Think You Know Detroit? Think Again…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt wasn’t until I read the eye opening article in Food and Wine magazine about the culinary culture shift in Detroit and the number of full of flavor cafes and restaurants popping up in Detroit’s southwest side. As I thumbed through the 3-page piece I started to undergo a sense of enthusiasm and wanderlust. As a quasi native of Detroit (I grew up North of Detroit and lived in Detroit Metro for a brief time in the mid 2000’s) this article came as an amiable disclosure. I read about this extraordinary coffeehouse called Astro Coffee, an incredible BBQ joint called Slow’s Barbecue and a savvy cocktail bar who makes their own bitters called Sugar House, my curiosity was unquestionably peaked. Was this a shifting deluge for the Detroit we have all written off and considered befallen to ashes and dust with no resurgence in sight? Yup, you betcha!

After reading the article I began a mad mission to comprehend more about this urban resuscitation in the country’s most economically distraught city. I started to ascertain what others were saying about this revival to be true, Fast Company Magazine wrote an extraordinary article about Detroit echoing these same sentiments, then it was National Geographic’s Travel magazine’s article, a segment on NPR singing the same song, “Detroit is the next big boom-town and tech start up city”. Being the curious individual I am, I had to see this all for myself and come to my own conclusions. So headed home to Detroit, to see my family and allotted myself 3 days in Detroit.

My younger brother bought a house in the exceptionally sought after and now up and coming progressive Detroit neighborhood of Ferndale. Ferndale nestles neatly on the 9 mile and Woodward Avenue corridor. It is chock full of cafe’s, bars and boutiques, it is also considered Detroit’s gay neighborhood, unlike the Castro in San Francisco it definitely has more of a neighborhood charm and buzz unlike its condition 10 years ago. It has developed into something Royal Oak was only capable of accomplishing. The restaurants have certainly upped their ante to 4 star qualities with culinary genius and creativity. Considering its close proximity to 8 mile, the Ferndale neighborhood is humming with creative buzz with its cleanliness, renovated neighborhoods with reconditioned bungalows, donning crisp green lawns, with sheltering mighty great oaks peppering their landscape. My brother bought his house right before the financial crisis in 2008 for $42,000. He chose wisely as the current market has risen enormously in his favor. These are things you are not reading about in your Wall Street Journal’s and New York Times. This is the real Detroit, the one that is emergent and becoming a viable, habitable city once again.

After exploring Ferndale, I headed into downtown Detroit to capture some urban renewal photography. Mind you, it has only been a couple of years since I’ve been in downtown Detroit, as I am frequent lover and supporter of this misrepresented city (my favorite haunts: Magic Stick, DIA, Greektown’s, MotorLounge, Pegasus’ Tavern, St. Andrew’s Hall, City Club & DEMF).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI exited off I-75 onto Warren Ave. drove past the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art) and hooked a left onto Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s “main drag”; as I am driving I noticed people on the streets, walking, on bicycles, there are cafe’s, coffeehouses, bars lining the avenue, the shiny new Whole Foods with a gleaming Starbucks beacon directly adjacent to it. As I crossed into the threshold of downtown closing in on Comerica Park on my left and the Fox Theater on my right I couldn’t believe my own eyes as I was stunned by the dramatic physical transformation of the city; the trash-less, vagrant-less streets, refreshed boulevards, flower boxes, green space, clean parks, a City Square with an active fountain and outdoor performing arts stage, people walking on the street, sitting on park benches, riding bikes. Where there were once vacant skyscrapers, there are now gleaming restaurants, such as the 5 star Westin and it’s 5 star restaurant Roast accompanying it beautifully. A handsome

City Center Ernst and Young

City Center Ernst and Young

Ernst and Young modern glass building dons the city center with a pinnacle Hard Rock Cafe, city center fountain with flowers and green space, a well manicured park across the street coupled with the beacon of corporate hope, the Quicken Loans building which has recently taken up headquarters in the downtown Detroit and at the 1001 Woodward Avenue building a striking example of change, a sign that assert “Outsource To Detroit”! I turn right onto Michigan Avenue and head toward Corktown,Detroit’s Oldest Neighborhood home of the original Detroit Tigers Stadium (now reduced to rubble) and the oldest neighborhood in Detroit (est. 1834).

The boulevard is clean, trash less (unlike it’s state 4 years ago), I see Astro Coffee, Slow’s BBQ and of course one of my favorite Detroit icons, the vacant Central Station Train Station and Hotel, an architectural masterpiece

Central Station, Detroit

Central Station, Detroit

and also the center of the hotly debated topic of removal for years. I drove into the neighborhood of Corktown, feasting my eyes on clean neighborhoods and beautiful graffiti art and an artist painted building sign that says “Welcome to Corktown!”

This is not the Detroit I grew up in, and it most certainly is not the Detroit that is being nationally depicted. This is the NEW Detroit. This is far from anything that is being proclaimed in all of the downbeat media surrounding Detroit. However, the Fast Company, Food and Wine and NPR articles were all correct in their appraisal of Detroit, as it is clearly undergoing an impressive metamorphosis that needs to be shown to the world .

After snapping various pics of Corktown and the iconic train station, I opt to head to Brush Park, which at one time was one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Detroit, and became a ghost town over night following the 1967 riots. Since, Brush Park has been an iconic run down dangerous area, with vacant and abandoned brownstones taken over by vagrants and squatters. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver time, gradually, the city has removed some of the broken down homes which has now opened up the opportunity for more green space and city lots for re-purposing and rebuilding. As I pulled onto Brush Street I saws something beyond belief, life. Someone was actually mowing their grass and the homes that are remaining were stunning, renovated back to their original state, complete with crisp manicured lawns, flowers coupled with restored original

Brush Park 2013

Brush Park 2013

coach houses and wrought iron fencing. This is the Detroit many do not get to see nor know exists, but I’ve seen it at its absolute worst and now during its renaissance. The proximity to downtown is marvelous because you can literally see Comerica Park and the Towering Renaissance Center towers. Just when I didn’t think it could get better I decide to peruse Cass St., the main drag of Wayne State University – Cass is on block west of Woodward Avenue. This neighborhood has always been suspect for years and not a place a young female photographer should be flashing her expensive camera. Cass Street was striking, amazingly well groomed and updated. Restaurants, pubs,

Cass St.

Cass St.

bakeries and cafes lined the street. Renovated brownstone apartment buildings gleamed, as did the neighborhoods they sit in. I pulled into a bakery off of Cass St. to chat with some locals. ON this street there was a bakery, dry cleaners and hair boutique as well as a newly built loft apartment building with brownstone apartment buildings being renovated across the street. I sat with one of the locals briefly and asked if he lived in the neighborhood as I imagined he did with his Detroit Tigers T-shirt and very large German Sheppard at his side. He said “yes I live in these lofts right here, my partner and I moved here 3 years ago wanting to be a part of this movement” I asked him about the cleanliness and lack of vagrancy in the city and how this was happening given the financial state of the city he said “the city has nothing to do with this, we the people of this movement are creating neighbor associations and cleaning up the city, making it livable again. When we have an issue with something that might involve the police we call Wayne State University Police Department who usually respond within 2-3 minutes; but we usually do not have many problems that warrant the police, they are few and far between.” He directed me to check out the Canfield Historical Home District just a block over and Mario’s Italian Restaurant, both Icons of Detroit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I drove to 2nd St. to check out Mario’s, I never even noticed this before it had been here since 1948 and as I drove through the historical district of West Canfield(Detroit’s first official historical district) the cobble stoned street led me to a beautifully unimaginable gem, reconditioned brownstone mansions, with once again, clean manicured green lawns, renovated coach houses with 100 year old oak trees lining the yards and streets, I felt as if I had stepped back into to time. It was a site, one that most will never see even Detroit natives, had someone not told them about it, it was a side of Detroit I had never experienced.

West Canfield Historical District

West Canfield Historical District

When I left Detroit I felt a sense of purpose as an entrepreneur. I began to feel like I wanted to be a part of this infectious movement, a movement that is being defined by the people of the city of Detroit, the people that are literally moving there to help rebuild this once incredible city. It is exciting to see Detroit progress into this urban revival that cannot only be defined by what is going on but more by what has already been set into motion, change, BIG change. When you hear about companies like Quicken Loans moving their offices to Detroit, you can’t believe it until you see why. “If you build it they will come”, and let me tell you, they are coming and they are coming from everywhere!

Le Nouveau Detroit is coming!

Oh Austin Where Art Though?

I moved to Austin, TX in 1998 during one of the hottest summers on record, and of course to melt the ice cream even further I moved in August, the hottest time of the year. When I moved here, Ricky Williams, Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey were “the” celebrities most associated with Austin. UT football was at it’s pinnacle with a Heisman Contender (Williams), Texas A&M/UT Football game was still the prime game of the season, A&M still built their time-honored bizarre bonfire the night before the rivalry game, Ruta Maya was still situated where Halcyon resides today (Lavaca/4th), Liberty Lunch was in full affect still attracting some of the biggest music acts at its historical site, the tallest structure downtown – One Capital Plaza towering at 32 stories did not obscure the view of  Texas’ favorite historical landmark the state’s capital, George W. Bush was Governor, UT campus particularly the stadium was still a true horseshoe,  there was sufficient parking accessible on campus, and UT was 6 buildings less than they have now, the UT Tower where one of the most infamous earliest school shooting rampages took place in 1966 still had its observation deck closed, only to be re-opened in 2000 after a 23 year stint because a series of suicides. Austin for the most part was way under 700,000 people, if you crossed the river you either lived in North or South Austin, traffic was minimal, the music scene was growing and intact, there was no ACL yet and SXSW was a small music/film conference. The best part of Austin for many people that live here is the fact that it is the least Texas City in Texas, it’s Southern California weather, and it’s unassuming cultural nature. It is a liberal oasis upon itself and one thing is parallel, Austinites wouldn’t have it any other way that is until the hipsters showed up.

Slowly we’ve seen the California/Austin merge as this has been occurring for almost 20 years now. Austin has become the mini silicon valley for Californians where housing was insanely cheap, land was accessible and opportunity to build a tech business was promising and tax compensated. I’ve observed the Austin urban evolution with my own two eyes, and it has been abysmal and stirring in so many dissimilar ways.

When I moved here in 1998 I lived in east campus on Dean Keaton (26th st.) and Medical Arts – I split the rent with my roommate, $800/month all bills paid, cable included and that was at the loftiness of Austin’s real estate boom. A year later I moved to the “original” South Austin (78704 zip code) which was still affordable back then and paid about the same rent minus all bills paid. Today that same apartment rents for $1500 a month and Caroline the property manger still lives and works on the premises. Back then that section of South Austin was a little dodgy but we didn’t care, we just wanted to listen to music, live close to the action, drink cold beer, hang out at the G&S Lounge at Oltorf and S.1st and drink $2 imports, cash only of course. I became good friends with a South Austin icon, Jimmy who owned the G&S Lounge, known as the Beer Nazi, if he didn’t like the way you looked he’d kick you out of his joint, you never saw a fight and you played by Jimmy’s rules.  I remember one time in particular he kicked out one of my good friends just because he said he didn’t like the way he talked, that’s just Jimmy. After moving to South Austin, I finally discovered my niche in the city. From there I lived in several location in South Austin, off of Brodie before it had it’s boom, S. 1st. before it was cool to live on S. 1st., Mopac West before it became Westlake luxurious and then after all was said and done I moved back to east campus. In 2001 it was still economical to live on campus, (Duval and 32nd) my apartment was $500 month all bills paid. I could ride my bike to Spiderhouse Coffee House Cafe when they just served coffee and beer and had a small funky patio with old lawn furniture and mis-matched tables and chairs. There was no table service you had to walk up and get your own drinks inside by the tattooed and very unfriendly wait staff. And when I was hungry or hungover I could walk down to Crown & Anchor and get a cheap and damn good burger/fries and a Live Oak Heffe for under $5. And it is still damn good and it is the only establishment that hasn’t completely sold themselves out to the hipster movement, nothing has changed about that place, nothing at all. For breakfast or late night eats I could roll over to 32nd and IH-35 and get some Eggs Rancheros or Black Bean Tacos at Star Seeds Café, a grungy, dingy eatery where the Sex Pistols would be blaring at 9 am on a Sunday morning, wait staff could very well have spit in your food and the bathrooms had a warning sign above the toilets “sit on the toilet seat, crabs jump 8 ft” brilliant – but the patrons didn’t care and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Star Seeds still has a mild seedy charm, but the walls are painted, the bathrooms are clean and the wait staff is still horrible but the food has remained just as good as the first time. If I was wanting to have a nice meal I could cruise on over to the East Side Cafe, which during that time was in a very shady part of town, unlike its gentrified state now but had great food, fresh ingredients and awesome service.  Mi Madre’s, still my favorite Tex-Mex Restaurant is still across the street lapping up all the hipster/yuppie dollars that roll in on those over packed Saturday mornings.

On those searing summer days, I would frequent and still frequent the “caught in a time warp” Barton Springs Pool, which hasn’t changed much neither nor has its prices. Back in the day I used to pay $2 admittance, now it’s $3, well worth every penny. You can catch sight of the city skyline and still enjoy the way Austin was/is and always will be in this little piece of organic spring fed heaven in the middle of the city.

It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago for a couple of years that made me realize, how much Austin lacked that deep cultural experience, museums, fine dining, shopping, professional sports, large music events…lesson learned, be careful what you ask for, culture we wanted, culture we got, along with overpriced high rise condos that re-invented the Austin skyline and blocked the state’s favorite monument, flamboyant restaurants, gaudy yogurt shops, fashionable clothing stores, lavish shopping malls, fancy cupcake bakeries, copious contemptible food trailers, excessive population, excessive traffic, a pathetic and vile effort at public transportation, despotic high end music venues, overpriced-overcrowded music festivals, an over-priced-over the top F1 event and an enormous nest of trust fund hipsters donning overly skinny designer jeans, fake Ray Bans sipping on $6 extra dry cappuccino’s while taking over the city I once knew and turning it into Williamsturd.

I sound bitter, it’s the cynic in me but I can’t help remembering back in the day listening to the old school Austinites natter about the yuppies moving into town and taking over their little slice of hippy heaven, I guess I’m the same way. I love my city and remember it a certain way, change is inevitable but that doesn’t mean I have to like all of it.

I had been living in South Austin for 12 years before I decided to fall in love with a North Austinite and moved North of the river in 2010 while the Austin I once knew began it’s dramatic urban transformation. Quite honestly I now realize living North, there is something to be said for having a place in the city where there are actual trees in your backyard, down to earth middle class neighbors, access to a greenbelt park right next to my house where we know every person and dog by name and a place in the city that has already experienced its boom. It’s quiet up here and when we do get the urge to drive downtown, we do it and without hesitation because we are Austin and there is nothing wrong with change and culture shifts, you just have to embrace it and enjoy the voyage even if it isn’t the variation you had hoped for. I will always have my memoirs of the way Austin used to be, and I will always feel like that modest 22-year-old wide-eye punk rock girl from the Midwest that took on the Live Music Capital city in Texas and won. Heck, It’s where I began to subsist and experience my life passage and quite frankly I can’t reasonably fathom being anywhere else, hipster haven or not, this is my home, this is my island, this is MY oasis….