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Detroit’s cultural history is a rich one: the smoky jazz bars serving soul food by day, skittish drum beats by night; the smooth Motown melodies; its status as a production powerhouse; the ornate art deco and beaux arts fabric of its downtown area.
The city may have struggled through difficult economic times in recent years, but Detroit’s appetite for music, art and culture never really left. And in 2017, the Michigan metropolis is a picture of optimism and hedonism. The city is forging its own identity and redefining “cool” in its own way. Detroit will always be authentically Detroit, but we can’t help drawing parallels with Berlin’s cultural resurgence 20 years ago. This gritty, urban sprawl has that same raw energy. Here’s why we think, as far as travel destinations go – and certainly if you like clubbing and street art – Detroit might just be the new Berlin.
It’s the birthplace of techno
Berlin may have Berghain, but techno originated in 1990s Detroit, finding a dark, sweaty, rhythmic home in its vast abandoned factories such as the Packard Plant. Techno never left Detroit, and maybe it’s only a matter of time before it regains its fame as a techno city – the owner of underground Berlin venue Tresor is looking to establish a super-club in the former car factory.
Detroit’s Movement festival attracts people from around the world every May (this year Carl Cox and Richie Hawtin headlined) while former indie venue Magic Stick recently went electronic. EDM is going strong in venues such as TV Lounge, The Works and Marble Bar, and there’s a secret techno museum inside the Submerge recording studio.
There was an exodus, but now creatives are flooding back in
Like East Berlin after the wall fell (albeit for different reasons), Detroit experienced a similar exodus when the city fell into bankruptcy by 2013. The population was at last count around 670,000, down from well over a million in the 1990s. That means a lot of space and empty buildings – its ruined art deco buildings are slowly being renovated (the best ones are the 1920s Guardian Building and the ornately marble-walled Fischer Building), and the cool kids who had left their home city when it had few prospects are returning to open galleries, bars and restaurants in areas such as Midtown, Cass Corridor, Downtown and – our favourite – Corktown.
It’s really, really cheap
Which makes life a lot easier now the exchange rate on the dollar isn’t so good. Rents are lower so decent restaurants and bars don’t have to charge as much as in, say, New York, but they’re just as good: check out Ima for big broth-y udon dishes and Japanese tacos, and Slows BBQ for slow-cooked meats. Hotels and Airbnbs in good neighbourhoods are design-led and affordable (stay in Corktown, Midtown, Cass Corridor or Downtown).
It’s all about DIY alternative spirit
Like in Berlin, there’s a stripped-back, DIY feel to Detroit. With few supermarkets, the city was branded a “food desert”. So in response to a lack of decent produce, residents began setting up urban farms. These can be found on empty plots all over the city – even downtown, by the MGM Grand casino. They’re maintained by residents and supply many of the city’s best restaurants, including Midtown’s Selden Standard and Gold Cash Gold in Corktown. There are also few chains in the city – the brands are small and local. Music-wise, you’ll find indie record stores everywhere supporting every genre you can think of. Particularly great ones are People’s Records, Hello Records, and Jack White’s Third Man Records store and vinyl-pressing plant, which also provides a gig space for local indie bands (not that the city’s short on those).
There’s street art everywhere
For the best, head to Eastern Market, the Saturday food market, where you’ll find gourmet salsa, artisan pickles, seasonal veg sold under big bright murals. In the centre of town, check out The Belt, an alley in the former garment district of downtown Detroit, strung with fairy lights and the kind of upscale graffiti that wouldn’t look out of place plonked down in between the laneways of Melbourne. Shepard Fairey, the street artist responsible for the Obama “Hope” posters created a 184ft-tall black, red and white enlarged five-point star and lotus leaf artwork for the side of a building. Also walk along the Grand River Creative Corridor, and the Dequindre Cut, before driving east to the Heidelberg Project. A series of repurposed-trash sculptures and spotty Kusama-style painted houses on a suburban street began in the 80s as a mission by one local man to improve residents’ lives. If you’re curious, the abandoned and graffiti-smothered Packard Plant in east Detroit and the hospital on Michigan Avenue are both popular among urban explorers.
The galleries are incredible
Library Street Collective is a contemporary downtown art space showcasing work by local artists and those from further afield, while MOCAD is the city’s bigger, main contemporary art space. And for something a bit more highbrow, there’s the Detroit Institute of Art – one of the most significant art collections in the US, with pieces by Degas, Cézanne, Warhol and de Kooning housed in a beaux arts building.
There’s style on the streets
Neither Berlin nor Detroit are known for high-fashion, but both cities have strong street style aesthetics. Local fashion collective The Seen champions Detroit style, holding shoots in old school, un-gentrified Detroit neighbourhoods that are fairly unknown. Its founder Nelson T. Sanders Jr, describes Detroit style as a mix of a few classic designer pieces – “think Cartier glasses, Pele Pele leather jackets, Prada sneakers” – with vintage and handmade items. He describes it as resourceful, personal and bold, and will be found wearing bespoke suits most days in his tailoring space 1701 Bespoke. Other local boutiques making waves include Détroit Is The New Black and local success story Shinola. The latter creates beautiful handmade leather bags, watches, bikes and now record turntables. Having started in the city, it now has stores in London, New York and LA, while it’s ramping up to open a stylish new hotel downtown in 2018.
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