josh noel | chicago tribune
 Many people can’t see past this city’s abandoned buildings and overgrown lots, and that’s sort of fair. A city once boasting 2 million people and an unbreakable auto industry is down to 700,000 and apocalyptic decay in every direction. But look past the blocks of broken windows, sunken roofs and graffiti, and there is a Detroit stirring back to life. The word revitalization might be a bit strong, but as low as the city has sunk, its subtle energy and excitement put it at a fascinating crossroads: Bruised old times, meet scrappy invention.

You see it in the food and drink, the art, the rebuilt urban trails and the people. I learned it at my first stop: a modern barbecue joint called Slows Bar-B-Q, which is widely credited for jump-starting the Corktown neighborhood west of downtown. People wait two hours to sit during the weekends. During my wait, I met Felix Nguyen, 34, a hotel manager with friends in town for one of the nation’s biggest electronic music festivals.

Nguyen explained that she lived in Detroit in the 1990s, moved to the Chicago suburbs and then back to Detroit because she missed it.

“The people are real here,” Nguyen said. She proved it by asking me to join her and her friends for dinner. Over our plates of meat and pints of Michigan craft beer, she explained how things have improved.

“When I lived here in the ’90s, everything was closed at 5, and there were no grocery stores,” Nguyen said. “The customer service was the worst I ever had in my life.” Where, exactly? “Detroit,” she said. “All of it. But now the whole vibe is different.”

Father and son Steve and Austin Snell, whom I met on my way out, had driven in from the suburbs to drop Austin’s sister off at a concert and stopped at Slows because of its glowing reputation. Before dinner, Steve sipped a gin and tonic two doors over, at Sugar House, Detroit’s first craft cocktail bar — no big deal in many urban areas but significant in Detroit.

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