As a particularly cold and relentless Connecticut winter finally cracked, a friend asked the innocent question, “So, do you have plans for a summer vacation?”
“Yes, in fact we’re doing something really interesting,”I said, excited to share and sure I had the summer plan that none of my friends could top. “I’m packing up the girls and taking them to Detroit.”
My friend’s face contorted involuntarily through a progression of equal parts terror, disgust, dismay and disbelief. He was so troubled by the thought that he struggled to catch his wind, but composed himself just enough to muster a polite, “Oh yeah, you’re from there.”
Indeed. I lived in Detroit through adolescence and the race riots of 1967, when whites fled the city at the speed of panic and my high school class swelled to more than 2,900 kids in a matter of months. I stayed through much of my 20s, the era of The Murder City epithet, although I never knew anyone who was murdered because even crime seemed segregated.
Those were the good old days.
Since then, Detroit has been on a steady decline with an evaporating jobs base, corruption and mismanagement in government, ever-resolute racial divides and a population that has crumbled from its peak of 1.8 million. But in 2008, Detroit became the most vivid crime scene of the economic collapse.
Property values plummeted until the average house price settled at $6,000, leaving huge swaths of Detroit’s massive 139-square miles worthless, abandoned, gutted, torched or gone to seed. The city collapsed financially and filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in our history. Its government was virtually disbanded and, just as the Federal government relinquished its seizure of General Motors, the state of Michigan took emergency control of Detroit itself.
Pensioners and bond holders were left with broken promises instead of bags of money. More than 50,000 street lights went out. Public transport and garbage collection ceased. Schools shuttered and became graffiti canvases surrounded by fields of two-foot tall weeds. Police response rates to 911 calls averaged 90 minutes and firefighters stood no chance against 5,000 arsons a year. By the time we showed up for our sunny vacation, Detroit had lost 1.2 million citizens from its peak.
The Detroit we encountered was all of that, and yet, something completely different, something remarkable. From the devastation is emerging a 21st Century city of outrageous and infectious hope that has become more fearless than frightful. Detroit is being remade by genuine people with a simple ethos in which everyone contributes some finer thing than was there before, big or small, replacing desperation with dignity and pleasure, and nurturing a way of life that is a total break with the past but respectful of and housed within its beauty.
Detroit is the most inspiring and surprising city in America. We’ll give you five reasons to go, and go soon while the magic is still brewing, the magicians still visible and accessible, and the good times still a marvel to behold. Pack up the kids and enjoy the one vacation none of you will ever forget.
1. A Spectacle As Moving As a National Park.
As odd as it sounds, the chance to witness an apocalyptic urban landscape is not to be missed lightly. It possesses a merciless grandeur that transcends comprehension.
Everywhere is the landscape of abandonment, a massive withdrawal on a scale America has never known. In between, an individual house or two still stand trimmed and tended, clutching tightly to the frayed strands of normalcy, living somehow with dignity within an overwhelming wash of hopeless devastation in a city that is three times physically bigger than it needs to be any more.
While crime remains (Detroit still ranks second in per capita violent crimes), there is far less sense of danger than when I lived there. The city is calmer. My daughters marveled that they never saw a Detroit driver have the slightest road rage. People were friendly and helpful. The homeless were polite in their approach, saying thank-you even if you spurned them. As we walked from one end of downtown to the other on streets I’d never set foot on during my fearsome youth, my youngest daughter remarked over and over, “I thought you said it was dangerous.”
Significant parts of Detroit have rebounded, moving beyond resuscitation to exude a heated energy. Downtown is brighter and more alive than any time I lived there. Midtown, Corktown and West Canfield are teeming with eateries, music, art and architecture and a massive Whole Foods. Boston-Edison and Indian Village are neighborhoods with neglected but still grand mansions selling for $20,000 or less while the remodeled ones next door fetch six-figures. And East Jefferson runs for miles with new apartment buildings and shops framing neighborhoods that lead to the other-worldly quaintness and greenery of the Grosse Pointes and the yachts and fishing boats on Lake St. Clair.
These and other sections of Detroit feel like the Soho district of Manhattan in the 1980’s or Williamsburg, Brooklyn today, where people with a creative lust for living reclaim beautiful, neglected ruins and build a social and economic fabric with a life force that is palpable. They have taken a city that was beyond hope and moved it beyond just being hopeful.
For all its dysfunction, Detroit’s response to anarchy has not been anarchical. The reality of Detroit is counterintuitive. It is stronger than the fortitude of our preconceptions and grander than the limitations of our imaginations. It forces you to suspend your disbelief.
2. Detroit Calls to You
Shel Kimen embodies not only the type of person who came to Detroit while everyone else fled, but also the reason they do it.
Three years ago, Kimen was Senior Vice President for Digital at a major New York ad agency, Sattchi & Saatchi, helping companies sell products she wouldn’t buy. Then she heard it.
“I always had a good sense for things about to come, right before they explode and go big,”she said. “Detroit calls to you, and you come.”
Kimen’s idea was to recycle and refurbish abandoned shipping containers into a public agora. The side panel would open up, revealing a community and collaborative space which she used to encourage anyone who wanted to get up and tell their story. Stories, she said, have a healing power, and it was vital to the path Detroit would take to its reinvention for those stories to be heard and shared.
That First Container, as it is called, formed part of the basis for her more ambitious enterprise, Collision Works, a planned 46-room hotel made of recycled shipping containers that includes collaborative artistic space and will fund a not-for-profit arm to sustain and nurture her community healing visions.
She has been able to purchase land adjacent to the huge and intoxicating Eastern Market, which, she points out, is one of the few places where the self-imposed segregation on both sides of the racial divide melt away. She, and we, hope she secures the rest of the financing before the end of the year and the making of a purely Detroit phenomenon can begin.
Hearing the calling is a common refrain among Detroit’s young, repatriated entrepreneurs, and they are seemingly everywhere. They have followed a siren’s song, and so far it has come from angels who call them to participate in the creation of something rewarding, whole and pure, ethical and worthy, important, unique and full of fun and openness.
While Shel Kimen is one of the boldest and ambitious of this breed, you can meet anyone in the creative entrepreneurial set and hear a story with its own circumstance but a common theme. They are The Calling Class, who found the cost of entry but a few dollars and the compulsion to see, through purity of their hearts, an opportunity of magnificence. Once you’ve been touched by their spirited purpose, it’s hard not to hear the irresistible sirens yourself.
3. There Will be Riches
There are speculative real estate plays going on that are massive in physicality, but comparatively paltry in the cash laid out. Dan Gilbert, the CEO of Quicken Loans and the owner of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, is the master player. In less than four years, Gilbert has purchased or leased 60 abandoned buildings, mostly concentrated in downtown Detroit, many of them of historical architectural significance. He’s fixing them all and filling them with working people.
Gilbert, who was born in Detroit, moved Quicken Loans from the suburbs back into the city, in buildings overlooking Campus Martius (pronounced MAR-shus), one of the most unique and splendid urban squares in any city with its sand beach bar and elaborate fountains. He has brought more than 12,000 employees with him, subsidizing half of their rent if they move into Detroit. The result has led to skyrocketing residential rents, as much as $1,500 a month for a studio apartment in buildings surrounded by abandoned skyscrapers.
If the come bets on Detroit actually make a viable and sustainable city from the ashes, the payouts as a percentage of the original investments will be the stuff of dreams not had outside Silicon Valley in a long time. There is huge money to be made, and as a result Detroit is a city with action.
Chinese investors outbid Gilbert for the David Stott Building and its top-floor Sky Bar with magnificent views of the city. It is adjacent to Capitol Park, where Gilbert owns and is reconstructing five residential building that surround it. And while we were there, unnamed Canadian interests bought more than 100 lots and buildings in auction. Speculative money is moving in from all corners. And in some parts it’s working. With growing frequency, listings on Trulia and Zillow trumpet price increases, seemingly stoking anxiety to get in before it’s too late.
4. The Birthing of the First Post-Millennial City
Detroit is being rebuilt by the repatriated and the newbies who have heard the calling and the lure of getting in at such a relatively low cost. It is also being remade by the steadfast who never left, and with no prospects for the government to ride to the rescue, have taken the salvation of their neighborhoods and the city upon themselves by just doing what’s needed, without sanction or restriction, with amazing results.
With each of these disparate groups, there is commonality. Every effort, every startup business, has a social purpose. There is open collaboration and support for each other, and a dedication to not only making life better, but making it possible for the city’s salvation to succeed and its outcome to be better than anything that came before it.
The results can be seen in eateries, tech startups and incubators, financial investment, art, design, manufacturing, retail, urban farming and voluntary reclamation. There is no place in America being so driven by the sensibilities of the post-social media, Millennial generation.
Slows Bar B Q, was started by Phillip Cooley. Besides creating the anchor bar and restaurant of the vibrant Corktown strip along Michigan Avenue, Cooley helped start and nurture the surrounding places like the ever-packed Astro Coffee. With his success, Cooley bought a 30,000-square foot building in south Corktown for $100,000 and converted it into Ponyrides, a non-profit offering cheap space for artists and entrepreneurs to “work and share their knowledge.”. Rents are 20-cents a square foot or less, with 25 organizations using the space and more on the way.
TechTown, is a not-for-profit startup incubator and accelerator in the Woodward Technology Corridor SmartZone. The city is flush with organizations to draw business entrepreneurs in, get them funded and get them going. It is well-connected, with associations and partnerships with investment firms and growth advocates including Detroit Future City, Detroit Creative Corridor Center, Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Detroit Venture Partners and Bizdom. The city is making its own action.
With so much unused land, there is also the most massive urban farming initiatives in any city in the country. Tyson Gersh co-found the non-profit Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, reclaiming abandoned and unused land in the northern sections of Detroit and creating farms that serve and sustain the neighborhoods. But the farming efforts have spread wildly at a grassroots level, with the northern city neighborhoods now becoming an urban farm beltway.
John J. George started Motor City Blight Busters, in 1988 in the Old Redford section of northwest Detroit, not far from where I grew up. He started by buying plywood and, with volunteers, used it to board up an abandoned house that was being used by drug dealers. Since then, the group has used more than 21,000 gallons of paint, 15,000 pounds of nails and nearly 16,000 sheets of plywood to reclaim abandoned buildings and secure whole neighborhoods.
Write a House, is a writers residency program with a twist. Started in 2012, Write a House provides vocational training to restore abandoned houses and gives them to low or moderate income writers, whether they already live in Detroit or not, as long as they will become involved with the literary community of the city, pay the property taxes (about $2,000 a year) and house insurance (about $2,500 a year). The organization was started by Toby Barlow, Chief Creative Officer of ad agency Team Detroit and the author of two novels, Sharp Teeth and Babayaga, and Sarah F. Cox, the founding editor of the Detroit real estate website Curbed Detroit, who left New York after hearing rocker Patti Smith complain that NYC had become too expensive to live in while pursuing one’s art and that maybe it was time to try Detroit.
We could go on. And on and on and on. There are seemingly endless stories like these in Detroit. It is a city of great character and moral essence, strong enough to transform a metropolis that could have easily laid down and vanished. What is emerging is a city unlike any before it.
5. Redraw the Borders of Your Fears
Whatever you think is the worst that can happen, Detroit will free you from that fear.
Detroit will give you an overdose of how bad things can get, while it renews your faith with countless demonstrations on how people respond, move on and conquer. No child can visit Detroit and leave it as spoiled as they were going in.
The city affirms that reaching bottom creates the will and, ironically, the cheap accessibility to resources to get back up and seize invisible opportunities. In the face of tragedy and danger, people will do what is needed without being told or forced or regulated.
Detroit proves that character is more powerful than hopelessness and despair, and through that character, beauty and splendor survives and overcomes devastation. Its lesson for us all, the essence of The Calling, is that building something new with a purity of heart and purpose is the most sacred thing of which any of us can be a part.Give it a day or two or a week, but don’t book your return flight. You just might be changing the date if you, too, hear The Calling and never leave again.