Delirious Detroit: Did hard work and insane fun reach tipping point in 2011?

Ahh, what a year. Exasperating really. Detroit’s wonderful. Detroit’s horrible. Detroit’s wonderful in the way it’s horrible. I sooooo want suburbanites to like us, to visit us, to really get it. I so want this place to myself. Having been here a while, I sense that Detroit schizophrenia has been particularly acute in 2011. An emergency manager? No money? Corruption? I’m pretty sure it all sounds familiar but I really can’t remember because the optimist in me has been too busy rolling around in a field of flowers and glass to notice. 

But wait! Yes, as the year ends with our annual reality check, it might be therapeutic to remember that doers and makers and innovators and builders continued marching forward in whatever storm clouds were gathering in Detroit. Let’s start by figuring out who the person next to me is. Or next to you, for that matter. Where did all these people come from, and why don’t I know any of them? You gotta admit, it’s weird. Live Midtown -- a new incentive program for Wayne State, DMC and Henry Ford Health System employees -- sold out in the time it takes you to pull a nail out of your tire and Live Downtown, a similar program further south, is on its way. They’re running out of housing to fulfill the demand. 

The latest census, released this year, reported that downtown has experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under 35. Really. We’re still losing population and, sure, the human energy is most certainly from downtown to Midtown. But it won’t happen anywhere if it doesn’t happen somewhere first. We now have our "somewhere." 

Employers are moving their workers here in bunches too. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Quicken, Jack Morton Worldwide. There are thousands of new workers downtown now, that weren’t there in 2010. Yup, Dan Gilbert’s been noodling on this one for a while, and began moving folks late last year. But people really took notice in 2011 as he dove in head-first, going on a buying spree of downtown buildings and sending the call out for more businesses to join in. 

And the spectacular Broderick Tower is being developed. And a boutique hotel, among other things, is moving into the once-left-for-dead David Whitney Building. And the M1 light rail line up Woodward is breaking ground...oh wait, sorry, that one’s off the table. For now, at least. And there are rumors of Tony Goldman -- the very same Tony Goldman who helped transform South Beach and SoHo -- making a major investment downtown. These developments may not be nearly as common as we need them to be, but as we plod forward, this year’s "tipping point" could very well be that we’re not talking about a tipping point anymore. Refreshing, yes? Yes.

How about the media? It turns out we’re not the only ones talking about Detroit anymore, at least in a positive way. I really thought the market was cornered on this one, but then stories keep popping up. Good ones. "Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscle," in the New York Times. Forbes touts the opportunities and challenges of Detroit, while putting us on the cover of its "Best Places" issue. The Huffington Post even started Huffington Post Detroit. Something’s going on here. And if you think *positive* stories don’t equal money and jobs to someone down the line go talk to the Visitors Bureau or Cobo or anyone else who is selling Detroit every day. It matters. 

This has also been the year of retail and small business, or at least tremendous energy around those things. Now let’s not be silly here: we’ve got a long way to go. What’s different though is that suddenly there’s a pile-on to help out. Hatch Detroit, a $50,000 retail prize; Kiva Detroit, micro loans for small business; the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, helping to accelerate creative businesses and innovation in the city; and more, all took hold this year.

And the businesses themselves aren’t necessarily leading with their desire to be a part of Detroit’s resurgence, they’re talking about making some real money, and they think they can. If you don’t believe me ask the folks at Somerset, who were the first major retailer to dip their toe in the water in decades with the temporary CityLoft shop at Merchants Row. Time will tell whether they’ll be back with a more permanent space or if others will follow, but we’ve begun to see the possibilities in real, physical form.
71 Pop -- gallery style retail spaces for emerging designers to use one month at a time -- Corktown’s Astro Coffee, the locally sourced restaurant/food industry training center Colors Detroit, Tashmoo Biergarten in West Village, all helped stimulate Detroit in one way or another this year too. Tashmoo was a particular favorite since there hasn’t been beer in West Village in a nearly a decade, when Honest John’s moved to Midtown. I know, I live there. I’ve been thirsty. This pop-up biergarten on an empty lot may have been fleeting, but the beer flowed for as many as 1,400 people -- many of them neighbors I never knew I had -- each Sunday, and there were more eyes on this little enclave then at any time in my Detroit tenure. Tashmoo will almost certainly be back, and there’s a good vibe over here. I can’t put my finger on it and I’m not sure it will last, or if I’ll even last for that matter (yes I will, no I won’t, yes I will), but it feels different.

Even the house across the street from me -- boarded up on-again-off-again over the last decade while a slumlord from Florida jilted low-income people out of hard-earned money on shady contracts -- sold to some folks who are going to live there. They kept reading about all that’s happening here in Detroit over coffee from their perch in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado and wanted to be a part of it. Of course they got the house for a song and they’ve entered the on-going bargain -- a pretty critical one, mind you -- that the street will stay lit and patrolled in the coming years. The bigger point for me, is that I have neighbors who are committed to transforming that historic house for the first time in 10 years, which goes a long way towards ultimately determining if said lights stay on. 

In a way, the tale of two cities rumbles on, metaphorically, in that one house. The first tale is one of disinvestment, poverty, corruption, budget woes, crime, and on and on. A constant tale, and one that is indeed, very real. The second is one of hope turned kinetic. People not only seeing real possibilities, but acting on them. It’s not new by any means, but the ranks of believers and doers are undoubtedly growing. And within those leaps of faith may be the answers that will some day make us whole. 

Now back to my field of flowers and glass.

Jim Boyle has been helping transform Detroit one year at a time since 1996.    

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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