Downtown Detroit in January is far more pleasant than you might imagine. Of course, a significant reason for that is your imagination is almost certainly conjuring up images of a post-apocalyptic cityscape filled with vagrants, barrel fires and abandoned Oldsmobiles. There’d be blowing tumble weeds too if you knew it wasn’t so damned cold. Indeed, it’s still rather depressing in a broad sense, but there is a kindling of hope, life and vigor here that speaks to a town keen on not letting itself become the worst-case scenario those from afar imagine it to be.
I’m in Detroit for the annual North American International Auto Show, which serves as a home turf showcase and flag-waving affair for one of America’s largest industries. It’s also the biggest thing to happen in downtown Detroit other than playoff appearances by the Tigers, Red Wings or Lions. Six years ago, the Detroit Auto Show (as it’s also known), was a solemn affair filled with news of bankruptcies and foreign automakers choosing to skip the show altogether. It seemed perfectly plausible that America’s principal auto show would fade from importance, destined to become nothing but a shell of its former self … much like the urban scape it resides in.
And yet, Detroit (the automotive industry) bounced back and with it, its auto show. At the same time, Detroit (the city) has begun a renaissance of its own. Perhaps the progress isn’t as obvious, but it’s there. The parking lots where derelict buildings have long-since been torn down are still omnipresent, creating a sporadic skyline of tall, narrow buildings with architecturally significant facades left to fend for themselves after their neighboring buildings met the wrecking ball. It’s a bit bizarre, and in the winter, empty. I walked several blocks without seeing another human being. It’s a tad eerie, but I didn’t feel unsafe (especially since the highly visible Detroit PD are doing their best to make sure that feeling is a reality).
Even though the weather warmed to a manageable 30 degrees from the previous day’s 10, I opt against walking to my selected lunch spot of R.U.B. BBQ Pub adjacent to Grand Circus Park. Instead, I take the Detroit People Mover, a one-way, two-carriage automated elevated train that orbits the downtown area. It’s 75 cents and provides nice views of the city as well as the frosty Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, beyond. From up on the People Mover, it’s easier to see the trendy new hang outs (such as Punch Bowl Social) and resilient old mainstays (like Jacoby’s bar) that represent the now and future of those who have begun to migrate into the downtown core.
Indeed, like many urban areas, a younger generation is slowly but surely rejuvenating downtown Detroit with help from similarly young, mostly tech companies like StubHub, Edmunds.com, Uber and an abundance of others in the growing M@dison Block of buildings not too far from my intended lunch spot. Whereas past generations of both people and businesses moved away from downtown to the far-out suburbs (where most still reside), this one is moving back in, keen to capitalize on the unique opportunity to not only rejuvenate a downtown landscape, but in many cases, rebuild it from scratch. After all, those parking lots don’t have to remain as such forever.
Perhaps fittingly, though, M@dison Block’s nearby People Mover station is closed for refurbishment, and as the train is one-way only, I’ve essentially made it 75 percent of the way around for nothing. Undaunted by a not-entirely-unexpected failure of public transportation, I disembark at the next station, perfectly willing to walk an extra four blocks or so. I mean, I am a hikist.
And yet, I don’t make it one of those blocks before I come upon a different lunch spot enticing enough to veer me off my original course. As you may have guessed from our journeys to Bend, Oregon, and Mendocino, Calif., I’m a bit of a brew pub enthusiast, and the Detroit Beer Company might as well have possessed its own gravitational pull.
Although there is restaurant space on the second floor and an open space for weddings and other events on the third, Detroit Beer Company is dominated by its ground floor bar and the large fermentation tanks behind it. Hanging from them are individual chalk boards describing that particular moment’s brews, including staples like Grand River Red and Local 1529 IPA, as well as seasonal specials like Willie’s Kilt Scotch Ale (my excellent selection).
Also behind the bar are several shelves filled with personalized beer mugs, decorated in marker and/or stickers. It reminded me of the personal steins left by habitual patrons in German biergartens, which is pretty much what it is. For $35 per year, a Detroit Beer Company mug membership gets you $4, 20-ounce fills rather than $5 pints, as well as an all-you-can-drink special on your birthday and $15 admission to their Detroit Lions viewing parties (bottomless beer, all-you-can eat buffet). If I lived in Detroit, $35 would’ve left my pocket right then and there. And not just because of the deal, but because the beer is legitimately good and I’m a sucker for any menu with waffle fries.
My hunger satisfied and a pair of Willie’s Kilts consumed, I trudged back into the cold, foregoing the People Mover this time and making the journey back to my hotel the old fashion way. Down on the ground, it’s just as impossible to ignore the vacant lots, the empty streets and the general feeling that I arrived 50 years too late, but at the same time, it’s just as easy to see the opportunity present and that perhaps I simply arrived 5 or 10 years too early.