Detroit has inspired a lot of nicknames: Arsenal of Democracy, Motor City, City of Trees, Hitsville, Hockeytown. All are out of date. Military spending headed west after World War II, the car industry started moving south in the 1950s, Dutch elm disease leveled the great archways of foliage in the '60s, Berry Gordy Jr. shipped Motown Records to L.A. in 1972, and the Red Wings haven't vied for the Stanley Cup since President Obama took office.

If there's a moniker that fits now, it's Cuba of the North. Like the onetime Pearl of the Antilles, Detroit is starting to emerge from decades of economic privation with an entrepreneurial energy that's reshaping the landscape. I grew up here, and, like other natives, I was depressed by the city's demise. But over the past year I began to notice a shift, a success that was sticking, particularly among the most skeptical demographic of all: Detroiters who had fled. People like musician Jack White, of White Stripes fame, and designer John Varvatos were returning to do business in their hometown.

Will Adler, whose family has been selling clothes in Michigan for 100 years, established his company, Will Leather Goods, in Oregon, but he returned in January to open a 9,000-square-foot concept store in a fabulously refurbished supermarket in the resurgent Midtown neighborhood. "Like the boxer who gets hit but keeps coming back, Detroit has never lost its heart," Adler says.

But, he adds, he's also seeing something new: a real thirst for freewheeling creativity, and not just in the community- based artists who are reconfiguring neighborhoods all over town. I saw it too, on a recent trip with my family. We found plenty to do, with or without the kids.

The city was built for drivers, with big six-lane boulevards left over from the Motor City days, and it's dotted with ethnic enclaves and their restaurant rows: Banglatown, Greektown, Mexicantown, and Corktown. Vintage neighborhoods such as Indian Village, Boston-Edison, and Palmer Park are holding on to their boom-era swank. In between there are the abandoned hulks of stamping plants and deserted residential areas, with many blocks turning into de facto nature preserves. It's not unusual to spot a pheasant, as my kids did, rising out of the ruins of a factory.

Evidence of renovation is everywhere, from the great stacks of wood on scissor lifts parked beside long-empty downtown department stores, to the many bike shops and craft distilleries and pickling plants popping up—the calling cards of neo-retro DIYers everywhere.

You still need a car to take in the scope of Detroit, but areas now exist where you barely do at all, like Downtown (a.k.a. City Center) or the Cultural Corridor. If you stay at the Westin Book Cadillac, a beautifully renovated 1924 hotel and residential high-rise in the Renaissance Revival style, you're right by Detroit's two big-league stadiums, Comerica Park and Ford Field, in the heart of City Center. For home games the Lions stay at the Book Cadillac, so you can, if you're 11 and wide-eyed, ride up and down in the elevator, as my son did, meeting football players as they make their way over to the stadium.

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