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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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What Detroit Has That Pittsburgh Wants.

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I know, I know what could we possibly want from Detroit?  They have a 30% unemployment rate, entire neighborhoods filled with abandoned houses, and the Detroit Lions. 

But. This desperation is fostering creation, not only from the artist class that tends to gravitate toward seemingly hopeless situations (hey, cheap studio space!) but from local officials, the business community and universities which have banded together with a can-do spirit borne from the realization that there's nowhere to go but up.  'Burghers would be wise to adopt a similar "we can't wait!" attitude.

The Greening of Detroit
The Greening of Detroit is an organization that has teamed up with Michigan State, the Detroit Agriculture Network and EarthWorks Urban Farm to facilitate urban agriculture.  Created to counteract the "food desert" that city-center Detroit had become, the program currently supports 877 urban gardens manned by individuals, families or community cooperatives.  For a minimal annual buy-in ($10/families, $20/communities), farmers are provided training and materials (tools, seeds, organically-grown trans-plants) so they can grow food on their own land or on the many parcels of vacant land throughout the city (permitting arranged, though the group is not beyond guerrilla gardening). 

"Local is the new organic," enthuses Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of The Greening of Detroit.  "This movement is exploding, making it easier to raise money from corporate donors and foundations.  We might not be doing this if the auto companies were still cranking out cars, but there's a pioneering spirit now.  There's also an agricultural heritage in this state and with improved growing techniques, we can now grow 51 weeks a year.  This can change people's lives and already, it's making us all feel better." 

Tech Town
Putting people to work indoors is TechTown, a research and technology park at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit.  Acting on its plan to re-engineer Detroit's economy, this business incubator has taken $5 million in funding from ten foundations and placed roughly 40% of its bets in the hi-tech sector (alternative energy, life sciences, homeland security and advanced engineering), with the remainder going to services and lifestyle companies that are putting Detroiters back to work. 

There are over 200 companies on the TechTown campus, a 1,200-acre spread that is an amalgam of repurposed auto industry buildings.  The program provides a full spectrum of services, including funding, to these nascent ventures.  "There's a culture of innovation here," says Randal Charlton, executive director of Tech Town, "and we figure if you keep them close, they'll help others.  The plan is the cavalry ain't coming and while (Detroit) may get help from the Feds, we have to provide our own solutions.  It's time to put aside old tribalism and get to work."  Charlton hopes to have 1,200 companies up and running in the next three years and early successes include Asterand, a human tissue bank that went public in 2007 and whose shares were the top performer on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in 2008.  Hmm, if CMU could get an old plant from U.S. Steel...

M-1 Rail Project
Yet another example of the community coming together is a novel public/private partnership that's spearheading a light rail system in Detroit.  As the only major city in the U.S. without  a rapid transit system, Detroit finally approved the M-1 Rail project, only to find itself without funding.  With the facts on their side, e.g. every dollar spent on transit yields $4-8 of new development around it, city officials approached the business community and found them eager to plead their case. 

Local mega-millionaires Roger Penske (racing) and Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans) took the lead and soon brought in Mike Illich (Little Caesar's Pizza, Detroit Tigers) and Peter Karmanos (CompuWare), all of whom made personal contributions in the millions of dollars, along with the Kresge Foundation, which contributed $35 million.  The consortium raised over $100 million, which generated a match of $400 million from the Federal government.  The initial 3.4 mile line will run along Woodward Avenue, the city's grand boulevard and site of many of its cultural institutions, sports venues, the Henry Ford Hospital and Wayne State University, with planned spurs that reach the 8-mile city limit and beyond.  This approach gives me hope for rapid transit from downtown Pittsburgh to Squirrel Hill and I'm fine with plastering the names of benefactors at every T station. First stop:  Super Mario station at Consol Energy Center?

Saved by Art
Equally novel yet inspirational are the urban canvasses created by Detroit artists from the blight and desolation of their city.  This guerrilla art is at its best at The Heidelberg Project, a blocks-long installation by artist Tyree Guyton that runs primarily along Heidelberg Street, part of a once-thriving middle-class neighborhood where the artist grew up and that was home to musician Wilson Pickett, Motown founder Berry Gordy and longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas. 

Now one of the three poorest ZIP codes in the country, the project is all about healing and in the hands of Guyton, it is a colorful pastiche of found objects ("faces in the hood" painted on rusting car hoods, shopping carts perched precariously from battered tree limbs) on and around empty, dilapidated houses.  The artist's penchant for polka dots serves to illustrate that we're all shapes and colors and the poignancy of his vision attracts 275,000 visitors from a hundred countries every year.  On a more modest scale is Hamtramck Disneyland, where a visionary artist from a once-Polish enclave has plastered a series of handmade whirligigs on the roof of his house.  It's whimsical and hopeful at the same time. 

More somber in tone is Project Orange, where a group of artists has painted some of the city's most barren houses a bright orange hue as a stark reminder of work to be done.  New mayor Dave Bing is listening, selectively razing structures that will never again be useful to a city whose population has declined from two million residents to 900,000.  Many of the city's edgier artists create, and collaborate, at the Russell Industrial Center, a sprawling former auto parts plant where artists once squatted an entire floor.  Oneita Porter, principal of grrlDog Design, revels in the wall of gaslight windows that brighten her space and supports the building owners' vow to never gentrify.

The Food Scene

Flashier and far more mainstream are the celebrity chefs seizing on Detroit as the new frontier.  Iron Chef Michael Symon of Lola fame in Cleveland has opened Roast in the lobby of the Westin Book Cadillac, a hotel which has undergone a $200 million historical re-creation that is as sumptuous as Symon's food.  The "roast beast of the day" is muscular in size and pairs beautifully with many sides and there's no denying that young sommelier Joseph Allerton is the toast of the town.  Across town, chef, restauranteur and cookbook author Michael Mina has opened SaltWater and Bourbon Steak at the MGM Grand Detroit and his buzzy, beautiful rooms are equal to the food.  Down-market eats are also popular in The D as seen in Greektown and Mexicantown, ethnic neighborhoods chock-full of mom-and-pop eateries serving delectable meals (the Astoria Pastry Shop in Greektown and Panaderia La Gloria in Mexicantown are confectioners without peer).  Somewhere in the middle is Slow's Bar-B-Q, a five-year-old establishment that's already a Corktown institution thanks to heaping plates of 'cue served in a hipster-laden room.

Despite its many challenges, Detroit still glitters at night and the twinkling lights that extend across the Detroit River into Windsor, Ontario are only part of it.  All three of the city's casinos have built 400-room hotels atop their gaming halls as permitted by the state of Michigan and nowhere is the result more impressive than at the MGM Grand.  "Absolutely, the hotel has improved our bottom line," proclaims Chris McClain, Hotel Director, who is delighted that MGM has built an entirely new facility from the ground up to replace its previous casino.  "Across the street, it was a gambling hall.  Here, it's a resort with everything you need."  Could this be a winner of an idea for the Rivers Casino and a way to maximize the North Shore Connector that will soon stop at its door?

Speaking of winners, here's hoping the Penguins and Red Wings face off again next season.

Sign up to receive Pop City every Wednesday. Here are the other two cities presented in this series: Cleveland and Baltimore.

Elaine Labalme is Pop City's New Girl in Town who is in love with America's post-industrial cities. Email her about your favorites, and why.

Captions: grown in Detroit; Randal Charlton of Tech Town; view of Midtown and the Cultural District, site of the new light rail; Oneita Porter; Chef Michael Symon of Roast; martini at Bourbon Steak; Midtown

Photographs courtesy Marvin Shaouni
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