48 HOURS IN BANKRUPT DETROIT

Outside of Detroit, there seems to be no shortage of bad news about the city. I’m going to give you a balanced point of view.  Detroit is unique, fun, and ripe for opportunity!

These are six things DETROIT has:

  1. Great music;
  2. Pro sports:  Redwings, Pistons, Lions, and Tigers;
  3. “The Big Three” automakers;
  4. QuickenLoans;
  5. 21% of the world’s fresh water; and
  6. BravoBravo!

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Wait…what was the last one on that list??

BravoBravo!  One of Detroit’s biggest parties of the year is a fundraiser for the Detroit Opera House. The party is well-attended and truly diverse in age, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. I can’t think of another major city where an opera fundraiser would bring together similar demographics. I think BravoBravo! has such broad appeal because the organizers made it a cool event, and they know Detroiters love a good party.

A soprano serenaded the crowd to“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess at the entrance of the Opera House. She set the mood.

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Inside, the Opera House was elegantly decorated, and featured a local band. Food stations featured a variety of hors d’oeuvres from local gourmet chefs. Mixologists and their drinks were in abundance, as was evident by the end of the evening. (Uber, anyone?? )

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BravoBravo! (The indoor scene.)

As usual, my brother, David, packs in a lot when I visit him. BravoBravo! was our first event. (David likes to show off how well his bankrupt city is thriving!)

The next morning, we ate at PJ’s Lager House. It’s on a block with Corktown neighborhood breakfast joints. It was modest…a dive bar…and unexpectedly good for brunch.

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Guitar picks laminated on bar countertop at PJ’s Lager House — a live music spot.

After brunch, and a few false starts having to do with whether David really had our tour tickets in hand, we headed to Historic Indian Village. Every year, the neighborhood association hosts a house and garden tour.

At Indian Village’s border was this house — a common sight around the city — and at the edge of the affluent neighborhood.

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I’d always been wowed by this neighborhood. Many manors were built for the city’s elite a century ago, on streets lined with old-growth trees. Indian Village is from an era before developers and their four model home designs, cul-de-sacs, and McMansions.  Indian Village lots are substantial enough for expansive gardens and outdoor entertaining. Some homes have carriage houses behind the main house. Carriage houses are yesteryear’s garages and “the help” lived there. Some have been turned into charming residences.

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Carriage house

Carriage house

Owning an historic home is a steep responsibility, particularly homes as large as these.  Imagine the cost to heat and cool them.  You can get more house for less money in Detroit, and on a larger plot than you’d expect in a major city.  Conditions of Indian Village homes ranged from restoration underway, or already renovated, to relatively shabby.

Being a fan of HGTV, I was really looking forward to seeing what these homes are like. Tour volunteers let us know if homeowners didn’t allow photos. The volunteers provided interesting historical background, such as one huge manor that was relocated to Indian Village from another part of Detroit, and how its stone facade was reassembled. Some of the stones were jutted out to allow footholds so that the original “lady of the manor” could scale down the side of the house in case of a fire. (She had a fear of being trapped in the house during a fire.)

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Most homes were appointed as you might expect. But, two, in particular, were very  unusual.

One home’s interior decorating and landscaping design were quirky, a little creepy, kind of fun, and memorable. This homeowner decorated his home with medical collectibles. The dining room had an operating table with a skeleton on it. (Not shown here.)

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Another homeowner may have missed the memo that the tour should be about the home’s architecture and history. Instead, she showcased her decorating style, which was Godawful — and way, way over the top. The home’s theme was Valentine’s Day — not a winning theme for a tour held in June, mind you. David assumed only his gender would have a visceral reaction to the decor. Wrong! His reaction was the consensus opinion. There were red and white hearts everywhere, bouquets on every surface, plastic bubbles in the bathtubs, red place settings and white doilies at every table. It was  overwhelming!  Plus, where does she store all that stuff ???

Individualism is alive and well in Detroit.

My last tale of the tour is about the fate of some Detroit real estate.  We saw a quaint neighborhood Baptist church in Indian Village. A man out front offered free bottled water from his cooler. David and I went inside and looked around. The man told us he grew up in the church, and his father was the last pastor. His late father had owned the building and preached his last sermon there three years ago.

The son said the building is his birthright, and he’s declined every offer to buy the property. He isn’t sure what to do with it, other than keep it. He fends off family members, who want to sell it; and he suspects they sneak in and pick off items, even pieces of stained glass from the windows. He patches things up here and there, but the building needs a new roof.  The building’s bones are still good, but without a vision and resources, this little gem of a building with its lovely rose window could eventually slide into decay.

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20150606_143003_001 Church interior facing the pulpit

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Church interior facing the rose window

What amazes me about this bankrupt city is that there is a lot of reclamation of buildings because someone had a vision of their potential.  There is great architecture here, so there is less razing of old buildings to make room for something all shiny and new.  Small businesses are taking off here, and big box stores are mostly absent within the city borders.

Our final foodie experience — aside from the wild salmon, vegetables, and garlic potatoes my brother grilled for dinner one night — was Italian cuisine at  La Dolce Vita in the Palmer Park District. To call the exterior modest is an understatement.

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Street view of La Dolce Vita restaurant

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Interior of La Dolce Vita

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La Dolce Vita “Best Patio Dining” in Detroit

You see, in Detroit, you shouldn’t make assumptions about a place based only on its facade. Or, put another way, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Our meals were delicious and reasonably priced. This restaurant calls itself “Detroit’s Best Kept Secret.”

Here’s what I think:  Detroit itself is a Best Kept Secret. Don’t tell anyone else it’s worth a visit. Shhhh….

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Detroit REVELations (Noel Night)

Here’s a tip about a great place to kick off the Christmas holiday revels:  my new favorite city, Detroit. My brother, David, had been telling me about Noel Night for years. I found a cheap flight and spent a long weekend in the city.

Noel Night is Detroit’s 39 year old tradition, held on the first Saturday of December. It’s a customizable experience where Midtown is the star, providing entertainment at tiny, mid-sized, and mega-venues. Midtown cultural powerhouses — Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright African-American Museum — also host multiple performances throughout the evening.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I’m going to share the revelations I had about Detroit before I took part in Noel Night revels.

Almost as soon as I hit town, I walked over to Socratea Teahouse and Gallery in Midtown. It is a lovely, creatively curated space. It’s not only my kind of place, it’s my muse as well. I’ve spent hours writing there, while drinking pot after pot of tea or a smoothie. Socratea does tea up proper, steeping it according to type. I spent so much time there in September, that the owner, Meg Provenzino, recognized me on this visit. That’s actually kind of cool, considering I live in Maryland.

My first revelation:  Socratea is my “happy place” in Detroit.

David’s “happy place” is at the bar of a good restaurant. We checked out two new ones over the weekend. The first was Selden Standard. Not unusual of renovated buildings in Detroit, this restaurant abuts a former vagrant hangout, now a fenced-off vacant lot. At the bar, we talked with a native Detroiter, who had relocated from NYC. Our conversation flowed from Hurricane Sandy to local politics to the food industry and then to our new friend’s take on the Detroit water bill situation.

Speaking of water…did you know that 21% of the world’s fresh water flows through the City of Detroit? The city has been described as the Saudi Arabia of water!

My second revelation: Great food, great atmosphere, and great company – that’s my recipe for a great evening, and it is easy to find that in Detroit. There is a lot of civic pride, and the people are the heart of the city.  Give it up for the Midwest and its accessible and friendly people, even in a hardcore city!

Conversations with random people continued the next day. We started at Astro Coffee on Michigan Avenue in Corktown. It’s in an isolated commercial block in a transitional area. The very successful Slows Bar-B-Q probably started the transition, and is located at one end of the block.

We walked to the other end of the block and saw this signage:  “Pawnshop” and “Gold Cash Gold.” Instead of a pawnshop, though, the interior was fitted out as a restaurant. We were curious; and the door was unlocked, so we went in. The owner, Ronald Cooley, met us inside; gave us a tour; explained all the recycled materials used in the decor; and confirmed that the building was formerly a pawnshop. So, he figured, what the hey – keep the sign and call the restaurant Gold Cash Gold! The grand opening was later that night. It turns out the Cooley family owns both Slows and Gold Cash Gold, and their restaurants anchor the block.

My third revelation:  I saw an area in transition and a single block transformed by small businesses. This block in Corktown is Exhibit A for reclaiming an area for fun and entertainment one building and one block at a time.

Later that day, we went to a wine shop — Fine Wine Source — in Livonia, a Detroit suburb. I asked David why we were driving so far for a wine shop. As it happened, that little wine store run was worth it.

Fine Wine Source is located in a small strip mall not far from the freeway.  It’s an unpretentious family-owned business. The mother, father, and daughter provided personal and superb customer service. They acknowledge and appreciate returning customers, which, of course, keeps them coming back, even if they live miles away. The owner’s knowledge of wine and wine storage goes deep, and he’s happy to make his customers a little smarter about wine.

The bonus was the Saturday wine tasting and meeting Proprietor and Winemaker, Lorenzo Gatteschia. We tasted four wines from his Tuscan estate and winery, Podere Ciona. The wines were very nice and we bought a couple of bottles. Even though we were trying to beat it back to Midtown before the Noel Night crowds descended, it was great spending a little time in this shop to sip and learn.

My fourth revelation:  I had a very good experience with customer service at Detroit businesses. Look, people in the Detroit metro area are not going to let poor customer service be their trademark; the city has been maligned enough. No, I think the award for poor customer service might go to – ahem! – Washington, DC. 

So, now for the weekend’s signature event:  Noel Night. We had a loose plan for the venues and artists we would see that night. We started at Socratea, which offered free tea samples, cookies, and 10-minute massages to its first 500 customers. We moved on to the Museum of Contemporary Art -Detroit (MOCAD). From there, to Flo Boutique to hear a singer, who was scheduled to perform in the shop window. (We missed his set, but I bought a cute hat.) We stopped through an art gallery on our way to a small pizza shop to hear an up-and-coming vocalist.

The performance by the youth choir, Mosaic Singers, at the Charles H. Wright African-American Museum was one of the highlights of our Noel Night. It was standing room only, but we didn’t stand for long. We slipped into two seats in the middle of the back row as soon as they were vacated, without applying our elbows. (It pays to be quick and civilized!)

We connected with two friends, who were at the Detroit Institute of Art cafe getting some grub. They joined us at the Unitarian Universalist Church for our Noel Night grand finale: Thornetta Davis. She’s a Detroit original, an R&B vocalist, with a huge, gorgeous mid-range voice. Her guitarist and keyboardist are world-class musicians. Thornetta set the tone for the Christmas season with rousing, joyous carols. Her rendition of “Silent Night” — one of the best I’ve ever heard — evoked pure wonder at the long-awaited birth.

If you go to Detroit for Noel Night, anticipate the harshest weather and pack the right layers of clothing so you’re comfortable walking outdoors from venue to venue. Detroiters aren’t weather wimps.  Nothing stops them from reveling on Noel Night to get their Christmas spirit on.

Campus Martius - Christmas tree

Campus Martius – Christmas tree