The new cool sweeping Detroit

Following bankruptcy, a hip new scene has emerged in Detroit, with pop-up shops, markets, cafes and arts centres, with some calling it the ‘new Brooklyn’.
Detroit skyline seen from Windsor. Getty Images
Detroit skyline seen from Windsor. Getty Images

On a desolate street corner in Cass Corridor, once the roughest stretch in Detroit, a line shapes up in front of the spanking new Third Man Records outpost opened by city native Jack White, the lead singer of the cult indie-rock band The White Stripes. Young employees in designer dresses guide mohawked and tattooed guests through shelves overflowing with music-themed postcards, mugs, books and T-shirts. Tonight, the legendary Detroit hardcore-punk band Negative Approach are playing a free show. As ear-splitting punk-rock fills the space, the cheering crowd forms a moshpit; some playfully spray the musicians with drinks. I learn that the singer, John Brannon, still works as a line chef at the corner diner.

Detroit remains indeed a “hard-working town,” as many locals describe it – but tonight’s event reflects the uneasy gentrification of the once-depressed Motor City. “This area isn’t called ­Midtown,” howls Brannon to a rapturous audience, alluding to the recent redevelopment of the neighbourhood, relabelled by the city as a marketing coup. Cass Corridor was once the favoured neighbourhood for punk and garage bands, and the home of underground clubs where young musicians such as Brannon and White got into the scene. “This is Cass Corridor. Our band started out on the other side of this wall in 1981,” Brannon asserts.

Right next to Third Man’s flagship is one of many new businesses that have also helped put Detroit back on the map: ­Shinola, a high-end lifestyle brand whose watches, bikes and leather goods are assembled by hand in a nearby factory. When I enter the bright, vast space, the brand’s signature steel-and-leather watches are preciously displayed beneath glass casings; US$3,000 (Dh11,019) bikes are handmade in the adjacent studio. Cold-pressed juice is served at the cafe corner, Drought. Since opening here, Shinola has helped improve the city’s image with its Made in Detroit tag; now most local brands proudly feature their city’s name.

One of the oldest cities in the United States, and once a major commerce, manufacturing and business centre, as well as the birthplace of Motown and Henry Ford’s automobile plant, Detroit has gone through successive eras of prosperity and demise, marked by racial and socio-­economic tensions. The home of splendid Art Deco skyscrapers and Italian ­Renaissance theatres, neo-Gothic churches and modernist mansions, and the river that once brought prosperity and migrants to Michigan, became a symbol of the decline of the American dream. The 1960s and 70s were marked by corruption, extreme poverty and unemployment, and massive exodus towards the safer suburbs. Detroit became a notorious ghost town, famous for its “ruin porn”; its most legendary image, the abandoned Michigan train station, in the now trendy Corktown area.

Despite being declared bankrupt in 2013, the city has slowly re-emerged, with new stadiums, renovated landmarks, and restaurants and boutiques attracting tourists and businesspeople again. Investors such as Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, bought more than 100 properties in the city. JP Morgan Chase has invested more than $34 million in the past year. Foreign investors are snapping up empty lots and historical buildings; everywhere, luxury condos and hotels are rising.

Between Midtown and ­Downtown, a massive new project called The District Detroit will comprise 50 blocks of businesses, parks and event destinations, including a new arena for the Red Wings hockey team, due to be completed next year.

As metropolises such as New York have become unaffordable for creatives, many are moving to this city deep in history and inspiration, taking over vacant lofts and industrial spaces to set up alternative projects. Galapagos, an art centre based in Dumbo, Brooklyn, has recently settled here, taking over two buildings and helping to launch a new art biennial. Now, Detroit is commonly referred to as the “new Brooklyn”.

Indeed, the city feels like ­Williamsburg and Dumbo at the turn of gentrification. Elegant restaurants have taken over vacant homes and gritty diners; boutiques sell handmade goods at luxury prices; cafes boast organic ingredients and indie-rock soundtracks. Detroit has become synonymous with cool, reconnecting with its music and industrial roots, and opening up to the world. Last year, Richard Branson launched a direct Virgin flight from London with glamorous concerts and city tours, putting his stamp on a city now iconic of hipster authenticity.

My journey through the city begins on a grey day downtown among construction cranes, graffiti-splashed brick walls, casino towers and majestic historical facades. Woodward Avenue is eerily deserted, and I hurry through the chill to the new boutique opened by John Varvatos, the Detroit-born designer who created a logoed, limited-edition Chrysler 300C in 2013. The grand space sits in a historical 19th-century building, and feels like a luxurious rock bar, with velvet curtains, dim lighting and a cool soundtrack (Alice Cooper played the inauguration concert).

I follow the narrow alley behind the store to Wright & ­Company, a hidden lounge in the same building’s fourth floor. Soaring above the cityscape, with massive windows, the space is decorated with industrial light bulbs, crystal chandeliers and leather banquettes, and serves elevated snacks and drinks to after-work and pre-show diners with tickets to activities at nearby theatres and stadiums. I nibble on sliders and burrata, and chat with the heavily tattooed servers who, like everyone else in Detroit, share tips and anecdotes with generous warmth.

Ford wanted everyone to drive – so the city isn’t fit for walkers, particularly because many of its poor and homeless still dwell on its sidewalks. Heading north on Woodward – passing the city’s main touristic attractions, including the Cadillac Tower, ­Renaissance Center and Campus Martius Park – we cross what the cab driver calls “the ghetto” – several residential blocks that he warns are still unsafe, leading to the newly remodelled Midtown.

On one of these once-abandoned corners, Selden Standard, an elegant restaurant owned by a dynamic young couple who moved back to Detroit a few years ago, serves delicate seasonal cuisine to diners flashing ­Shinola watches and razor-sharp haircuts. The repurposed wood ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows and elongated bar create a warm, bright atmosphere.

A greatly bearded cook is preparing meats in the brick wood oven, surrounded by pickle-filled Mason jars. The bright Guatemalan coffee has been roasted by the local company Anthology, and is served in a handcrafted ceramic mug. Duck-leg hash is topped with a delicate cloud of poached egg, served with roasted local root vegetables.

“Detroit has so much history,” explains the vivacious Natasha, whose husband Andy, who was just awarded a James Beard Award, leads the kitchen. “We have to hold on to the grit, to the history of the city. When we opened the restaurant, there was a lot of hope for the city, and we wanted to be part of that energy.”

I head out for a brisk walk in the wintry breeze, passing more heritage boutiques, trendy coffee shops and the Shinola and Third Man stores, which are packed. Nearby stands the Mocad, the contemporary art museum, housed in a former auto dealership that still features the original industrial elements of the building, with concrete floors and a beautiful colourful mural painting on its facade. A young woman is DJing a mix of soul and techno as a sunny crowd mingles at the museum’s Café 78.

Not too far away is another important arts centre: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the source of much pride among the locals for its grandiose Beaux Arts architecture, massive scale and recent sweeping renovations. The collection, which spans from prehistoric arts to contemporary, is impressive; Diego Rivera’s intricate Detroit industry murals, composed of 27 panels covering the walls of a vast room, are alone worth the trip.

My promenade takes me next to the Eastern Market, where most of the city’s young artists are settling. This sprawling market buzzes with colour and life on Saturdays and most summer days, with flower shops, food stands and seasonal activities. Nearby several art galleries, such as the Red Bull Art project, the legendary Peoples Records (filled with crates of soul music), cute cafes such as Trinosophes and Germack, and restaurants such as the much-loved New York pizza parlour Supinos and its sister Italian restaurant, La Rondinella, offer nice stops along the route.

A quick Uber ride away is another area newly beloved by artists: the West Village. There’s Paramita, a record store specialising in African music that hosts regular late-night parties and live shows; Tea and Tao, which offers exactly what is name suggests; Sister Pie, for homemade pies to warm up the iciest day; a hipster deli; and Craftworks, a cafe-bar filled with life and music. As I walk into the dark space on my last night, a jazz band is playing. The owner, Hugh, who is of Iraqi origin, worked in the music industry in Los Angeles and New York before moving back here to open his bar. As the staff – comprising, among others, an animated Mexican DJ/server and an American musician/chef – scurry to bring diner fare to the regulars, who include Shinola’s young chief executive. Hugh tells me: “Here, everyone is welcome.”

After the concert, I approach the oldest musician in the band, who plays the clarinet beautifully. He was a young man when Detroit was still a grooving jazz, blues and soul capital in the 1960s. I ask him for one more song.

“What do you want to listen to?” he asks, pulling out his instrument from its case.

“I love free jazz,” I suggest.

The man improvises a beautiful, crystalline, whisper of a tune for me. Here, everyone is welcome.

Published: April 20, 2016 04:00 AM


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