In Detroit, a city where bad news has long outweighed good, a group of young urban pioneers is bringing the community together around excellent barbecue and fabulous coffee and cocktails.

Even without floors or glass in the windows, there is something quietly captivating about Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. Opened in 1913, it is a grand, imposing structure, with heroic Corinthian columns created by the architects behind New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. But like so many buildings in Detroit, it has been abandoned. When Amtrak moved out, Michigan Central closed in 1988. It has sat empty, slowly decaying, ever since.

Detroit is a place where bad news has long outweighed good. The city took a big hit when the Big Three auto companies moved their manufacturing plants out to the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s, it was devastated by the riots of 1967 and it was hit again by the mortgage crisis and recession of 2008. It seems naive to think that anything as simple as good food could help reverse decades of decline.

Detroit Restaurants: Daisuke Hughes and Phil Cooley
Photo © Marcus Nilsson.

But just across Roosevelt Park from Michigan Central Station, on a single block of Michigan Avenue, that’s exactly what’s happening. Families from all over the state wait for a table at the excellent Slows Bar BQ; musicians hang out over meticulously made pour-over coffees at Astro Coffee; locals and suburbanites come for craft cocktails at The Sugar House. A good food-and-drink scene isn’t the only thing this community needs, but it’s one of them. “There is so much work to do here in Detroit,” says Phil Cooley, Slows’s co-owner. “But I thought, I’m gonna bite off a chunk of it.”

Cooley, 34, is one of a growing number of people who have come to Detroit in recent years, attracted by the potential they see in the vacant lots, abandoned buildings and bare-bones cost of living. After working as a model in Chicago and Europe, Cooley moved to Detroit in 2002, bought a loft in the Corktown neighborhood and made a living as a janitor and barback around town. The rundown building next door to his apartment was deserted, so he bought it for $40,000 with the idea of turning it into a restaurant. He and his brother Ryan, along with executive chef and co-owner Brian Perrone and sous-chef Michael Metevia, renovated the space for $300,000, using mostly reclaimed wood from the original building. “We built the kitchen first and then hung up a dust cloth, so Brian would test recipes while we were finishing the dining room,” says Cooley. “He’d bring out food for us to taste as we worked.”

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