 in the coming months. “It is a crazy time in this city,” he says, citing the explosion of new small businesses as the cause of newfound optimism among Detroiters. “You wouldn’t believe how much has changed in the past six months alone.”

Gentile suggests I have dinner at Selden Standard, a new place that’s opened in Midtown. Arriving at the restaurant, I’m pessimistic: the street is deserted and vacant lots surround the building. But inside, the dining room is heaving with guests feasting on pasta and roasted vegetables. Almost everyone at Selden Standard is from around here, a waitress says - both employees and diners - and the bulk of the kitchen produce is from Michigan. It’s one example of a region intent on supporting itself and rebuilding its local economy from the ground up.

Regardless of these bursts of excitement, it’s hard to ignore the city’s notorious ‘deserted neighbourhoods’. Some of these residential zones have been totally abandoned; in others, the odd house is maintained by a proud or stubborn owner.

There’s a peacefulness on some of the empty streets, but the sight of a firebombed house often breaks the mood. There’s an overwhelming sense of uncertainty: here are areas that could very quickly be resurrected, or just as easily destroyed. No-one seems willing to predict their collective fate.

Feeling contemplative, I stop at two local businesses that have sprung up in the past few years. In the neighbourhood of Corktown, I visit the Eldorado General Store, a vintage shop filled with unique trinkets. It’s the brainchild of Erin Gavle, a Michigan native who moved to the West Coast after college but decided to return home in the wake of the GFC to help counter negative perceptions of Detroit. “There’s a really interesting passion and energy happening in the city,” she says, explaining that many of her customers are regulars and fellow entrepreneurs. “It’s feeding itself.”

Then there’s fitness outlet Run Detroit. Justin Craig and his partner moved here in 2013, with a hunch that Detroiters might like to run. “Honestly,” he says, “I wasn’t prepared for how many people started showing up. We hit a goldmine.” According to Craig, residents appreciate specialty stores such as his because they provide an alternative to soulless malls. Supporting local business is another strong motivator.

Back at the hotel, I start chatting with a pair of slightly dazed-looking Japanese tourists. Detroit is not what they had been expecting, they tell me. How so? “It’s better,” says one. “And worse.” It soon becomes clear that my new friends don’t speak very good English. But the sentiment rings true. Detroit defies expectations. And as for the future? It’s too early to tell.  

Words by Dan Stapleton - Published in Voyeur August 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 912,000 (City) 4.4m (Metro)
Time Zone UTC -5
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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