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Detroit: An American Revival, Part 1

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It’s been a week since I returned from a whirlwind weekend in Detroit. People keep stopping by my office or stopping me in the halls at works and asking, “How was Detroit?”

And I keep saying, “come in” or “do you have more than a minute? I can’t tell you about it until you do. There is so much to say.”

Sunset-at-Belle-Isle-Park
Golden light shining on Detroit once again. Photo credit: TinTin Yu. Click for a LARGER view.

The response: “About Detroit??”

Yes.

Detroit.

They haven’t seen what I saw.

A glimmer of greatness. A peek into the passion, no the groundswell, that is eloping this once downtrodden city and turning into a mecca of where-you-want-to-be.

Yes. Detroit.

Detroit is going through an amazing metamorphosis. A renaissance of sort. And thanks to people like Jeanette and Jon of Detroit Experience Factory; Natasha and Andy of Selden Standard, Megan and Leon of Salt & Cedar, I see Detroit in a whole new light.

Detroit-Whole-New-Light

I can honestly say that Detroit has never been high on my list of places to visit. Or rather anywhere on the list.

I can honestly say that I was really, really wrong.

This is the Detroit most people think of or think they know.

Fisher-Body-21-Plant-in-Detroit
Photo credit: Ray Dumas

Or this is what they remember it as.

Traffic-at-the-1960-Auto-Show-Detroit
Photo credit: John Llloyd

That Detroit is gone. And in its place is one of the most explosive places I have seen in my lifetime. And I am not the only one. People are flocking to Detroit to be a part of what is going on in this reformation, an American revival. Architects, designers, urban planners, chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs are stoking the fire that is the new Detroit.

You see? I cannot say that passing by someone in the hallway. Thank God I have this blog! It took me 349 words to say that, I haven’t even got started!

Experience Buick Project

I have to thank Buick for being the impetus for my weekend trip to the Motor City. Don’t worry, I am not going to start hawking cars. But I am participating in the #ExperienceBuick Project over the next year. A project where I will be taking a journey to learn more about what the Buick brand is and where it’s going.

Buick invited me along with about a dozen other digital influencers to Detroit. The weekend was intended for us to learn more about Detroit, to get introduced to the Buick brand and attend the 2015 NAIAS (North American International Auto Show).

So now that you get a sense of just how inspiring this weekend was, let me tell you about what I did, what I ate, what I saw and who I met.

I want to get one thing out of the way. It was cold. I was colder than I had been in a decade when Mr. Misadventures lived at the base of the Jura Mountains in France. Without the wind, the cold is bearable. It was cold and a little snowy on Sunday and Monday, so it was crisp and chilly. But Saturday. Saturday was cold because, with the wind, the chill factor was kind of crazy. Luckily we spent hardly any time outside, so it was for a few minutes at a time (or less). Even at my coldest moments I barely cared as I was so engrossed in what was going on around me.

Saturday morning I met the other peeps in my group, people I will be seeing every couple of months throughout the next year. We introduced ourselves and prepared to leave for our all-day tour with Jeanette of Detroit Experience Factory. I am not a religious person, but if I was to anoint someone the patron saint of Detroit, I am electing Jeanette. You see this smile:

Jeanette Pierce Detroit Experience Factory


It’s permanent. And her energy and enthusiasm is infectious. And she talks fast, which I love because so do I, but mainly because there is so much to say! She is so completely versed on what is going on in Detroit you can ask her anything. She knows what the latest restaurants are and keeps updating a pdf that lists hundreds of restaurants, many of which have just popped up – for instance, there were 15 openings in December and she says there are 15 more in January! This place is exploding.

There are many urban prairies, that much has been documented by the same people who only talk about the building porn, but these prairies support over 600 community gardens, a great place for chefs to do some urban foraging for their kitchens. As it is, there is such a massive variety of farms in Michigan, that eating seasonally is exciting. We had great beet salads and kale wherever we went. Who says only Californians love beets?!

College-for-Creative-Studies
Photo credit: Dig Downtown Detroit

Back to Jeanette who served as our guide for the day. We started at the Taubman Campus of the College for Creative Studies where we met up with two of Buick’s designers, Colin and Ali, both graduates of the school who also teach there. This design school is something else. People can attend from Middle School (yes, Middle School!) through Masters!

It is one of the best schools in the world for design, not only for transportation (or automotive) which of course makes sense with all of the companies that are in Detroit but also for product and clothing design. Companies like Nike and Motorola and many others either open up many studios inside the school or sponsor projects with the students and we got to see the amazing work going on there.

We also visited the auto design area where we met up with a student who had won an online competition and was designing a car for Volkswagen. Young-Joon Suh was modeling his car with clay. Clay is still an important aspect of automobile design. First, it is drawn then modeled in clay where the designer can see it in 3D and get a sense of every aspect of its shape and movement. Once complete, the student has to spend about 50-60 hours sanding it! They add primer, wait 24 hours and repeat the process, it’s incredible.

College for Creative Studies

There are a lot of cool aspects of the school we didn’t get to see as it was the weekend, but one thing I definitely want to go back to see is the elevator to the rooftop where they move cars up to so that they can be seen in 100% natural light. Plus, there’s a great view of the city! I’ll be back!

From the school, we went to check out Shinola. I had never heard of this retail brand and was impressed by their story. The founders of Shinola chose Detroit to set-up shop and create an American watch-making business where everything is made on-sight. Besides watches, they also make bikes and leather goods.

The headquarters and watch factory are inside the College for Creative Studies (CCS) on the fifth floor of the building we had visited. We visited the retail store (and coffee house) on Canfield Road.

Detroit Shinola Canfield
Photo credit: Russ

We spoke with the Bridget who leads Marketing and she told us a little more about their history and products. I fell in love with their watches and of course picked up one of their notebooks, it is just like a Moleskine, but it is American made which I really like!

Shinola-Watch

It was also fun to see San Francisco’s Dandelion chocolate in-shop as well – go SF!

Next up was Z Lot, a parking garage and art gallery. Yes, I wrote those two things side-by-side! Think about how many ugly parking garages there are in the world. Don’t they make the perfect canvas for artists? Well, that is exactly what the folks from Z Lot led by Matt Eaton and a few others did with the 10-story parking structure in midtown Detroit.

Twenty-seven artists rotate through, each with a 130-feet of space to express themselves on. We visited a couple of floors, but this is when the wind chill factor diminished my enthusiasm a bit and I only took a few shots!

z-Lot Detroit

The alley next to the parking structure had beautiful works as well.

Z-Lot-Alley


To warm ourselves up, we visited the interior of a very special building. According to Jeanette, most locals aren’t even aware of it. The Guardian skyscraper (500 Griswold Street) is located in the Financial District (which I found interesting since I work in San Francisco’s FiDi) and is a perfectly preserved example of opulence, vintage art deco and acoustic design that just quite simply stops you in your tracks. It took 7 months to make and cost 12 million dollars – hello Bay Bridge builders, what was your problem??!!

Guardian-Building
Photo credits (Upper left and right) Ken Lund and (Bottom) Jeff Dunn

There is a coffee shop and a Motor City Detroit sweets and treats shop along with a bank that is using the space of the original Union Trust bank.

Seeing Detroit in all its glory worked up a thirst so we headed to the Two James Distillery for a cocktail and tasting of their spirits. Being so close to the Canadian border, Detroit has a long history with alcohol that stems back from the Prohibition. Several distilleries have opened up recently and are making small batch whiskeys, bourbons and vodkas. The great thing about it is that folks like the Two James team are leveraging that history in their naming and labeling. And wow, is it good tasting stuff!

Being a lightweight, I knew I could only have one drink so I studied the menu extensively and finally settled on the “24 hours from Tulsa” with Rye dog whiskey, ginger syrup, fresh lemon and orange blossom water. We were invited back into the distillery where we learned about the distilling process and tasted several of their offerings, ending with an yet-to-be-released Absinthe that was delicious.

I set my glass on one of their aging barrels and noticed that it was from Madeira, which is the island in Portugal where my grandfather immigrated to America from!

Two-James-24-Hours-in-Tulsa


Bellies properly warmed up, it was time for an evening meal at the brand new Selden Standard. Opened for only two months, there was already a two and one-half hour wait to get in. Thankfully as a group we utilized the private dining room and enjoyed a wonderful communal meal of seasonal foods prepared by chef Andy Hollyday. Andy, who formerly worked for Michael Symon, is inspired by travels with his soon-to-be wife, Natasha.

Like this pizza oven made in the region which they spotted at a restaurant in Portland.

selden-standard-oven
Photo credit: Selden Standard

That same oven was used to prepare my favorite dish of the night, a grilled trout. I spoke with Andy and Natasha (I actually begged to go back to the kitchen as I wanted to take some food photos and it was so darn dark in the restaurant I couldn’t see anything!) and they are genuine down-to-earth food lovers who are excited to launch their new restaurant in Detroit and to support farmers from the region. Bravo!

Can’t end the evening without a nightcap! So we visited the Whitney Mansion for a drink in the Ghost Bar. The mansion is now a fine dining restaurant that also boasts a bar that is haunted. We braved the stories to enjoy a last drink before retiring for the evening.

I had spent an entire day being introduced to Detroit and I was hungry for more! I know the song is “Georgia on my mind,” but that evening as the head hit the pillow, it was literally Detroit on my mind.

Thankfully there was still DAY TWO to come!

How about you? Have you been to Detroit before? What were your impressions? If not, have I inspired you to think about visiting Detroit? Do tell!

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