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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

Detroit’s Twilight Zone

July 14, 2017

Take a long walk, or a street car ride, along the vaunted section of Woodward Avenue known as Detroit’s downtown/Midtown renaissance area and you will be dismayed – perhaps even stunned – by what truly lies within this section of resurrection.

During a recent visit when I served as tour guide for an out-of-town couple, I found myself in a central core of the rebounding city that amounted to a twilight zone, an expensive playground for suburban whites. The Woodward corridor has become a strange mix of chic shopping normally found in Birmingham or the Bloomfields and pubs/restaurants that duplicate the beer-specialty hangouts in Royal Oak and Ferndale.

The gushing tributes by newspaper commentators about the Detroit core’s comeback leave aside one overwhelming fact – this is not Motown, this is hipster headquarters. Long beards, man-buns, thick-framed glasses and purple hair serve as common sights in this part of town.

All along our path northward from a starting point at Campus Martius, with its over-sized sandbox, an elaborate shopping mall-style water fountain, and Oakland County-inspired outdoor cafes, we found a far-from-diverse crowd that certainly offered a distinct disconnect from the decaying neighborhoods and shops within a reasonable walking distance from Woodward.

Everything seemed designed for young white people – in a city that is 90 percent minority occupied – or for the region’s upper middle class, of all ethnicities, who were visiting a town that distinguishes itself as the nation’s poorest major city.

Prices along this yellow brick road match the most outrageous mark-ups seen in upscale boutiques in suburbia or at Troy’s chic Somerset Mall.

This corridor of revival offers a shop with skirts that sell for $260. Nearby is a Detroit-themed music store that presents nirvana for Baby Boomer rock fans, with vintage concert posters from the 1970s, vinyl records, old-school stereo equipment and turntables, guitars, amplifiers, books and clothing. But this is not a Motown store, this is a place that focuses on the legacy of Alice Cooper, the MC5, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and Ted Nugent.

Among the items for sale are a limited-edition autobiography by the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood for $450, $88 T-shirts and $1,200 stylish sports coats. That price tag for a rock star-inspired coat is roughly equal to the value of some homes on the near horizon. 

Pumpkin-flavored beer and ice cream pudding

Even basic accoutrements such as a gourmet slider/burger or ice cream pudding serve as high-priced appetizers along the way. A variety of vegan and vegetarian restaurants on or near this central artery cater to the trendy clientele.

Who can offer the most craft beers and IPAs – 130 varieties was the high end I saw advertised — seems to define a friendly competition among the bar owners within this inner city refuge. If you seek a pumpkin-flavored beer or a brew with a distinct orange peel taste, you’ve come to the right place.

The QLine streetcars — Woodward’s amusement ride for visitors – offer another part of the downtown/Midtown experience. The business leaders who finagled this new form of transportation would be happy to hear that on July 1, with many Michiganders already Up North or out of town elsewhere for the long Fourth of July weekend, the QLine was packed, especially heading north.

But, this being my first ride on the streetcar, I couldn’t help but become irritated by the herky-jerky starts and stops hobbling the majority of riders who were standing and holding on, subway-style. Clearly, the QLine is not safe for seniors to stand and attempt to maintain their balance. It may be nit-picky to also mention the burnt-rubber smell emanating from the brakes on these new vehicles.

Less than halfway through the Midtown area comes the sports stadiums aimed mostly at entertaining suburban dwellers – Comerica Park for Tigers fans, Ford Field for the Lions faithful, and the mammoth (heavily subsidized), unfinished Little Caesar’s Arena for the Red Wings and Pistons. Then comes a bit of a Woodward gap, with numerous downtrodden buildings nestled alongside small shops and saloons.

Further up the road, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and the Detroit Public Library certainly add to the ambiance of the northern Midtown area. But in this gap, the popular stop is at Canfield Street, home of the nationally renowned Shinola store. For the uninitiated, Shinola offers a unique blend of odd gadgets, knick-knacks, watches, and bicycles. Upscale twinkling trinkets, not bling-bling. You will need a credit card to afford a purchase.

A few doors down, I stopped at a pub that was packed with Millennials on a mid-afternoon Saturday. Parked outside was some type of tour bus or party bus. Inside, the cost of a small sandwich and a 12-ounce draft brew was just short of $20.

Urban renewal – Woodward vs. neighborhoods

Despite the far-reaching praise for the core city’s turnaround in recent years, many Woodward buildings remain under extensive renovation, far from finished, encapsulated within plastic wrapping and presenting sidewalk-level construction detours.

This is carefully calculated urban renewal without the bulldozers that crumple neglected structures by the thousands in the far-flung neighborhoods. This is the land of gentrification, with upscale lofts, created from rotting buildings, that now sell for half a million dollars.

These signs of prosperity are considered all good by the business community – and certainly by the business billionaires such as Dan Gilbert and the Ilitch family who have led the way. But isn’t turning the central city into a version of Oakland County culturally and racially out of bounds from the 30- and 40-year effort to make downtown once again an inviting place for Detroit residents?

Advocates of this transformation say that this recovery zone revived a city that was in its twilight years not long ago, returning it to past glory. But I doubt that anyone who was a part of the relatively diverse population that made Woodward a bustling corridor in the glory days of decades ago will recognize a single city block along this route.

This is not a rebirth. This is a transformation.

I don’t know that I will be coming back anytime soon.

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at chad.b.selweski@gmail.com.

July 13, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski



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