Detroit's Comeback Moment

The resilient Michigan city has — once again — caught the attention of the world.

WORDS Melinda Sheckells
November / December 2019

Detroit's Belt pedestrian alley. / Photography EE Berger

Everybody loves a comeback story — the tale of the fallen-from-grace hero who once again makes it back to the top with determination, ingenuity, sweat and just a little bit of luck. Now imagine that character is a city with as bold and rich a narrative as any protagonist: a leader of industry, a hub of arts and culture, and a center for transportation innovation. Throw in a plot twist of rapid suburbanization, spawning a mass exodus of the population to bedroom communities and leaving the once vital downtown a blighted greyfield for decades. 

But then, like a phoenix, the urban core rises from the ashes, due to modern iterations of “Made in America” and the culture reflecting it. This is Detroit in the 21st century, as art, food, design and business combine in one of the country’s most exciting cities.

Shinola creative director Daniel Caudill at the Shinola Hotel.
The Block That Changed Everything

In downtown Detroit, 1400 Woodward Avenue was and is the center of it all. Built in 1915, the red-tiled structure was home to the T.B. Rayl & Co. hardware store until the late 1950s. In 1936, another great American business, the Singer sewing-machine company, constructed a neoclassical building next door designed by Detroit-based Smith, Hinchman & Grylls—now known as the SmithGroup, the nation’s oldest independent architecture and engineering firm.

As the city changed, so did Woodward Avenue, and by the 1970s, these buildings and those surrounding them—once great temples of entrepreneurship and retail—had been abandoned. Then, in 2011, real-estate investment firm Bedrock began snapping up properties in the area. “When we first started acquiring property downtown, there wasn’t a lot going on,” says Dan Mullen, who served as Bedrock’s president until this year. “The buildings that we were buying had been sitting vacant for 30 to 50 years and were falling apart.”

The crown jewel of its acquisitions was 1400 Woodward, ideal for what would become the ultimate extension for Detroit-based luxury design brand Shinola, which makes everything from timepieces and leather goods to jewelry and audio devices. The result is a 129-room bespoke hotel that seamlessly blends the grandeur of the historic structure with the ethos of a modern American fashion trendsetter.

“Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis, Dan Gilbert, cofounder of Quicken Loans, and I would get together to brainstorm ways to work closer together,” Mullen says. “The result of one of our sessions was, ‘Let’s build a hotel.’ I started putting all the pieces together and finding the right assets. I sat in front of them again about a year later with full plans and they blessed the project to move forward.”

Shinola creative director Daniel Caudill was the first employee of the brand when they launched in 2011, and the hotel has always been part of the picture. “We saw there was a need for a great hospitality experience,” he says. “It was something the city deserved and we talked to Bedrock about it. And as we started building out our factory, offices and stores—the world of Shinola—it was a natural progression from there.”

The Shinola's Living Room features pieces by Beverly Fishman and Tiff Massey.
They knew it wasn’t merely about creating a showroom for the brand. Instead, the desire was to express the Shinola environment in a much larger way. “We want people to feel that they’re at the hotel for a luxury experience and not trying to be sold every five minutes,” says Caudill. “Obviously, if there is an item someone’s interested in, and it’s available in the store, they can buy it, but the hotel is really about having a quality Shinola experience.” After moving from Dallas to Detroit, Caudill says he was struck by how many creative people call the city home, and was enchanted by its Midwestern sensibility. One of his favorite aspects of the hotel is the art shown in the Living Room, which was curated by local gallery Library Street Collective. Headed by husband-and-wife duo Anthony and JJ Curis, LSC represents artists from the past few decades, a blend of everyone from rising stars to big names.

He also praises the unique furniture in the rooms, manufactured by Hilltop and sourced by interior designer Christine Gachot. “A lot of it was made in Ohio, in Amish factories. The level of quality is just amazing. And to have that in a hotel room is pretty wonderful,” Caudill says. “The blanket we developed for the hotel also turned out beautifully. It’s an alpaca striped blanket that’s really cool—we’ve started selling those in the stores, and have had to reorder them. We did a hotel clock colorway that we’re offering. We developed a hotel scent, and started selling a candle. A few things developed for the hotel were brought into the stores, and a few things made for our line were brought into the hotel, so it’s a mix.”

Joining the historic Rayl and Singer buildings of the Shinola are three new edifices situated along what is known as Parker’s Alley behind the hotel, which house cool spots such as Drought juice bar and food and beverage concepts by New York chef Andrew Carmellini. Mullen says the entire dynamic of the block has changed rapidly, from sleepy with no retail to a bustling destination with foot traffic, restaurants and stores. “I love parking my car and not using it for a week, walking everywhere,” he says. “Every single day I see new faces talking about how excited they are to be in Detroit and take advantage of all the things that are happening. Now the city is thriving, when once all these properties were completely dead.” For his part, NoHo Hospitality’s Carmellini made 20 trips to Detroit over a period of three years before opening his four food and beverage offerings: Penny Red’s, a fried-chicken joint; The Brakeman, an American beer hall; San Morello, a contemporary Italian restaurant; and Evening Bar, a lounge at the Shinola Hotel.

With more than a dozen restaurants throughout the country, Carmellini is perhaps best known for his TriBeCa hotspot, Locanda Verde, a favorite of Kartsotis’. The watch and leather-goods entrepreneur recruited Carmellini to be part of a new hospitality project in the epicenter of downtown Detroit. But when the chef saw what would become the Shinola Hotel, it was just an empty building and he wasn’t sold.

Chef Andrew Carmellini.

“It was very cold. Somebody took us to try a Lafayette Coney Island dog and I was questioning what the hell we were doing here,” Carmellini says. “It took a while to really understand the city of Detroit. But there’s a lot of love. People want to see Detroit succeed. It’s amazing what’s happened in the last three years. It’s a city in an upward cycle. It also has a very strong chef community, with restaurant concepts that have a sense of place and pride that is very appealing.”

His peers back in New York were a harder sell: “Why not Hong Kong? Why not London? Why not Vegas? Why not L.A.?” they questioned.

But two factors piqued his interest—how busy the airport is on any given day and how hard it can be to find a hotel room due to a constant stream of conventions, concerts and sporting events. “If I don’t book a couple of weeks out, I have a hard time finding a room, even at my own hotel,” he laughs. “Which tells me something about the underlying economy of the region.”

With approachability in mind, he settled on two very simple concepts—chicken and beer—and a third where he would be able to express his own brand of modern Italian cuisine. “Going to Detroit and just plopping a New York brand there didn’t make sense to me,” he says. “I wanted to create something that was inherently part of the story, as opposed to an outsider coming in.” At San Morello, diners enjoy handmade pastas (like his grandma’s ravioli), artistically crafted pizzas and wood-fired meat and fish.

A visitor to Shinola’s Evening Bar will find different food options than in the restaurants, while hotel guests can order from a very “American-made” room-service menu. “We have homemade chicken soup.

We have a really good burger,” Carmellini says. “We have roast chicken with peas and mashed potatoes.”

He says guests are also open to adventurous proteins or rare wines. As the palate moves forward, so does the city.

“Among our team, we’ve had eight people move from New York City. Three of them already bought houses,” he says. “People see opportunity.”

StockX CMO Deena Bahri at the company's headquarters.
The Start-Up Disrupting E-Commerce

A veteran of digital start-up brands like Birchbox and Gilt Groupe, Deena Bahri, the new CMO of StockX, recently uprooted her life from San Francisco to Detroit after falling in love with the city’s potential. She was initially approached about the opportunity by an investor and mentor who praised the city to her. “He said, ‘There’s so much going on in Detroit. I am excited about this investment. I want you to consider this as a next opportunity,’ ” Bahri says. At first she declined, with no interest in uprooting her family, but a year later it came around again and, after meeting with new StockX CEO Scott Cutler, she bit.

“The decision to leave the Bay Area was a big one for us,” she says. “But we just felt really excited about not only what StockX has to offer, but also what the Detroit metro area has to offer. So we were equally excited by a personal commitment as well as a professional one.”

A luxury-goods exchange cofounded by Quicken Loans’ Gilbert, StockX represents a new pillar in Detroit-born industry. It’s a marketplace that allows consumers to discover, buy and sell objects they covet, particularly hard-to-find collectible sneakers. It recently reached unicorn status, achieving a $1 billion valuation.

“The objects are guaranteed authentic, and they’re always the right price, given the business model of the stock market,” Bahri says. “There’s total transparency—you know exactly what others are willing to pay and you can set what you’re willing to pay.” Businesses such as StockX are transforming Detroit, and Bahri is inspired to be part of that movement and potentially shape it.

“There’s an extremely authentic American feeling that I get when I come to the Midwest,” she says. “There’s this sense of ‘wow,’ even from a business point of view. The automobile industry was the original entrepreneurial petri dish in the United States. And so there’s this sense of connecting back to history. And culturally Detroit has a lot to offer that’s very different from living in a major coastal city.”

In order to flourish, a city must be able to attract transplants with economic opportunity, and StockX has succeeded in luring a young, hip, streetwear-savvy workforce and tech-titan executive team. “I made a conscious choice to come to Detroit,” Bahri says. And along with that comes embracing local traditions. “I’ve definitely been introduced to some new foods. I learned about the Maurice, which is a Detroit-invented salad [with sweet gherkin, olives and lemony mayo dressing]. I tried that at Karl’s in The Siren hotel the other night.”

On Bahri’s to-do list is catching a concert at the historic Fox Theatre. She already knows she likes to have a cocktail at the shoebox-sized, pink Candy Bar (also in The Siren), dine on wood-fired dishes at Selden Standard, and feast at the restaurant-butcher shop Marrow. She also embraces the city’s public-art programs, which can be found in surprising places throughout the urban center.

Francois Beaurain and Medina Dugger's Chromatin #23 in The Belt.
The Art of the City

Husband-and-wife duo Anthony and JJ Curis, founders of Library Street Collective, are behind much of the art beautification in downtown Detroit. They spearheaded both The Z, a parking structure with murals on every floor, and The Belt, an alleyway featuring art and installations by big names including Vhils, Revok, Faile, Shepard Fairey and Tristan Eaton. Their gallery is located in the heart of The Belt, which is now one of the busiest pedestrian spaces in Detroit.

“We’ve always taken an interest in public space and its potential to transform communities,” Anthony says. “This has been a major focus of our gallery since the inception of Library Street Collective. Detroit provides an incredible opportunity to explore these ideas and challenge the reuse of the city’s resources.”

The director of art for Rock Ventures, JJ oversees the art initiatives across all of Gilbert’s companies, including Bedrock and the Shinola. “Arts and culture have always flourished in Detroit, even without the traditional support systems that most international arts communities rely on,” she says. “The scene is vibrant and passionate, with a foundation built on the artists, creative spaces and small community-based organizations throughout the city.”

One such artist is Revok. Originally from Riverside, California, the abstract painter got his start with a spray can and came to the city in 2011 looking for opportunity. His career was springboarded by 2012’s Detroit Beautification Project, which brought in street artists from all over the world. After moving back to the West Coast, he has now returned to Detroit to raise his family and is gaining recognition as one of the art world’s up-and-comers who has gone from the streets to the gallery. LSC recently hosted an exhibition of his work.

“The art program has been a huge asset for the growth of downtown,” Mullen says. “Creativity in urban settings can really unleash our minds.”

Mullen says the city will continue to lead with its big heart. “Detroit could really be a platform and show the world how a city that needed a lot of love and care can come back. It’s more than just buildings—it’s about bringing people together and creating opportunities for humans in a meaningful way.”


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