Last week, with downtown Detroit in a frenzy of primping for the world's latest passing of judgment, I decided to look beyond the heart of the city and bypass the arteries of freeway that, for many of us, are as close as we get to a city we think we know because we used to live there or had a bad experience with it or heard how bad it was from someone else or the news. These are places beyond the restaurants, bars and clubs, the cultural touchstones we are showing to the world.
These places are the neighborhoods. Neighborhoods such as the block of West Willis on which Avalon International Breads sits, alive with caffeinated voices and somewhat redolent of yeast and sugar. It's a place where, most days, I'd prefer to sit for a couple of hours.
Instead, I spent those first couple of hours in the passenger's seat as Colin Hubbell, manager of The Hubbell Group
, drove a carload of us on what soon felt like the developer's version of an archeological dig through Midtown, Brush Park and Eastern Market, ending with a dart up and back through the east side along Lafayette.
Spend a few minutes listening to Hubbell, and you start to wonder whether the hardest part about a Detroit revival is recognizing it. I mean, you can tell when a suburb is booming. More and bigger houses.
But in Midtown, you need to learn how to look at a building. Plywood over a window doesn't necessarily mean "We give up." It can mean, "We aren't done yet." Exposed brick isn't necessarily all that's left. It's where it's beginning.
Yes, lofts are everywhere. We
did an entire package of stories about it last year in Crain's Detroit Business. If, in fact, a Detroit renaissance is fully realized, an entrepreneur might wish to start a business specializing in changing light bulbs and fixtures on high ceilings.
"Everything is eventually going to become something" in Midtown, Hubbell says.
He singles out the impact of Wayne State University and the efforts of its president, Irvin Reid, to embrace the community around the school. Through its work in Midtown, Wayne "can be a part of the solution to so many of Detroit's and the state's ills," Hubbell says.Piece by piece
As is the case with many parts of the city but Midtown in particular, renewal comes in one piece, two pieces. A pocket of new housing. A quilt of construction.
The typical buyer is not easily defined. Hubbell says they can range from a 23-year-old starting out to a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher. Both are seeking a certain lifestyle that they think they can find only in a city.
Just as Hubbell can look at a building and tell you where it is heading, so he can look at one and tell you what it already has accomplished. One of those, United Sound Systems
, is a recording studio of such renown that the more I have read about it since my tour, the more sheepish I feel that this building was such a revelation to me.
Hubbell weaves through sections where nothing appears to be happening until you see some of the signs: Tech Town, Asterand and NextEnergy, where alternative energy is germinating. Where it could lead seems somewhat more important as we get to the corner of Cass and Burroughs, where, to the right, is the former Cadillac world headquarters a section of the city that Hubbell calls "the spine of GM" during the early 20th century.
As we head up the street into the New Center Area, the conversation detours briefly to shopping and the supposed lack of stores, especially grocery stores. Hubbell and our two companions in the back seat Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey, managing editor of Model D, and Dave Krieger, whose photos adorn Model D's site chime in with suggestions: University Foods, Farmer Jack, the niches served in Eastern Market.
At some point during the drive through the New Center Area, as I look down several blocks of tidy houses and porches, someone notes the absence of for-sale signs. It will not be the last neighborhood I see without them.
We pass the Park Shelton
, where a parking deck is coming together, and head into what Hubbell calls "the Ferry Street phenomenon." The neighborhood around the College for Creative Studies is beginning to emerge, with Peck Park
snuggled next to a parking deck. A mosaic has begun to spread along one wall of the deck.
We get out of the car for about 10 minutes to look at a couple of the units Hubbell is building in this area
. One is especially intriguing: 900 square feet for $135,000. An alternative to renting for someone new to the workforce, perhaps.
To tell you the truth, taking it all in and writing it all down is sort of a lost cause, after a while. The best I can do is grab an impression here and there. For example, if progress has graffiti, the word is "Tyvek." It is everywhere.
It seems as if Hubbell has something to say about every building we drive past. The Carlton
in Brush Park: "three-fourths sold." Occasionally, we come to a building such as the Inn at 97 Winder. It speaks for itself.
With all the land being cleared and prepared for construction, Brush Park these days looks like a stretch of prairie, dotted with a surviving Victorian home here and there.
Progress is piecemeal. Rehab next to a group home next to a former crackhouse. It's not always pretty. It probably never is going to be.
As we depart Brush Park, we encounter the demolition of the old Motown Records headquarters on Woodward. For much of his travelogue, Hubbell has lamented the loss of so many historic and architecturally significant buildings. Not this one. He calls it "a glaring symbol of the inability to get something done."Making the city work
We left and right our way into Eastern Market, whose neighbors include my office. We come here often, particularly for lunch at Russell Street. Since my wife showed me the back roads of the market that lead to the entrance ramp of I-75, I've been thinking that I generally know the market. Two minutes with my companions, and I am back to rube. I hear stories of a burgeoning nightlife and galleries hidden in the back streets of the market. We stop at Cost Plus Wine,
where I am introduced to Tim McCarthy. And suddenly, I'm feeling guilty about getting out of there one time with an entire case of wine for less than $100.
Outside Cost Plus, Dave Krieger talks about how residents make the city work for them. One person learns about a store and connects with another and so on. Networking for urban life.
As we pass my office in Brewery Park, Colin and Dave talk about the old Atlas Furniture Building along Gratiot. It looks empty. They say it isn't. And in one of the truly embarrassing moments of this tour and there were many, unfortunately I learn that this dump of a storefront is where techno music icon Derrick May
works. I know just enough about techno music in general and Derrick May in particular to know that I am on the cutting edge of the 20th century.
We head east on Lafayette past the condominiums and apartments of Elmwood Park. At the start of our tour, Colin Hubbell talked about showing me the good, the bad and the ugly of Detroit neighborhoods.
"Let's do some ugly," he says, turning left.
I'm familiar with a lot of this ugly. Every morning, my drive to work dissects the East Side along Charlevoix. I see many abandoned buildings and empty lots and the urban riprap that makes large stretches of the east side look as if a lake dried up there.
But here's the thing about the East Side and it illustrates the challenge to reading a neighborhood. You can cruise a couple of blocks of empty, unmowed lots, dumping grounds, a home or two that's maybe a strong wind away from being kindling and think, "That's all she wrote."
Then you turn a corner onto a block with a loft building, a cluster of new homes, a restaurant like the Harlequin Café at Agnes and Parker.
And the next thing you know, you're caught up in a travelogue and a celebrity-home tour cutting through the shaded lanes of Indian Village and East Village. Carmen Harlan lives here. Jack White there. Meg is in that yellow home there. Professionals and rock 'n' rollers. And you remember Van Dyke Place?
And on a vacant lot, someone has planted pieces of iron fence that advertise a coming attraction: three bedrooms, four units. Nearby, an old school has become lofts.Energy, urgency
On the way back downtown, Colin Hubbell talks about the Super Bowl and why it is important. It gets the whole party started. The energy. The sense of urgency.
Downtown, he says, is getting back to where "it's not embarrassing to take a developer downtown."
Most important, the game is bringing thousands of volunteers downtown, people from outside the city who otherwise would not be down here. They meet the people of Detroit, build relationships. And when they return to the suburbs with those new relationships, maybe they also bring a different relationship with the city itself.
Dave Krieger and I part ways with Clare and Colin about noon and head west.
I think. When freeways are your reference points, driving in the city itself can be a bit disorienting.
Dave, I have learned, is another in a seemingly endless supply of people whose embrace of Detroit is such that he seems to read the history of the city in the layers of the soil. It stands to reason that a photographer would have a photographic memory.
Before lunch, we drive the gallery area along Grand River, including the 4731 Gallery. We make our way toward Corktown past Habitat for Humanity houses. And suddenly, where did these come from? "Pocket parks," they are called. Small squares of grass with a piece of art. Your neighbor is a lawn ornament.
Corktown on its own is a column, even if you don't write about St. Patrick's Day. Find Leverette Street and drive it. Tiger Stadium was supposed to kill Corktown. Find out why it didn't, then repeat that in 100 other sections of the city.
Next it's over to Southwest Detroit, behind the Michigan Central Depot, and past St. Anne's Gate townhouses and the Honey Bee market. I've been to Mexicantown for a lunch or two. But Dave talks about the community beyond the palates of the tourists. Vernor Avenue at night, he says, can resemble Royal Oak.
Southwest Detroit is the gateway to the city, the one place where people new Americans are giving Detroit a chance.
Next thing I know, Dave is driving up and down the streets of Boston-Edison, which is fraying in spots. Then he's pointing out the Kresge mansion. It's astonishing how, when you think all you'll see is blight, you come across these stately homes that look as if maybe Dr. Frankenstein created his monster inside.
Boston Avenue between Third and Woodward is one of the best streets in Detroit, Dave says. And as I have said, Dave is not at a loss for information.
After lunch at La Dolce Vita on Woodward Avenue, we wind our way along the spine of Palmer Park and into Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forrest and Balmoral.
Palmer Woods has always cracked me up because of the white stones that line both sides of the winding streets. It looks like a big luminaria display out of "The Flintstones."
Dave also shows me his old newspaper route. And on the trip along West Outer Drive to Rosedale Park and Grandmont, I hear about the strategically placed Dairy Queens of his youth. And on our way to the University District, he points out the spot where the Detroit Lions won their first National Football League championship in 1935. Please tell me Grant's tomb isn't up the street from Benedictine.
Then we head back along Grand River, past strip malls like you see in the suburbs. And then, after six hours, we are done. I have 24 pages of notes, and between my ears I hear one big test pattern. Where to begin?'Not done yet'
Maybe it's better to just get to the ending, which is what all this means. Obviously, the city has problems. The threat of receivership. The perception that services stink and the many examples that support that. Crime. And race. God, yes, race.
Many people ask whether Detroit will come back. After having seen so much of the city, I find myself asking, "If it is coming back, what will it look like? How will we know? Is, in fact, it happening now, only we're not looking or don't know how to look or what to look at?"
That question has arisen on those mornings when my run takes me along Alter Road, the border between Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit and arguably the most stark juxtaposition between city and suburb anywhere in the world. I think about it whenever I drive along Mack Avenue and see all the dead storefronts. But then one day, a gas station is thriving at the corner of Alter. And then the next week, someone has opened a pizzeria in a building that's looked like a bunker for the past couple of years.
Clearly, if Detroit has a motto, it could be "A city not done yet."
This week, most of us are hoping that thousands of people from other places choose to see the good in Detroit. But what about us?
Have you given up on Detroit? I can tell you that on many blocks, on porches where you can see the worst of the city, Detroit has not given up.
The old, empty building has become something of a symbol of the city. And so at the end of six hours of touring, my mind returns to an old building that to most people would look like just another tired pile of bricks that the 21st century left behind. Except that this building is on Piquette Avenue. And inside they made Model T's like crazy and made them so that average people could afford them and create the major economic and social forces of the country. The birthplace of the last century, I would argue.
I, too, think about the thousands of people who are visiting the Motor City this week and what they will see and what they will think of the old buildings. If only the world knew what went on inside this city and its neighbors and what goes on today. Yes, if only they knew.
If only we knew.
Bob Allen is Web general manager and a columnist for Crain's Detroit Business. His Business Casual column appears weekdays.
55 Canfield Loft Project in MidtownCarlton Loft Interior in Brush ParkA typical street in New CenterArt Center Townhouse Interior in MidtownCrosswinds Development in Brush ParkIndian VillageFish Sculpture by Tom Rudd in a North Corktown pocket parkBoston Edison MansionA typical street in University CommonsThe original Ford Model T Plant on Piquette in New Center
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger