Tough, Cheap, and Real,
Detroit Is Cool Again
With the nation’s biggest urban bankruptcy in the rearview mirror, the Motor City is attracting investors, innovators, and young adventurers.
In the heart of Detroit, America’s poorest big city, Anthony Hatinger is planting seeds in a reclaimed liquor store, a squat building repainted in Disney colors: supersize white fish swimming through happy green reeds in deep blue water.
Wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and a gray knit cap, bathed in the glow of greenhouse lights, he holds a pen cap, maneuvering its pointy end to scoop three tiny basil seeds from his palm. He drops them onto moist, cakey plugs of soil—“brownie bites,” he calls them—as he works to give them the potential to sprout.
The sweet Italian basil will grow alongside a variety of lettuces. Downstairs, where liquor was once stored, thousands of baby tilapia swim in vats. Their waste, pumped upstairs, feeds the greens, which absorb the nutrients. The water, thus filtered, flows back down to float the fish. The cycle continues.
Once, Kory’s Market was a fixture in this north-central neighborhood, five miles from downtown and not yet on the go-to map in a long-derided city that improbably finds itself cool. Tough, real, and cheap, Detroit, with the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy behind it, is suddenly attractive to investors, innovators, and would-be fixers, especially young adventurers.
Hatinger, who’s 25 and has a black mother and a white father, is a quiet part of that change. A newcomer from central Michigan with a degree in religious studies and a minor in horticulture, he is thrilled to be working for a Christian community development agency helping to change Detroit from the ground up. The fish and greens feed customers at busy new eateries as well as low-income, longtime residents at local markets.
On the day Hatinger was in Detroit to interview for what sounded like a dream job, a gunman took a family hostage in the neighborhood. “We have a shooter on the roof!” he heard on his cabbie’s radio. He wasn’t deterred.
Every day he walks or cycles past decay and rebirth: homes collapsing, homes being rebuilt, and empty lots where homes have been carted away. “Detroit has taught me a lot about the spirit, about perseverance,” he says. “It’s incredible to hear some of the stories of people who’ve continued to try to make it work. The heart is so present here. This is the place to be. There’s tremendous need, and tremendous opportunity, in land, in structures, and in spirits—a lot of opportunity to transform.”
LET ME INTRODUCE YOU to a few Detroiters I encountered when I returned to the city where I was born and worked for 25 years. After we moved away, for several years we kept a small condo there, overlooking the Detroit River. In the same way you never forget your mother, your heart never leaves your hometown.
I did not seek out Mike Duggan, the energetic new mayor and the first white one in four decades in the largely black city. Or the leaders of businesses and foundations that donated hundreds of millions to help free Detroit from bankruptcy. Or multibillionaire Dan Gilbert, Detroit’s sugar daddy, who founded Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest online mortgage lender. Gilbert moved Quicken to his hometown, bought more than 70 properties (mostly downtown and ripe for rehab), seeded dozens of start-ups, and employs an estimated 12,500 people.
My curiosity was not about the mighty directors of this unfolding drama but the small players who are creating a new city out of what was long dismissed as a wasteland. Some moved in with solid plans; some nurse airy dreams; some subsist on fortitude. Others pray that their candles, so far from the changes, might somehow catch a spark. Detroit’s decay is now its engine: Nowhere else in urban America can you do so much with so little money.
The new Detroit shines downtown. Nearby areas like Corktown and Midtown radiate energy. But around this incandescence skulks the old Detroit, acres of decay and ruin, prairies where the remaining houses stand aloof from each other. The plants that made the vehicles that built this town shed chunks of graffitied concrete. Glass is gone from a million windows, like eyes absent from faces.
I ricocheted from high hopes to despair. But the Detroiters I met, almost to a one, have faith in even an uncertain future. Indeed it’s what defines them. Those who couldn’t summon hope left long ago, if they could.
IT’S POSSIBLE TO DRIVE to downtown Detroit without confronting the still crippled Detroit. The city’s freeways are sunken, hiding its plight, the departure of more than half its peak population. Robert Hake did just that for months after he moved his growing custom sportswear company from the suburbs to the city’s Corktown neighborhood. Called MyLocker.net, it can ship a hundred hoodies for your family reunion in days. “My decision had nothing to do with reviving Detroit,” he tells me from behind his shiny, ten-foot desk, which reflects the skyline. Instead he’d snagged a good deal—an empty auto parts factory the size of two football fields. “But,” he says, “now that I’m part of it, I’m being drawn in.”
Hake, 41, overcame what he admits were deep doubts. Detroit was called Murder City U.S.A. in the 1970s for a reason. He recalls the trepidation he felt as a suburban kid riding into the city, when his parents warned: “Roll up your windows and lock your doors.”
Excited by the city’s new effervescence, he searched Google for graffiti artists, interviewed several, hired one, and gave him a key and instructions: “Do whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.” The walls are adorned with icons of Detroit, from Faygo soda pop to boxer Joe Louis’s fist. He’s hiring locally, adding 70 Detroiters to almost double his full-time staff.
One morning Hake, who still lives in the suburbs, drove outside his comfort zone, onto streets that stretch like worn threads between the freeways. He hauled 400 colorful T-shirts designed by his staff to donate to an elementary school. On the ten-mile drive, he passed street after street of broken-down houses. At the school, though, “I found hallways full of happy, innocent, beautiful children,” he says. “It was heartbreaking to know that those children lived on those streets.”
He thought: How blind I have been. I should give a T-shirt to every kid in Detroit.
Robert Hake is emblematic of what’s happening in this once forlorn city. It is reinventing itself, building by building and idea by idea but, as important, person by person. More tangibly, freed from about $18 billion in debt, the city has money to do some of what needs to be done. It has replaced about 40,000 streetlights ruined by scrappers and time. Police response time has shrunk from almost an hour to less than 20 minutes. And roughly a hundred ramshackle homes are crushed each week.
FROM HIS STUDIO a few blocks from MyLocker, Antonio “Shades” Agee, the graffiti artist who’s painting it, isn’t surprised that Hake only recently discovered Detroit’s gloom. It’s easiest to stay on the city’s bright side.
Agee grew up in Detroit. His Hispanic mother still lives in his childhood home, now one of the few on the block, in a neighborhood he doesn’t like to visit. It’s not “the new Detroit.” Nor was Black Bottom, Detroit’s vibrant Harlem, where his father played jazz. It was bulldozed in the 1950s for redevelopment and a freeway.
At 44, he is trim from biking; he rarely drives. His right arm—“my painting arm”—is densely tattooed. From the multi-tinted panes of his loft in a former paintbrush factory, Agee has watched Corktown change. He’s a regular at the Detroit Institute of Bagels, just below his window, built for a cool half million dollars. “It still blows my mind to see a girl running down the street and she’s not being chased,” he says.
“You can’t save Detroit.
You gotta be Detroit.”
–Antonio “Shades” Agee
He’s genuine Detroit—gutsy, driven, growing up when he had to “find water in a cactus.” He says, “Detroit has originality because we don’t have any distractions.” At 15, he was drinking and drugging and tagging. Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main street, now aglitter with shops and condos, “was so dead I could paint a wall and nobody would care.” Agee transcended the streets. His clients include Reebok, Quicken, and Fiat Chrysler, and even white suburbanites: He painted a grand piano with feel-good slogans and his signature giant lips.
He knows he’s part of a now popular brand, a Detroit that’s tough, resourceful, proud. He resents that the brand has become a talisman for people who hardly know Detroit but boast its name on their shirts. “This big flourishing,” he says, “it’s great! I love it. But most people, they wanna save Detroit. You can’t save Detroit. You gotta be Detroit.”
ONCE DETROIT WAS the Paris of the Midwest, with its broad river, grand boulevards, and historically significant architecture. It became the Motor City, assembling most of the world’s automobiles, and the Arsenal of Democracy, manufacturing World War II armaments. Steady work and union wages meant an autoworker could own a home, plus a boat, maybe even a cottage. Some say America’s middle class was born in Detroit, but Motown most certainly was.
New freeways lured some Detroiters to the suburbs in the late 1950s, but devastating race riots in 1967 scared away tens of thousands, mostly white families. Detroit has been predicting rebirth ever since, starting a year later, when the Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
I remember, because I cut out articles about the riots and the baseball games, gluing them into scrapbooks. I lived in suburbia, where my parents moved in 1957 when I was three, at the edge of a slow wave that would sweep away more than half the city’s population. But my heart lived in Detroit, where Grandpa Zielinski grew roses and garlic, and Grandma walked with me to Polish bakeries for pumpernickel bread. I sang along with the Supremes. I shared my Christmas wishes with Santa at J. L. Hudson’s, a department store that filled a city block and was then the world’s tallest at 25 stories.
Rebirth looked promising again when, in the 1970s, the grandson of Henry Ford erected the majestic towers of the Renaissance Center, dubbed the RenCen. Built like a fortress, it repelled visitors. A 2.9-mile elevated People Mover, inaugurated in 1987, was going to revitalize downtown; hardly anyone rode it. Three casinos opened in 1999 and 2000; they weren’t the answer. Hosting the 2006 Super Bowl was supposed to be a tipping point. It wasn’t.
The gusts that finally collapsed the sagging city were the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, and the foreclosure crisis that began in 2008. Abandoned houses and schools attracted looters, drug dealers, and delinquents giddy for fire. What had been a tidy quilt of neighborhoods, with single-family homes and hardware stores, finally fell into scraps.
Nobody is talking about rebuilding the whole 139-square-mile city, huge enough to fit Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco. But like a fading migraine, the mood of the city has lifted. In its mere solvency, Detroit feels flush.
AT THE FAR EASTERN EDGE OF THE CITY, Alex Badasci Lindmeier, 36, owns his first home: a 90-year-old brick Tudor so near the river he can hear the moaning horns of passing freighters.
Lindmeier and his girlfriend had almost dropped $300,000 for a studio condo in her hometown of Hong Kong, then realized, “We’d spend all our money, and it wouldn’t bring us anything new or exciting.” He designs websites; she does online marketing. They can do their jobs anywhere, so began to look all over: up and down the West Coast, including his home state of California, and even in Las Vegas.
In Vegas in July 2013, on the brink of making a bid for a house, Lindmeier heard on his car radio that Detroit had filed for bankruptcy. He learned its old houses were being torn down. Within days he packed a suitcase, an ice chest, and his black lab mix, Maya, and drove across the country. From a Motel 6 he made daily excursions into the unfamiliar landscape, living off ham-and-cheese tortilla wraps.
One day he happened upon a block party in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood: people of all shades savoring a barbecue. Within weeks he started buying, and within a year, owned an abandoned house on that block, the lot next to it, four more homes, and four condos. “We’re pretty tapped out now,” he says, “at $150,000.” His $8,600 house had been abused: windows and appliances missing, wiring and pipes ripped out, oak floors sodden with trash and rotting food. Having put about $15,000 into the house, all that is behind him. He painted its plaster walls a soothing pale denim. In the yard he built raised beds and installed a beehive.
“I feel really good about this city,” he tells me over green tea, a fire warming the living room. “The people here are the roots of its potential.” What’s more, his mother will move into the house next door. A flight attendant near retirement, she bought the last rough house on the block, for $5,000. She’s eager for a grandbaby.
A FEW BLOCKS FROM where Hatinger plants seeds, Ruth Lowe can see the changes up close. On her block, every house but hers is being torn down or rehabbed. She might be 90, but she knows the exact date she moved into the sturdy brick duplex with her grandmother, mother, husband, and two children: November 22, 1957.
We sit tight together in her foyer, where she reads mail and watches TV. She apologizes for the flowered scarf she hastily threw over her hair after I knocked. When I ask how she feels about Detroit these days, she stresses each word: “I . . . am . . . overjoyed.” She jokes that her house, the nicest on the block, might soon be the shabbiest. “For too long,” she says, “nobody’s been sitting out on their porches but me.”
Once, she knew the city intimately, waiting tables at a black-owned hotel, and later selling insurance. Lowe has stayed in this house, with its oak trim and beveled glass, because it was paid for long ago and holds her family’s history. Now it shelters her unemployed grandson; one daughter comes and goes. A few months ago that daughter’s car and the replacement rental were stolen from the curb out front.
“I tell my kids, Don’t let this house down when I’m gone,” she says, because she’s confident for its future (if only she could get her sidewalk fixed). “I won’t be here to see it, but Detroit’s coming back. It’s gonna be world-class, a little New York.”
ERIKA BOYD, 41, and Kirsten Ussery-Boyd, 36, are catalyzing change in West Village, four miles from Lindmeier. Their cheery, 34-seat restaurant, Detroit Vegan Soul, was the first business in a long time on a dark, soulless street.
When the married couple became vegans, they each lost 20 pounds and decided that their city, one of the fattest in the country, could benefit too from southern-fried tofu. “Detroiters need this,” Ussery-Boyd says.
Unable to get a loan, they scraped up about $45,000 to open the restaurant, painting its walls appetizing colors of avocado, cashew, and sweet potato. It’s a family affair. Boyd’s mother trains staff and coordinates catering. Ussery-Boyd’s mother bakes vegan cakes weekly.
Within blocks now are a coffee shop, a high-end restaurant, a tea-and-tarot shop, and more. But, says Boyd, the chef, “in this whole slew of new businesses, I’m the only native Detroiter.” The women see other black Detroiters stepping up. Ussery-Boyd says, “Finally the lightbulb is going off: We shouldn’t leave. We should be part of this.”
I AM GRATEFUL TO SEE money finally flowing in to rescue my hometown. It’s mostly white money, but—despite a lingering tangle of racial and class resentments—it appears that Detroiters, down so long, mostly don’t care. Money can fertilize growth.
The young coming to Detroit, some with money, some to make it, are seeding and fertilizing too. These millennials, many from hip, pricey places, sound almost giddy to me.
A waiter from Portland, Oregon, blesses Detroit’s challenges as “part of its charm.” A newcomer from Brooklyn who converted an empty hair salon into a busy market tells me: “In Detroit, you can contribute, and your ideas are met with enthusiasm. It’s thrilling. If someone else had my life, I’d be jealous. I moved here with $500, and six months later I was the owner of a successful business.” Another refugee from Brooklyn traded a 70-hour workweek and a tiny room for part-time work and a cozy, if shabby, three-bedroom house. “Detroit offers space and time,” she says. “Here there’s maybe a chance for young people to build a middle class.”
One morning getting coffee, I learn the woman at my side is visiting from Austin. Emboldened by all that youthful excitement, I say, “You know, Detroit is the new Austin.” She replies, “That’s good, because Austin is full up. Just like Portland. And San Francisco before that.”
JOHN HANTZ MADE A FORTUNE in financial services in the suburbs. He’s a reserved fellow who, at 53, loves chopping wood, smoking cigars, and living alone in a 14,500-square-foot home in Detroit’s historic Indian Village, “mostly in my kitchen and bedroom,” he says, “just like you.”
But he’s also a visionary. Unlike others, eyeing cheap structures, Hantz saw the possibilities in empty space. For years, he says, “I lied to myself—it’s gonna get better—along with a million other people.” One day, on his commute past the ruins, he thought: Let’s not talk about collecting the trash, mowing the lawns, and tearing the houses down. Let’s man up. Why not put in trees that ask so little and give so much?
“Detroit offers space and time. Here there’s maybe a chance for young people to build a middle class.”
–A newcomer from Brooklyn
It took almost five years of wrangling with the city. Opponents accused him of being an imperialist disguised as a do-gooder, with vague plans for distant profits. Last year he finally was able to buy 1,350 city-owned properties, plus 450 others, scattered over a one-square-mile area on the lower East Side. He cleared 500 lots, including more than 2,000 tires, and with 1,400 volunteers, planted 15,000 trees. The four million dollars he has spent, he says, already pays him “psychic income.”
Most of his trees are saplings that look like yardsticks. But on several lots he planted 30-foot sugar maples so neighbors could imagine the future. With that, says Hantz, “we saw the pride open up like a flower.”
BUT PRIDE AND TREES are not enough. The city still struggles to provide the most basic services, such as on-time buses, speedy police and fire responses, and lighting.
The problem is so basic but so daunting: Many of Detroit’s people are poor and widely dispersed. In 1950 the city housed 1.8 million people, about 84 percent white. By 2013 its population had fallen to 689,000, about 83 percent black. Half its households live on less than $25,000 a year.
Newcomers tweet about music and cocktails, but crime and lousy schools remain serious obstacles to a sustainable recovery. Homicides are falling, but among cities with a hundred thousand people or more, Detroit still tops the nation for violent crime. The city’s schools, called “a national disgrace” by the U.S. education secretary, are a target for improvement by civic leaders.
Once, men and women flocked to Detroit from the cotton fields of the South for well-paying automobile factory jobs. My grandfathers—one a fourth-grade dropout—came from the steel mills and coal mines of Pennsylvania to establish us for generations as a “Ford family.” Blue-collar jobs can still be had in the city’s three remaining auto plants, but most require advanced skills. Scores of tech start-ups in the new city do too. That leaves Detroit with a big obstacle to its rebound: the highest unemployment rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities.
EVERY WEEK, IT SEEMS, a new business opens in Detroit—grocery stores, juice bars, coffee shops, even bicycle makers. The only thing new about Robert “Lil Grady” Long’s business is its lightbulbs. He came back to Detroit to take over his late father’s Grand River Avenue barbershop. “I gave up my little factory job in Toledo,” he says, “and walked out on faith.”
Above the doorway, the name is hand-painted in red, white, and blue: “G n C Barber Style Shop, est. 1964.” A neon “Open” sign is unlit. A “Sorry We’re Closed” sign hangs in one window. But the shop’s metal door, with four locks, is wide open, and customers fill three of the four chairs.
Long considers his central West Side shop a community center. Guys come in to watch TV or play chess. Kids get free haircuts for good report cards. Long, 60, crosses seven lanes of traffic to scrape weeds from cracks in the sidewalk along where his customers park. “I’m mad at the city,” he tells me. “We had bad managers, even fights at city council meetings! The people have to come back together. We have to all pitch in. But the ball is rolling.” Even into his shop.
He sought a $10,000 New Economy Initiative grant. To his amazement, he was one of the 30 winners. He’ll add a business to repair clippers, sharpen tools, and shine shoes. “We’ll clean athletic shoes too, and sell shoestrings and probably socks, and I’ll make it like a boutique,” Long says. “Black men my age like nice shoes.”
Handsome, with a big, easy smile, he wore his $300 snakeskin shoes to the awards dinner. When the emcee said, “We want to celebrate not just the start-ups but the been-ups,” Long felt proud that meant him.
Last summer he joined Slow Roll, a leisurely bike ride staged every pleasant Monday, sometimes attracting more than 4,000 cyclists. Long shakes his head as he tells me: “I went back about ten times, because every time I did, I felt like a little kid. Things like that tell me the city is growing, that you can bring so many people together with no problems.”
OVER DRINKS AT the Savoy Hotel in London, Aamir Farooqi first heard about Detroit’s potential and soon after flew in from his home in Singapore. He was astonished to be berated by an airport customs agent who told him he was crazy to invest a dime in the city.
But he did. Farooqi, a 54-year-old Pakistani and a retired top executive of the multinational Cargill, says he has spent his liquid assets to buy with Scott Ord, his Australian partner, 150 homes to refurbish and rent. Plenty of international investors bought rock-bottom properties in Detroit, but Farooqi lives here most of the year. He’s fallen in love with it.
He restored a 1908 home in Indian Village and furnished it almost entirely with antiques from a venerable auction house favored by Detroit’s elite. It fits Farooqi, a refined man who dresses for business in suits, wing tips, and cuff links. “It’s like the California gold rush here,” he tells me from his parlor. “But if we are careful and selective, we get to save neighborhoods, and how cool is that?”
The mission so exhilarates him that he encourages others: He gives no-interest loans to “young people with the guts and gumption to take risks.” The women of Detroit Vegan Soul got $5,000, as did a few others. Farooqi’s terms: Don’t pay the money back to him. Pay it forward, to someone else revitalizing Detroit.
ON A SUNNY LATE AFTERNOON, as I’m driving away from downtown, my glance catches the sight of barstools behind a half-open industrial garage door. I discover Two James, whose owners call it the first distillery in Detroit since Prohibition. Its bartenders are lithe and tattooed. Its clients are mostly white. One is Jim Hayden, 60, a Seattle businessman who spends several months a year in Detroit. He says, “I am a fan of comeback stories, like Rocky, and Detroit is the greatest Rocky story ever told.”
Just blocks away, across a freeway, two workmen on ladders hammer on Steve Johnson’s two-story gray corner house. Johnson, a 50-year-old former construction worker, makes a living as a landlord now. Half his ten units in this area are vacant. He’s owned this house for about a decade but saw it wrecked by bad tenants. He’s replacing busted windows. For the moment, they look out on empty lots and tangled brush.
But Johnson is certain newcomers will arrive soon on this side of the freeway, a once overlooked neighborhood now touted as North Corktown. From here you can see the backsides of some of the hottest new spots in town.
“When I was growing up here, these lots were 50 bucks each,” he remembers, squinting and wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “For a while you could just claim one. If you fixed it up and cut the grass, the city would give it to you. Now all these lots are bought up.”
He lives 11 miles away in a forsaken northeast neighborhood. “It’s never coming up,” he says. He’s nailing his hope here instead and, like other Detroiters in the fitful drama of rebirth, says, “I’m just trying to hang on to what I got.”