DETROIT — 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. The only time I've had to pass through a metal detector when entering a bank was in Detroit.
But look past the blocks of broken windows, sunken roofs and graffiti, and there is a Detroit stirring back to life. "Revitalization" might be a bit strong, but as low as the city has sunk, its subtle energy and excitement put it at a fascinating crossroad: 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 very first stop, the modern barbecue joint called Slows Bar-B-Q, which is widely credited for jump-starting the Corktown neighborhood west of downtown. Heavy with brick and wood, pork and beef, 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."
"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.
"I've never been to New York City, but I imagine it's like this," Steve Snell said. "What I'd hope is that Detroit becomes a place where you can walk to things like this."
Detroit's promise is in part a function of its well-documented struggles, which have been told in countless films and books, among them last year's "The Ruins of Detroit," a $125, 200-glossy-page book of Detroit's most arresting wreckage.
But the city's depleted population also has made hatching plans relatively simple and cheap. A group of local graphic design and architecture students just started Urban Put-Put, a miniature-golf course beside the city's ultimate blight (or haunting beauty, if you prefer) — the towering, empty, 100-year-old Michigan Central train station.
Similarly, Jacques Driscoll wanted to open a restaurant two years ago in San Diego, where he was living, but realized it would be easier to do back home in Detroit. In March he launched Green Dot Stables, a restaurant serving gourmet sliders — think elk, lamb and marinated tempeh with wasabi mayo — and Michigan craft beer for the very Detroit prices of $2 and $3 per item.
From the outside, Green Dot looks like the same beaten-down, windowless dive it was before Driscoll took over, all the way down to the Diners Club International sign hanging out front. Inside, however, Driscoll spent a year rehabilitating the 1970s-era wood floor and brick walls while capitalizing on his predecessor's kitschy racetrack theme. The result, a comfortable, affordable place where you'd happily eat sliders and drink good beer for hours, embodies Detroit 2013: lively, impressive and slightly askew.
"People ask, 'Why would you leave a nice place like San Diego for Detroit?'" Driscoll said. "It's hard to explain without taking them around for a couple days and showing them what's going on."
So people, like Driscoll, do that. Detroit is a city long on pride, and — purely my guess — its sense of united struggle makes it friendlier than most places. Driscoll, for instance, met tourists from Montreal staying in a campground across the Detroit River last year. When they told him they were just checking out Detroit for a few days, he not only offered to show them around, but he also put them up.
I knew it wasn't coincidence a day later when a local photographer named C.J. gladly spent an afternoon driving me around his hometown, showing off the good and the bad, when I explained why I was in Detroit. The city is just like that, and its charms are visceral. It is not "cute" or "charming" or "revitalized." It is just humming along, quietly pushing and reinventing itself while many outsiders fail to see past the disarray.
"It's such a weird city," Driscoll said. "I can never put my finger on how to describe it to people, but you can always find something unique going on if you ask the right people."
Keep your ears open at Mercury Burger Bar (a burger joint with a tip-top beer list and wide space to sit out back), Astro Coffee (which brews the best imported coffee they can find) and Sugar House — all a literal stone's throw from Slows — and you'll hear people in their 20s and 30s talking about the properties they're buying and their plans for redevelopment.
One of them is John Gerlock, a lifelong Detroit resident who has redeveloped several pieces of cheap property in recent years and drinks at Sugar House. He was aghast at first when the bar wouldn't substitute the gin of his choice in one of its craft cocktails. Then he was reassured.