Grit and Glamour: The Detroit You’ve Probably Never Seen
September 13, 2016
Everyone loves a good comeback story, and cheering an underdog epitomizes Americana. Detroit is the ultimate underdog. There is grit. And if you choose to see it, there is glamour.
No city in the U.S. has experienced a tumultuous decline quite like Detroit, but as far as I can see, no city in the U.S. is currently experiencing a rebirth like this resilient city either – the progress is remarkable and the pride is contagious. Detroit may not be the most glamorous city, but rest assured, the city’s unvarnished grit is its best asset. It’s the depth and drama of Detroit’s history — bootstrapping industrialism, soulful factory workers, and hardheaded optimism – that has paved the way for its triumphant return.
On the surface, Detroit is not your traditional white-glove luxury destination, but it delivers lavishly to those who consciously seek out its cultural treasures and dare to peel back the intricate layers of history. With inventive restaurants, sleek hotels, and forward-thinking galleries, it checks off all the prerequisites—exclusivity, enrichment, and authenticity—of a luxury destination, establishing itself as the unassuming emblem of experiential luxury travel.
Detroit is like rock and roll. It’s like soul. Detroit is like the whole idea of cool. If you have to explain it to someone, they probably won’t understand. You have to see it. Live it. Be it. That’s when Detroit starts to move you. —Unknown
CONSUMERISM + CHANGE
• Quality over quantity
• Local economy consumer
• Automotive roots and innovation
• Emerging tech hub and startup culture
Heritage and history are at the core of high-quality consumer retail in Detroit. At every corner, homegrown brands are using the historical and cultural grit of the city as a launch pad into the glamour of the luxury retail space.
The fashion and automotive industries dominate luxury consumerism in Detroit. A Detroit native, John Varvatos—an upscale men’s designer—opened a 4,600-square-foot store in downtown Detroit in a neighborhood that has been bereft of significant fashion retail for decades. But today, it is one of the most visited and loved stores in Downtown. Move up to Midtown, and you’ll find one of the most celebrated success stories from Detroit at Shinola, a luxury lifestyle brand that specializes in watches, bicycles, and leather goods. Lastly, it’s impossible to discuss luxury and Detroit without mentioning one of America’s leading luxury car brands and Detroit’s crowning glory: Cadillac.
Get on the Detroit train – it’s going to be a magical ride… —John Varvatos
While Varvatos and Cadillac are global names with local roots, there’s a series of brands that are using their local roots to create global impressions. Spawned by Detroit’s wounded landscape and with a sharp focus on community and the local economy, homegrown startup brands such as Floyd and Detroit Denim are pushing the ‘Made in Detroit’ movement forward with their simple aesthetics and powerful backstories. The great allure of Detroit for luxury travelers, particularly millennials, is the humanization of brands and the rare opportunity to interact with companies and their creators in unprecedented ways.
But heritage and authenticity don’t stop at luxury retail; they extend deep into Detroit’s real estate, specifically the luxury hotel sector. Luxury hotels in Detroit are few and far between (for now), and most are steeped in layers and layers of history, culture, and art. While making your rounds through the luxury hotel space, you’ll find modern elegance meets old-world glamour at The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit—the world’s tallest hotel when it was built in 1924. And if you’re looking for a slight escape from the hustle and bustle of Detroit’s center, drive to Dearborn to stay at one of Michigan’s most revered and luxurious properties, The Henry, an Autograph Collection hotel that is famed for its hallway-turned-vintage art gallery and historical significance.
Consumption of luxury brands and experiences has only started to take off in the Motor City, and it’s only a matter of time that other high-end brands flock to Detroit to capitalize on the redefined luxury appetites of its new residents and travelers. But for now, there’s more than enough to quell and nurture your innermost commercial desires.
1) Take your retail dreams to new heights by shopping with a personal stylist at John Varvatos.
2) Go behind-the-scenes on a factory tour at Shinola to see where the grit and glamour collide.
3) Rent a Cadillac, with or without a chauffeur, to cruise the city in style.
4) Visit Pony Ride – a collaborative working space for small businesses – to speak with some of Detroit’s most talented creative visionaries and social entrepreneurs.
5) Check out The Peacock Room — a boutique featuring one-of-a-kind apparel and accessories with a vintage-inspired twist. Ask for Rachel Lutz.
Photo credit: johnvarvatos.com
CULTURE + CREATIVITY
• Birthplace of Motown and techno music
• Confluence of Art Deco and post-modern neo-Gothic architectural styles
• World-class museums
• Street art boom
Detroit is full of rebels, but in the best way possible. It’s a city that has most fully captured the imagination of the creative class. Famed for Motown, techno music, Diego Rivera murals, Eminem, Madonna (…and the list goes on), Detroit offers a coffer of culture and whether it’s music, art, design, architecture, or history you seek, Detroit is buzzing with options. Look beyond the empty buildings to find an alternate Detroit — one buoyed by the creative energy of an art- and culture-fueled renaissance.
Detroit has a long history of remarkable art, but the city’s more recent troubled times have given rise to an entrepreneurial artistic spirit in evidence everywhere around the city today. From the grassroots efforts of the Heidelberg Project to the trendy murals at Z Garage—a 10-story parking garage that has been converted into a mural gallery that reflects the work of 27 artists from across the globe—the entire city is a giant canvas for creative artists to publicly reveal the city’s humor, concerns, heritage, and progress.
Though the public and street art scene has carved a separate identity for itself, there is simply no discussion of art in Detroit without mentioning the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) – home to an impressive permanent collection of more than 60,000 pieces by famed artists such as Picasso, Degas, Cézanne, and van Gogh. One of the highlights is the larger-than-life murals by Diego Rivera – they overwhelm with their size and color.
In addition, for a peek into Detroit’s legendary relationship with music, a visit to Motown Studios is a must.
For a deeper dive into Detroit’s history and culture, time travel through the city’s multi-layered past with an architectural tour. Many of downtown Detroit’s skyscrapers are historic, but few attract the eye so well as the Guardian Building. The Roaring Twenties-era Art Deco and Mayan-inspired gold interior perfectly capture the city’s former grandeur.
Beyond the Guardian Building, Detroit has a robust roster of architectural marvels from some of the most significant names of the past two centuries: Albert Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Minoru Yamasaki, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mies van der Rohe envisioned the country’s first urban renewal project, designed to keep the middle class living in the city, in the idyllic Lafayette Park, while Albert Kahn, often known as “the architect of Detroit,” produced more buildings than any other architect in his lifetime.
The road map of Detroit’s future is outlined in its past — there are secrets buried in every corner and crevice waiting to be discovered.
1) Take a guided tour at the Detroit Institute of Arts to manage the voluminous collection of art.
2) Pick up a few history lessons on a walking architectural tour of the city with one of the city’s ambassadors from Detroit Experience Factory. Ask for Jeanette Pierce.
3) Design your own hand-bound journal at Salt & Cedar — an artsy letterpress studio in the historical heart of Eastern Market.
4) Ride a Model T in Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
5) Detroit is the first U.S. city to receive the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) City of Design designation. Celebrate Detroit’s role as a global center of design and creativity at the annual Detroit Design Festival.
CULINARY + COMMUNITY
• Third-wave coffee movement
• Homegrown liquors
• Quality food without the pretension
• Locally-sourced ingredients
Detroit is quickly becoming a mecca for great food and community-based culinary experiences. In today’s hyper-digital world, it’s a luxury to experience face-to-face human connections and Detroit is facilitating that like never before with its innovative restaurants, craft cocktail bars, pop up diners, food trucks, third-wave coffee movement, homegrown liquors, and urban farms and gardens.
Inventive restaurants with small plate menus and craft cocktail bars are all the rage in the city right now. With that same focus on local produce and the local economy, high-end restaurants such as Wright & Co., Townhouse, and Chartreuse are welcoming talented chefs from all over the country and using the city’s urban farms and gardens to produce gourmet dishes that are simple in ingredients, but rich in flavor. There is a great push to create high-quality gastronomic experiences that encourage that lost sense of community and to redefine high-end dining without the pretension.
In addition, Detroit is a popular breeding ground for pop up restaurants – mini-restaurants that temporarily operate in parks, plazas, galleries, warehouses, event centers, and larger restaurants. It allows chefs—both aspiring and established—to take advantage of underused spaces and kitchens to introduce new concepts without great expense. Given the welcoming nature of Detroiters, one of the best things about pop ups is the heightened level of intimacy and accessibility between you and the chefs cooking your food, allowing you to be an active participant in the process and taking your dining experience to the next level.
To complement the food scene, upscale bars such as Sugar House, Two James, and Our/Detroit are all creating luxurious spaces where foodies and booze snobs can rejoice and revel in the consumption of high-quality, often homegrown liquors. In addition to offering an impressive array of creative craft cocktails, many bars are moving to the next level by producing much of their alcohol in-house and offering distillery tours to showcase the success of the local economy.
Change is also brewing in Detroit’s coffee scene – there is a greater emphasis on producing high-quality coffee and experiences and promoting coffee as an artisanal foodstuff instead of a mass commodity. Independent coffeehouses such as Anthology, Great Lakes Coffee, and Café con Leche Nord are all roasting their own beans with single-origin coffee beans, satisfying the palates of even the most seasoned coffee aficionados.
Young restaurateurs and talented chefs have big plans to transform the once meat-and-potatoes town into a world-class dining city that is on par with other foodie destinations around the world — and they are well on their way.
1) For an exceptional farm to table dining experience, contact Chef Erin Sabo and explore the possibility of setting up a behind-the-scenes look at how the pop-up diner process works, learning the inspiration behind the menu, and perhaps, creating your own dishes using local ingredients from Eastern Market or one of the city’s many urban farms.
2) Sample a coffee flight at Café con Leche Nord.
3) Take a distillery tour at Two James Distillery – they sell a range of handcrafted vodka, gin, bourbon, and whiskey.
4) Check out Dine Drink Detroit — a two-week celebration of Detroit’s thriving restaurant culture.
5) Roam through Eastern Market–one of the country’s oldest and largest farmer’s markets.
Detroit may still be rough around the edges, but the resilient spirit and industrious virtues of the city and its residents have motored the beleaguered, but rebounding city back into action. If you’re willing to shed your previous unfounded judgments of Detroit and appreciate the progress it has made to re-invent itself, I promise you that the city will delight, enchant, and satisfy your senses in ways that you never imagined or expected.
Detroit may not be able to sell its comeback story for much longer—it’s decidedly back.
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I’m Nyssa. I started The Cultureur in August 2012, almost a decade after contracting the travel bug while on a Model United Nations conference in Russia and Finland.
And from there, when I took the first step in solo international travel and decided to study abroad in college,
there was no looking back, and I ended up living, studying, working, and volunteering in 6 countries (the U.S., the UK, France, Iceland, India, and Germany) and traveling to 50+ others.