Dwelling in Detroit

Editor's note: The October 2006 issue of Dwell features an article on emerging cities, including Detroit. Last month, however, one of the magazine's top editors made his first trip to the city. Not to report for the story, but just to get a glimpse of the Motor City.

Dwell executive editor Sam Grawe and I were wheeling into downtown Birmingham a couple weeks ago. I was dropping him back off at the swank Townsend Hotel where the Troy-based Michigan Design Center had put him up before his afternoon engagement.

Grawe had just gotten the nickel Model D tour of the Motor City. He'd hopped a red-eye from San Francisco to Detroit for the appearance, but he spared a couple hours to lunch with Model D and to get his first glimpse of Detroit city.

As we drove into the shining O.C. city, he pointed out a typical Birmingham high-end shop and made a snarky "you know you've arrived when you've got one of those" comment.

That's not exactly what you'd expect from one of the driving voices behind a magazine that celebrates good taste in the form of Modern design and architecture. But it's obvious Grawe is enamored with cities and with urban living.

Then he confirms it. Pointing to the Birmingham streets he says, "You know, it's interesting because people outside think that this is what people from Dwell are interested in. Actually, what's more interesting to me are the crumbling factories and the city landscape. That's far more interesting to me."

The nickel tour

After just a quick tour, Grawe got Detroit.

We'd driven the length of the Woodward corridor from Maple Road to Campus Martius, out of the bustling Royal Oak and Birmingham areas, past the lush green of Palmer Park and into the landscape of crumbling factories in Highland Park and 1920s mansions in Boston-Edison. We'd noted the bustling campus and redevelopment around Midtown, and the ongoing reinvention of Brush Park. We then sidetracked along Cass to avoid Tigers gameday traffic and talked about the work yet to be done. And finally we landed in the revived city center of Campus Martius, noting the newness of the Compuware Building and the 10-story office tower at Woodward and Michigan avenues, and then old beauties like the Guardian Building and the Gotham City-like splendor of the Penobscot.

If we'd had more than a couple hours, we'd have added the Mies van der Rohe town homes of Lafayette Park, Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and coffee inside the Guardian Building.

With only room for lunch on the agenda, we instead took the bumpy ride down pothole central (i.e. Michigan Avenue), past the shell of Tiger Stadium and the gutted storefronts Phil Cooley and his crews have been hollowing out down the street from their Modern oasis – Slow's Bar-BQ.

The story is well-told by now, but Cooley and his partners have taken a rotted out abandoned storefront and created a hotspot. The new patio is a Modern oasis, with poured concrete tables, bright blue chairs and funky, angular woodwork. The design could easily fit into a trendier urban environment like Grawe's hometown of San Francisco.

Yet, peek through one of the peepholes in the fence and you know this is Detroit. Look one way, and the ominous abandoned train station looms over vacant lots. Look the other, and you see work underway at John Lopez' Mercury Bar, and Cooley's design company, Los Pistoleros, work on the cool façade at Chris Koltay's recording studio.

If you want a snapshot of Detroit — its future, its past, its failings and its successes — this would be it.

At lunch in the Modern world

Over lunch we talked about urban living, what Dwell and Detroit have to do with each other, and Modernism's place in a Rustbelt city.

Dwell is a great resource for things like banana-fiber rugs and uber-cool cat litter boxes, and to learn about lounge chairs that can change your life. All the sleek hipness may seem out of place inside the city limits, but the national magazine also explores issues that hit home in a city like Detroit — things like sustainable building, urban living and how architecture impacts cities.

Over pulled pork sandwiches and Arnold Palmers (half lemonade, half iced tea — the teetotaler's drink of choice at Slow's), we sat down with a couple Detroit enthusiasts. Joining us were Francis Grunow —Model D contributor and executive director of Preservation Wayne — and David Knapp — architect and head of AIA-Detroit's urban priorities committee.

We talked about the renaissance of loft living, and what's attracting young people back to cities.

Grawe has been with Dwell for almost all of its six years. At the beginning, he said, "the loft thing and urban redevelopment was happening in places like San Diego and San Francisco, but it wasn't a trend yet." Because the magazine is dedicated to showing that good design and good architecture exist in places beyond New York and L.A., finding examples elsewhere used to be trickier. As urban living has caught on, it’s become much easier.

We’ve seen the trend here in Detroit. Find an abandoned structure in Midtown, and I'll find you a loft project under construction.

Valuing diversity, we all agreed, has been key to rebuilding cities.

"People seem to be a lot more accepting of other races. I think that mentality probably does correspond to a younger age group. There has to be an openness and willingness to accept different cultures," Grawe said. "That's the amazing thing about San Francisco. It's so, so diverse. Rich people, poor people, Asian people, black people, Hispanics. It's all there."

"Detroit is very diverse, too," Knapp added. "But it's very much segregated, isolated. It's there, but it's all spread out. But the people who are starting to move downtown, they understand the importance of the diversity."

"There still are big hurdles," Grunow said, "I just think valuing the city and the concept that it can be a valuable place — that's a huge hurdle still. But there's an undercurrent of people that care about it that are out here and living here."

Grunow and Knapp talked about what makes Detroit attractive to creative people, and how you can open a place like Slow's in another big city and get lost in the shuffle, but here you've made your mark. And they discussed the possibility and beauty inherent in abandoned places like the train depot behind us.

Then we talked about Modernism, about the potential for prefab housing to catch on in places like Detroit. And we talked about the impact big, new projects can have on a city.

"A new building in a Modern style, something of the moment, shows more care. It's not just taking something from somewhere else and trying to apply it to here. It also shows that you are looking toward the future and not just patching together the past," Grawe said.

For example, he pointed out that "so much was made of the Art Museum of Milwaukee, and all of a sudden Milwaukee is cutting edge."

Near the end of the conversation, Grawe talked about how people should feel connected to architecture, even though the topic can seem too academic or inaccessible for nonarchitects.

"Architecture is too often just a conversation between architects. In Dwell we try to talk about architecture in a way that's important to everyone. Architects could sit and talk all day to each other about civic revitalization plans and urban planning. Everyone should feel comfortable talking about it. People should have an opinion on it."

Grawe was in and out of Detroit in just a few hours, but his observations ring true. As this city shapes what it will look like in the future, people should be engaged in discussions of what it should look like and how we'll get there.


Sam Grawe, David Knapp, Francis Grunow and Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey at Slow's patio

Sam Grawe

Francis Grunow

David Knapp

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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