How to Jump Start an Economy: Detroit

September 8, 2016

I’m not telling you, I’m asking.


Arriving in Detroit around 3pm on the long weekend Saturday was the strangest arrival in a city I’ve ever experienced. Detroit, a city world renowned for such rich and inspiring musical history, deep cultural roots and stories, such as those that stemmed from the underground railroad, the ’67 riots and rise and fall of the “motor city”.  A city that made music and economic dreams come true. So why when we arrived in prime time afternoon hours, not a single soul walked the streets? Very few cars passed after exiting the I-75, and almost every door was bolted shut accompanied by a classic broken window along Rosa Parks and across West Lafayette Blvd. Yet, the mystery behind each door and around every corner is what drew me to the city in the first place and what made it still seem so alive. The ghost town of a city is so filled with picturesque streets and laneways that you could close your eyes and fully envision exactly what cool cat or musical genius may have been walking along just there 60 years ago. 



Our hotel was located in Corktown, one of the cities oldest neighbourhoods, and now one of the most hip. Trumball and Porter gets its edgy name from the two streets it sits on the edge of - see what I did there? Its modern and industrial feel, with concrete floors, Native-inspired carpets, cozy blankets, and simple and clean branding, really sets it apart from most U.S. boutique hotels that go for the more sophisticated and classic look. The rooms are clean and cozy, even with the industrial feel, and the lounge area near the front reception is the only hotel lounge I've ever hung out in. Herag and I enjoyed reading "Detroit: While I Was Away", by well known Detroit poet David Blair, which is written on the left wall when you walk in, while taking in the smooth sounds of Jazz and sipping back some Fat Tire Amber Ale's. 


After a well-deserved nap due to the 4 and half hour drive, we hit up Green Dot Stables, a restaurant and pub down the street. Our 5-minute walk there included scenic views and sounds of tumbleweeds and some interesting chirping bugs high in the trees. The crowd in the bar was a whole different story! The place was packed as if it was the only place to go. The barn-styled pub, equipped with a serious outdoor seating area, serves up $4 sliders on fluffy dinner rolls and local brews such as the creamy Motor City Nut Brown Ale. We tried a few different sliders, and their addictive truffle and herb fries, but the winner was definitely the black bean slider with avocado sour cream and sliced tomato – delicious! Although we did stay a while trying out different local brews, we were home quite early as season two of Narcos came out last Friday….


Sunday was a full day of exploring. Breakfast was spent at Bobcat Bonnie’s up on Michigan, a few blocks up from our hotel - I really only recommend it if you're in the mood for a Bloody Mary or Mimosa in the morning, as they have a make your own bar setup as early as 10am(!!). Our first stop was the Heidelberg Project, an art installation on Heidelberg Street in a residential area outside of the city. The Alice in Wonderland-like outdoor exhibit is free to walk through, although hustlers do stand around asking for donations.


The houses brightly decorated with polka dots and clocks are still inhabited, with yards filled with estranged doll heads and toy cars and strollers. I couldn't help but think of it as a metaphor for what a waste land such an iconic and abandoned city Detroit has turned out to be. No matter how many people try to paint over the problem, it's definitely a paint by numbers, in need of direction, investment and patience. The entire experience was a rollercoaster of feeling, with a lot of eerie spine chilling waves thanks to the burned down homes filled with headless and naked dolls, as well as the collection of weird melted, Salvador Dali-like clocks all pointed to 4:50pm. The installation is available to visit 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I'm so curious to how creepy it must be around midnight or on Halloween! 


On the way back downtown, we stopped over at Eastern Market for their weekend market filled with local artisans, artists and foods. I was super excited when I saw a little crowd, something we had yet to see in the city, and rushed into the market to scope it out. The space wasn't even a quarter full, it was shocking. All these amazing, innovative and young entrepreneurs with no buyers. Well, except me, $60 later. I was so inspired by the positivity in the air, hugging these hopeful artisans awaiting a sale, but with a small crowd and a diminishing population, how exactly do they plan on keeping small business alive? Even many of the shops along Riopelle St. were quite broken down with old, rusted lease signs hanging over them. And the only shops that were open as we drove through the city were liquor and lotto shops, almost everything else was shut down, and most likely had been for years.


Our history portion of the day was spent at the DIA - Detroit Institute of Art, and my favourite, the Detroit Historical Museum! A free museum filled with all the historical goodness, with a lower level designed as Detroit back 60-odd years ago, which I was all about. A historical fact that hit me quite hard (since I actually had no idea), was the fact that Detroit was a major hub and end point for those crossing the Underground Railroad. Most slaves would take this journey in hopes of finding opportunity in Detroit or crossing over to Canada for freedom. I was also so shocked to find out that some of the places we'd passed and visited throughout the day were major hubs for helping slaves before crossing the Detroit River.


Later the evening, while looking for a recommended pizza place, we ended up on 8 Mile Road and were speechless by the poverty and oppression so clearly evident along this major street. Becoming quite lost, we turned back as safety was definitely a concern, as more and more people started to turn they head as they drove past my white Mini Cooper with an Ontario license plate. I was almost ashamed to be showing off such a nice, new car along a street inhabited by many who couldn't afford to even take the bus and were walking home with kids and bags strapped to their backs and arms. My head was just spinning with "what if's", "hows" and "why's" as we turned back towards Corktown.


Dinner was spent at the most incredible little Italian spot, Ottava Via, along Michigan Ave. The rustic restaurant was accompanied by a massive patio with adorable, old school iron patio chairs, wooden tables, string lights and an extremely large and super random Bocce Ball square located at the far back of the patio. We shared a Margherita Pizza, delicious Penne Arrabiata, seriously fresh Caprese Salad - accompanied by a glass of refreshing and bubbly Prosecco - and a serious Tiramisu Cheesecake that my taste buds are still craving. The streets were once again very quiet for a Sunday night on the long weekend, as you can see in the photo on the left, taken as we exited the patio.


I spent a lot of the trip trying to pinpoint how exactly the city's community is treading the deep waters that Detroit is quickly sinking in to. With mega casinos in place, and too many liquor and lotto shops to count, where should the real investments be going? Tourism? Small business? Youth? Abandoned neighbourhoods, worthless land, a diminishing population, and oppression so overwhelming you can feel the tension on your shoulders, is what the city has become and it hasn't looked back in a while. So much talent, inspiration and innovation has come from within the city's borders - the United Way was even started in Detroit - yet charitable demands have gone beyond supply and the line-ups outside the Salvation Army are longer than those of your average pub or club on a Saturday night. 


My opinion is tourism and small business, two tools that will in turn invest in the immediate and long-term future of the city, but small investments need to be made. To bring tourism, you need to have excitement, liveliness and entertainment outside of the casino walls to put money into the economy, and small business needs financial and resource support. So how we do start it? Ahem, how do they start it? To make a sustainable economy, it needs to be created and implemented from within. But hope is minimal, pride is absent, and drugs, alcohol and gambling are all that is left to keep the spark in its citizens alive.


So...what now?




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Sunshine & Raine is a digital marketing and sustainability consulting platform for brands in the global social impact space.
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