The many faces of changing Detroit: America's comeback city

In 2013 Detroit became the largest city in American history to file for bankruptcy. But now the city is on the rebound: cool start-ups are filling once-neglected buildings, public spaces are being spruced up and Detroit’s food scene is being kickstarted – Jacqui Agate meets three residents who are helping to shape this city-on-the-up.

Traffic grumbles on Woodward Avenue. Workmen move across tattered buildings like ants, smoothing, scrubbing, fixing. A blackboard before a darkened whisky bar is etched with pastel chalk: “spring has sprung”, it says.

Fewer than five years ago, the buildings here were mostly empty shells – echoing husks with peeling paint and fading shop signs. But today’s cranes and clamouring storefronts leave only scant whispers of the past.

This very roadway, spooling north from downtown and dividing the city clean in two, is almost Detroit in microcosm. Woodward Avenue once swelled with industry – as, indeed, did Detroit as a whole. The city was touted as the ‘Paris of the West’ for its wealth, its grandeur and its manufacturing prowess.

 

Once assumed so defeated it would never again rise from the dirt, the city is picking itself up, dusting itself off and looking forwards.

But the decline of the automotive industry through the 1900s – plus racial tensions, civil unrest and several ravaging fires – saw to Detroit’s dramatic downturn. The population plummeted from over 2 million to around 700,000 people (a small, rattling number in a 140-square-mile metropolis), 80,000-plus buildings stood abandoned, and poverty caught the city in its iron grasp. By 2013, Detroit had filed for bankruptcy and the future looked uncertain.

Now, though, the wheels of change are turning. Detroit’s caricature as ‘America’s Comeback City’ is hackneyed, perhaps – but it’s fitting. Once assumed so defeated it would never again rise from the dirt, the city is picking itself up, dusting itself off and looking forwards. Here, we meet the people rebuilding Detroit from the ground up.

Jason Hall, Founder of Slow Roll Detroit

Jason Hall lets one arm swing by his side as he bikes along Detroit’s Dequindre Cut, an old railroad line turned public greenway. Overpasses stud the way: some wasted and mouldering, others bright with murals. As we cycle past an especially striking work – a mauve bird with ropey feathers – I feel the handlebars of my own bike swerve and force my eyes ahead.

“Man, I love it here,” Hall calls over his shoulder. “This place used to be pretty dicey though.”

A pause. The gold writing on his ‘Detroit-is-where-I-roll’ shirt flashes in the sun.

“Detroit often forces you to look back – but we’ve got to look to the future.”

Yet despite his penchant for forward thinking, Hall never predicted Slow Roll’s success. When, in 2010, he persuaded some friends to start biking about the city, he had little idea this would become one of the world’s largest weekly rides.

Now, more than 5000 cyclists turn out every summer Monday evening to explore the Motor City. But in a place whose progress was once powered by engine, why does Slow Roll have staying power?

“Slow Roll is purely Detroit: it’s organic, it’s community, it’s love. Detroit has always been a beacon for cool stuff.”

“It’d been a long time since something had come out of Detroit, like, as an invention,” Hall muses.

“Slow Roll is purely Detroit: it’s organic, it’s community, it’s love. Detroit has always been a beacon for cool stuff.”

Looking around the Dequindre Cut, it seems the beacon is burning bright indeed. We pause so I can photograph another mural. This one is a patchwork of squares, peach and blue, orange and red. One shape is painted with chains, another with stairs.

Hall whips out his phone too. He’s lived in Detroit his whole life, born and raised in Rosedale Park – but his affection for the city has not dulled. Not least because things keep “popping up”.

“I’ve seen what the city’s gone through and where we’re at. Detroit has become this wide-open place, where ideas are accepted.”

“Why do we ride through those neighbourhoods? Because that’s Detroit. We never want to exclude anybody.”

“All those new restaurants? I know the owners. Once, it would have been a rich guy – now it’s just someone with a dream.”

Yet Hall is determined that Slow Roll paints a full picture. Regeneration is in unfettered flow downtown, but large pockets of the city are still yet to reap the benefits. There are entire neighbourhoods that remain scarcely populated, and so-called ‘urban prairies’ where mother nature is the lone resident.

“Why do we ride through those neighbourhoods? Because that’s Detroit. We never want to exclude anybody.”

“We’re a massive entity of culture and community. If we can get everyone to buy into that, imagine how crazy this place could be.”

Roslyn Karamoko, Founder and CEO of Détroit is the New Black

“You can have any colour you want, so long as it’s black”. Once uttered by Henry Ford, this quote is now stamped on the sheeny storefront of Détroit is the New Black, a fashion brand with its flagship on Woodward Avenue.

Inside the walls are whitewashed, the pipework exposed. T-shirts announcing ‘Détroit is the New Black’ hang from metal rails. I’m examining one when Roslyn Karamoko, the brand’s founder, clacks towards me. She’s up against it today, she says, but she’s time enough for a chat.

Time, I’m sure, is something Karamoko has precious little of. In between founding (in 2013) and running a successful clothing line, she’s busy championing local designers and makers. The result is the store-meets-gallery-meets-community space we’re in today. Her vision began with a single garment.

“I didn’t think there was a T-shirt that really incorporated the city’s history, but also its future,” Karamoko tells me, now perched on a stool behind the counter.

“Everyone can understand art: black, white, young, old. And people here are built to create – it’s in the bones of the city.”

The slogan’s acute ‘e’ denotes the city’s French heritage, she explains – Detroit was founded by French explorers in 1701. “Then ‘the new black’ means the new cool city.” She makes air quotes with her fingers.

“But there’s also a racial undertone and a conversation around gentrification: who is involved in this new Detroit?”

It’s a good question. The city is changing. But as Detroit rises, so too does the rent. And as its defunct factories become filled with craft-cocktail bars and restaurants serving small plates, where does that leave ‘original Detroit’ – a city of grit and graft – and those who inhabited it?

Karamoko shifts in her stool – it’s not an easy conversation to have, but it’s not one she shrinks from. As a Seattle native who’s held fashion jobs in Singapore and New York, she herself met pushback when she began a business here.

“But as people met me, they saw what I was attempting to build for the community – to bring original Detroit, original makers, downtown and to do it in a contemporary way.”

 

“This store is a bunch of small people trying to be big together. I hope Detroit can be that too.”

Alongside the T-shirt laden rails, there are sculptures, contemporary artworks, records for sale, jewellery in glass dressers by designers other than Karamoko.

“Everyone can understand art: black, white, young, old,” she says. “And people here are built to create – it’s in the bones of the city.”

“This store is a bunch of small people trying to be big together. I hope Detroit can be that too.”

Jackie Victor, Co-founder and CEO of Avalon

It’s mid-afternoon and Avalon bakery whirrs and hums and chatters. In the corner, an elderly couple are bent towards each other over a single cup of coffee. A young man in a grey ‘Détroit-is-the-New-Black’ shirt passes a fresh loaf across the counter. Motley posters paper the walls.

Jackie Victor, Avalon’s co-founder, drops into the chair next to me, a teetering plate of cookies in hand. “Peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, chocolate chunk…” she jabs a finger towards each biscuit in turn, then thrusts the plate towards me. “Help yourself.”

“The narrative was that Detroit was closed for business. Avalon really was ground zero of the city’s revitalization.”

I do as I’m told, savouring a generous bite of sticky, peanutty goodness. “Delicious,” I confirm. She smiles, sweeping a strand of flyaway brown hair behind her ear. “Right?” she trills.

But Victor need not hear it from me. Avalon, with its ‘triple bottom line’ of Earth, community and employees, has stood the test of time, and in Detroit that really says it all. The bakery we’re in opened in 1997, in down-at-heel Cass Corridor – the aim of Victor and her partner Ann Perrault was to commence Detroit’s regeneration.

“A bakery was a metaphor for what we wanted to create, which was a hearth, a gathering place…” She gestures around. My eyes rest once more on the elderly couple. The woman is reading the paper now; the man gazes through the window.

“The narrative was that Detroit was closed for business. Avalon really was ground zero of the city’s revitalization.”

Today Cass Corridor, now called Midtown, has little shortage of boutiquey shops and hipster restaurants. But the neighbourhood was starkly different when Avalon was born.

“We put in windows, and that was a big statement: we were not only open for business, we were open to the community.”

“There were almost no businesses around,” Victor explains. “And when we went to install windows in this building, the landlord said: ‘this neighbourhood’s not ready for windows’.”

She shakes her head. “We put in windows, and that was a big statement: we were not only open for business, we were open to the community.”

 

“Reinvesting in and reinventing ourselves from the ground up is a model that has worked in Detroit. Big change really can come in small packages.”

Fast-forward 20 years and Avalon’s windows remain intact, and they’ve three more premises across Detroit, plus one in Ann Arbor. The most recent outlet opened on Woodward Avenue in spring 2017. But Victor’s sights are set beyond downtown.

“My vision is to open little outlets and be a vehicle for economic growth in neighbourhoods still deemed ‘not ready for windows,’” she explains, animated now.

“Reinvesting in and reinventing ourselves from the ground up is a model that has worked in Detroit. Big change really can come in small packages.”

Photos from left–right (top–bottom): Avalon © Avalon; Jason Hall © Jacqui Agate; Detroit street © artcphotos/Shutterstock; Roslyn Karamoko © Roslyn Karamoko; Avalon © Avalon; Jackie Victor © Avalon; Avalon © Avalon.

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