I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Random photo tour of Detroit

I’m on a plane back from Detroit, posting another random photo tour.  The themes of this one are:

  • Phoenix rising from the ashes:  Detroit’s indie entrepreneurs, and VC funded ones too
  • Classic Detroit signage and symbols
  • Greek food

Phoenix rising: Detroit entrepreneurs

For a brief time when I was working in Detroit as a designer, I lived in an area called Ferndale. I had an apartment in a solid brick house designed by none other than the famous architect Albert Kahn. At the time, that posh residence seemed unusual in somewhat downtrodden Ferndale.  It was probably only truly appreciated by the landlady and the groovy Young & Rubicam creative directors who lived in one of the other three apartments.  But today, Ferndale is thoroughly hipster.   So I drove there with my mom to catch the vibe.

A large boring building at the main intersection of Nine Mile and Woodward compelled us to stop with its interesting sign declaring “Rust Belt Market.” Inside we found a vibrant and beautiful weekend-only assemblage of vintage, designer, art, and crafts producers. I told my mom, “For my next birthday, look no further.”

I could not leave without “adopting” this big old (papier-mache?) baby doll with moving eyes. She came—creepily--smushed into a rusty metal electrical box. I plan to display her prominently in my home. The “Painted Lady Trashions” stall was satisfyingly stuffed with plenty of other recycled and repurposed goods assembled by "Tenacious Heather", smiling here in the photo. Don't let the blond hair lull you into complacency. This chick has a deliciously sick sense of humor.

The atmosphere was amped up with live music from this Ann Arbor based bluegrass band, The Appleseed Collective, whose music was so good we had to get a CD to share.

I love the TV show “American Pickers” but never saw anyone capitalize on the name as charmingly as this purveyor.

I don’t know why I was surprised to see such a concentration of hipster ubiquity in Detroit. I see the same kind of steampunk/indie aesthetic everywhere I travel, so why not Detroit? I guess I kind of freeze the place in time, having grown up there. But as soon as one of these cool looking people speaks with an unmistakeable Michigan accent I know I really am home.

I read in Inc. magazine about Detroit’s brand-new startup incubator called @Madison, so I made a pilgrimage to the building, knowing I probably could not get into the workspace on a Saturday (Correctomundo--but the security guards were very nice).

Here are some of the @Madison tenants' mailboxes. I’m reaching out to a couple to see if there is any way I can help build ties to the rich startup resources in Boston. And if you are curious about what a Michigan accent sounds like, listen to the video below, from the homepage of Detroit Venture Partners. It’s a classic.

Classic Detroit signage and symbols

TripAdvisor ranks the Fox Theatre as the third best tourist attraction in Detroit. So many legendary performances have occurred there and it was beautifully restored by the Illitch family (owners of Little Caesars Pizza and the Red Wings). A daytime photo does not do the imaginative neon signage justice.

Just next door to the Fox is the Fillmore. Look at the line-up of upcoming musical acts! To state the obvious, Detroit makes most other cities look like cow towns when it comes to music.

Comerica Park…home of the team whose name can clearly never be changed. In the photo, those are fans lining up for the box office. That’s an old Cadillac in the forefront—the kind of car you see a lot in Detroit, but rarely in Boston. (There is no car inspection law in Detroit, so you see all manner of true jalopies on the roads, next to the latest and greatest.) My brother’s company Ideal Steel helped make the giant baseball bats splayed out around the stadium exterior. In fact they made a whole lot of the exterior fixtures in this fantastic ballpark.

I could have taken hundreds of pictures of vintage signs like these.

Urban decay can sometimes do more preservation than any other force, when it comes to signs.

Urban decay can sometimes do more preservation than any other force, when it comes to signs.

GreekTown

I did not appreciate Detroit’s Greektown when I lived there. Until l was leaving for this trip I pretty much assumed lots of cities have a Greektown, until my friend and Greek food connoisseur Drew Beja told me, “What? Detroit’s Greektown is FAMOUS.” So I had to take my mom and order the classic Saganaki, which is set aflame with a loud “Opa” at every other table in the restaurant we visited: Pegasus Taverna. More of a revelation was “Scordalia,” which our waitress recommended as her favorite appetizer. It’s a very tasty garlic and potato dip served with pickled beets.

I could not dream of eating pastries after our huge Greek meal, so I indulged my appetite via the camera.

I come from a huge family, most of whom live in Detroit. Many work in and around the auto industry. I was not on the ground long enough to get the pulse of the car companies. I did get the pulse of Detroiters DRIVING cars. I had forgotten how mellow and civilized a place that city can be. I once read a study that ranked cities by how stressed people are and Boston came out on top. The researchers watched people in line at store cashiers to see how far back in the line people were starting to pull out their wallets and cash. Boston had people three and four postions back impatiently getting ready to transact. I think a new study that measures traffic light intervals would be illuminating about the temperament of a city. Coming from Boston, the Detroit traffic lights seemed to last an eternity. I started to think the average wait times might be a proxy for the hurriedness of a city. I know I had to practice a lot of self-calming as I waited for a green light, and THEN waited for the cars in front of me to slowly start rolling. I found myself bizarrely wanting to blast other motorists in Detroit rather frequently. I never honk my horn in Boston--unless I think a life is endangered. Clearly I need to spend more time in Detroit.

 

 

16 Responses to “Random photo tour of Detroit”

  1. Stephanie

    Thanks for the great photo tour, Jules. I spent 2 years living out of the RenCen back when I worked on the GM account for Digitas, and I have fond memories of Detroit (and friends/colleagues who still live there). I’m also a fan of Eric Proulx’s latest work, Lemonade:Detroit (lemonadedetroit.com) which documents the entrepreneurial resurgence downtown.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Hi Stephanie,

      I started watching the Lemonade:Detroit video and am looking forward to finishing it. Thanks for clueing me on. Wow…living in the RenCen….never thought of it as a place to really live.

      Reply
  2. Barbara Scott

    Hi Jules

    I went to the Fox Theater for the first time this week to see the very play featured on the marquee in your photo. The theater is just spectacular – like nothing I’ve seen. We also went to Cliff Bell’s, an art deco jazz club from 1930’s. Another Detroit gem!

    Here’s another tidbit: I recently met with a student leader at Michigan who is from Taiwan. The trend is for many international students to return to their native country where jobs are plentiful. When I asked what she was doing after graduation she said she planned to live in Detroit because of the entrepreneurial excitement there. A fellow student from Indonesia seconded her opinion. These are top students who have choices. Interesting.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Barbara,
      What a funny coincidence! I would have loved to go with you. I was mainly checking in on my mom, as you might imagine. Maybe on my next visit you can expose me to more Detroit discoveries.

      Thanks for sharing the comments from the Taiwanese and Indonesian students. That is indeed interesting. I can definitely feel that entrepreneurial vibe in Detroit. I have long said that people who grow up making things just see things differently, and Detroiters have that huge advantage. I think the visual environment of the city, even the decay, is somehow helpful. You can see the raw material all around and have a sense that you can claim it, and reshape it with new energy and vision.

      The hardest thing is the sheer sprawl of Detroit. That’s why I appreciated the concentration of cool stuff by the @Madison building (like the Fox Theatre and Comerica Park). You could get your mind around the possibilities there, as opposed to the huge swaths of empty and abandoned land in the city.

      Reply
  3. Lynn Knittel-Bruk

    Hi Jules! Thank you so much for sharing your photos and narrative, I LOVED IT! You captured the “spirit of Detroit as only a Detroiter could! I once was a great city and I am hopeful it can be again. There are so many hip places as you have shown that people just dont know about so now maybe they will. I am definitely hitting the Rust Belt Market on my next trip home!!

    Thanks again, lots of love
    Lynn Knittel-Bruk

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Lynn, you will love that Rust Belt Market. I wish we had one in Boston.

      I find the toughest aspect of Detroit is the huge empty and deteriorated spaces. I know some people are advocating razing bad areas and making urban farms. That makes sense to me but I am sure it is really hard to pull of: moving people, organizing projects, getting the capital. But it’s the only way I see to concentrate business, housing and retail together to make it vibrant. And it would be such a model thing to do to have food growing in the city.

      Reply
  4. lisa

    You know Todd was a picker before picking was hip. He would have loved this blog, that is if he ever got on the internet. I just set up this pink metal table circa 1960 that he found on the side of the road one night. It is my favorite piece of furniture right now.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      So true…he was the original picker. Well, if you don’t count me and Nancy Bednarz cruising in her Corvette every weekend to garage sales. I still have two of the sweaters and a couple of the household items I found back then. And love them. I may just wear one of those sweaters in a video I need to shoot today. As long as I don’t show the holes in the elbows, it should work. Can’t wait to see the pink metal table.

      Reply
  5. Judy Chaney

    That would be the accent I never thought I had until I moved to San Francisco in the ’70s. Several people guessed ( and still do sometimes) my origin as
    Canada. I believe it is the influence of Detroit’s neighbor, Windsor! Detroit
    is my “born and raised” in town, beginning 70 years ago 🙂 I love that it is
    rising from the “ashes” and I’m proud. Sounds like you had a blast with your
    Mom.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Anne,
      Hah! Funny about the connection to that birth announcement. I did not make it myself. Thanks for sharing that incredible Fox Theater interior. And thanks for the birthday tip too…we should do a field trip to buy each other gifts.

      Reply
  6. Jeannette Tuck

    These pictures are priceless to me! I too grew up in Detroit, currently 55 years old, and my father was a toolmaker! I thought I was reading my own biography! My fondest memories are of growing up there. Detroit was a rich city in those days. There were countless perks! Thank you for posting! Oh how I loved Tiger Stadium, the Fox Theatre, Detroit Institute of Arts, the steam that amazing came out of the street, peanut vendors on corners! Wow!

    Reply

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