|The vibrant interiors of the design store Hugh.|
4240 Cass Ave.; 313-831-4844; lovehughlongtime.com.
As inventive restaurants, sleek hotels, and forward-thinking galleries pop up among restored architectural landmarks, Detroit brims with excitement and optimism.
From Henry Ford’s Model T to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park to Motown hits, Detroit has long been a driver of American ingenuity. “The Big Three carmakers basically invented auto design here,” says Andrew Smith, a global design director for Cadillac. “And because of that, Detroit maintains a deep respect for creativity and innovation.” Of course, over the past several decades, the city also became a poster child for urban depopulation and decay, problems that eventually resulted in its July 2013 bankruptcy filing. But from this crisis an interesting phenomenon has emerged: A new generation of entrepreneurs—chefs, artists, designers, curators, and developers—is turning the city’s once-all-but-abandoned core into a dynamic DIY laboratory. “There’s energy, passion, and excitement,” says native son John Varvatos, who opened an outpost of his fashion brand here in March. “The city is evolving rapidly, and I have no doubt it will once again be a must-visit travel destination.”
A prime symbol of these shifting fortunes is the 130-year-old Beaux Arts Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), whose iconic Diego Rivera murals join masterpieces by Caravaggio, Degas, and Van Gogh—treasures that, theoretically at least, faced the threat of forced auction to cover municipal debts. The works escaped this fate last year, when the DIA became a private nonprofit. “A British journalist asked me, ‘Wouldn’t selling the collection be like Detroit saying, “We give up”?’” recalls Graham W.J. Beal, the retiring director of the institute. “So geographically, philosophically, and morally, the DIA is now at the center of the Detroit revival.”
Indeed, the DIA’s midtown surroundings, long the city’s cultural hub, are now in the midst of a commercial renaissance. Helping lead the way is Shinola, a manufacturer of watches, bicycles, and leather goods founded in 2011. “In a very short time, Shinola has created more than 350 jobs that teach new skill sets,” says Richard Lambertson, a recently appointed design director at the company. “When I tell people I work there, it’s as if I’d said NASA. They’re so impressed.” Shinola opened its retail flagship in midtown two years ago and has since added a sister shop, the indie-fashion boutique Willys. The firm’s presence has attracted neighbors such as the conjoined design depots Hugh and Nora, where you can find everything from vintage-style Braun timepieces to elegant furniture by local Hugh Acton. “A shopper’s paradise” is how Motor City–born, New York–based fashion designer Tracy Reese describes the Shinola store. “For Detroiters it’s a point of pride,” she says. “I recently had dinner with Anna Sui—she’s also from Detroit—and we were both wearing the same Shinola watch.”
Though the DIA is typically Reese’s first midtown stop, she’s also a fan of the Cass Gilbert–designed Detroit Public Library, which features John Stephens Coppin’s vivid 1964 fresco Man’s Mobility. Down the street, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) is boosting the area with an education, outreach, and research initiative it has dubbed Detroit City; the museum also has a first-rate in-house restaurant, Café 78, run by chef Marc Djozlija and mixologist Dave Kwiatkowski, the duo behind downtown’s hopping gastropub Wright & Co. A block north of MOCAD, the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, established in 2010 by veteran gallerist George N’Namdi, has one of the world’s premier collections of work by African-American artists. For lodgings in midtown, Beal recommends the DIA–adjacent Inn on Ferry Street, comprising six restored Victorian-era homes and carriage houses.
Another midtown anchor is Selden Standard, a buzzy eatery whose rustic fire-roasted cuisine nabbed a 2015 James Beard nomination for chef Andy Hollyday. He previously ran the kitchen at Iron Chef America winner Michael Symon’s Roast, which opened downtown in 2008 and, Hollyday observes, “really elevated the food game in this town.” Stellar meals can also be had at the new Gold Cash Gold, occupying a converted pawnshop in the Corktown neighborhood and serving refined Southern classics. And in the Eastern Market area, the black-and-brass-accented Antietam is earning raves for its French-inspired menu, while Trinosophes, a café and art gallery, offers fresh fare from Detroit’s urban farms.
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