Mix master: Travis Fourmont, a bartender at Roast at the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit, makes his Manhattan on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2013, during the competition in Manhattan, N.Y.
Photo from Freep.com

What bartender makes America’s best Manhattan?

According to judges in the Woodford Reserve Master of the Manhattan contest held Thursday in Manhattan — where else? — it’s Travis Fourmont of Roast restaurant at the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit.

Fourmont of Berkley was one of six national finalists who competed for the title on Jan. 7, mixing his variation of the classic drink for a panel of celebrity judges. The competitors were chosen in local and regional contests.

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Image:
Stephen McGee / for NBC News

The building has been abandoned for years, but its windows aren’t broken and there’s no graffiti on its walls – unlike so many other forgotten hulks nearby in the long-impoverished southwest corner of Detroit.

Community organizers promise to soon reopen the Mexicantown Mercado and turn it into an anchor for the city’s Latino community. They also hope to turn the complex into a shining example of what can happen in Detroit with help from the companies that transformed the once sleepy Midwest town into the Motor City..

As part of Operation Brighter Future, Ford Motor Co. is pumping $10 million into the resurrection of the Mexicantown Mercado – which will serve as a new food bank and community center and be renamed the Ford Resource and Engagement Center. Company officials, notably including new Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields, promise still more aid to come for the long-beleaguered Detroit..

Such moves are not entirely altruistic, said Fields. Detroit’s long-running problems don’t just serve as the butt of jokes when he travels, but the transplanted Jersey boy has also seen firsthand that it can be difficult to get others to migrate to Motown. .

“The community we live in can be either a draw – or not – to get the best and brightest we need for our company’s future,” Fields said. .

Ford is by no means alone. Since emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, General Motors has ramped up its involvement in a city that is teetering on bankruptcy. So has Chrysler, which moved its headquarters to the fringe suburb of Auburn Hills more than two decades ago..

There’s no question that Detroit needs all the help it can get. .

The making of Motor City.

In the years after World War II, the “Arsenal of Democracy” was a major part of American pride about its industrial muscle – and the primary source of the machines that helped transport U.S. workers out to the fast-growing suburbs. But over the years, the factories and jobs followed, leaving a city of abandoned assembly and supplier plants and rapidly shrinking communities, especially after the riots of the mid-1960s..

Whole neighborhoods have vanished or are largely filled with abandoned homes and once-thriving businesses. In the 1950 census, Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million, making it the nation’s fifth-largest city. That dwindled to 706,585 people in 2011, according to the U.S. Census estimate. During the previous decade, the city lost one resident every 22 minutes.

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Detroit City Is the Place to Be
Author Mark Binelli grew up in a Detroit in decline during the 1970s. The city used to embody the American dream: the auto industry, consumer culture and Motown.

When Rolling Stone magazine asked him to write about the Detroit auto show in January 2009, Binelli tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden, he jumped on it.

But Binelli didn't stop there. He moved back to his hometown to chronicle the city. He put it all into a book called Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.

Covering Detroit as a native

"When I got there, I realized Detroit had become this poster city for the recession. I mean, reporters were coming [from all over the] country, all over the world, really, to look at the place, and I felt like, as someone who'd grown up there, I could really bring a little bit more nuance to the story, and not tell the same stories that are being told over and over — and that includes things like humor. I mean, Detroit is a very surreal, weird place, and I thought a lot of that was being missed by reporters who were just coming in for an afternoon or a day or two."

Visiting the 'zone'

"It's a huge swath of land — 190 acres — that had been a residential neighborhood once upon a time. It was raised by the city, and was supposed to become an industrial park. The idea was lots of factories would move in, and nothing happened. So, it's hard to really convey what it is like. You're basically five minutes from downtown of a major American city, but you are standing in these fields, that, I mean you could be in rural Arkansas, and you can still see traces of the old neighborhood. The sidewalks are so overgrown, they are almost invisible, but if you look carefully you can see the sidewalks ... You will notice a glimpse of red, and it turns out to be an old fire hydrant that is covered with grass that is 3 feet high. It's a surreal place."

Room for improvement

"One of the problems with Detroit is, you know, it was a city that at its peak, population was 2 million. Now with this last census, in 2010, it's down to just over 700,000, so you have all this vacant land, all of these abandoned buildings, what do you do with it? I mean, one of the more intriguing things that's been talked about, not much progress has been made so far, has been this sort of right-sizing initiative. That's the euphemistic term they have been using. Basically the idea is to convince people, incentivize people somehow, to move to denser urban cores, so then you would have the vacant land concentrated, and you could turn that into parks, possibility into farms.

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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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