Detroit: The Most Exciting City in America?

Detroit: The Most Exciting City in America?

Given that Detroit has lost over 60 percent of its population since the heyday of the 1950s, there is hardly any traffic on these highways, allowing you to essentially get from any two points in about 10 minutes. When I drove, I was early to every meeting. It was the American dream! Except it wasn’t: As I meandered down mostly empty four-lane freeways in my Ford Fiesta rental, I became acutely aware that, unlike on the Slow Roll or Q-Line, I wasn’t meeting anyone. I was alone, trapped in a cocoon. The car, once hailed as the key to every major United States city, is essentially the undoing of organic urban cohesion.

While in the past Ford and G.M. have been accused of ignoring the needs of their hometown, both car companies have begun to shift toward embracing the 21st-century Detroit citizen, who either cannot afford to own a car or else might choose not to. Ford in particular has rebranded itself as a “mobility” company, investing heavily in new ride sharing technology.

I visited Ford’s sprawling campus in Dearborn, Mich., and met with Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions, in a towering white garage space surrounded by Ford Fusions that had been converted into autonomous vehicles, their trunks stuffed full of processors. A nearby screen eerily displayed the world from the car’s perspective. I was a green flickering blob.

“We can’t just think like a car company anymore,” Ms. Robinson said. “We have to become ethnographers. So we went into communities and asked how people were getting around to try and address solutions from the ground up.”

Ford started a competition called Go Detroit Challenge, which funded six Detroit tech companies working on innovative transportation solutions including CART, a program which pairs customers, ride share companies, and grocery stores to enable low-income populations greater access to healthy food.

This year both Ford and G.M. have doubled down on the potent combo of electric vehicles and driverless technology. This was also the year I finally took the plunge and bought Chevy’s all-electric Bolt EV, which features a range of 248 miles per charge. Driving the Bolt for the first time was an emotional experience for me; it was like touching the future. No more gas stations, no more emissions. The clean torque of an electric engine, both whisper-quiet and instantaneous, is addictive. I will never go back.

Pages Bookshop

Detroit Vegan Soul

Map data by OpenStreetMap

As more cars like the Bolt EV become available, it’s exciting to see car companies in the United States once again on the forefront of innovation. Maybe one day Detroit’s beautiful, empty interstates will turn into rivers of individuated, autonomous mass transit. Everyone can read novels while they get whisked around in driverless Lyft vehicles. It sounds utopic. It also sounds sterile. Such algorithmic efficiency is the opposite of Slow Roll’s messy, collaborative, communalism.

I found myself discussing cars and community (and novels!) with Susan Murphy, the owner of Pages Bookshop on Grand River Avenue in the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood. Grandmont-Rosedale is a diverse enclave caught in a no man’s land: far from the bustle of downtown but still within Detroit’s city limits. In many ways, however, places like Grandmont-Rosedale are the heart of Detroit. The neighborhood has managed to resist the wide-scale blight that affected many of the surrounding areas in part because of an active community organization, the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation (G.R.D.C.), which helps organize a local farmers market, repairs dilapidated housing stock and provides assistance and retail space to small businesses like Pages.

Ms. Murphy’s shop is cozy and curated; it’s one of those magical places where you want to linger for hours. Pip, the resident black-and-white feline, prowled the new fiction section as Ms. Murphy described the challenges of running an independent bookshop perched on the edge of Grand River Avenue, one of Detroit’s many four-lane corridors that cars often use as their own private Grand Prix. These roads were designed to get drivers out to the suburbs as quickly as possible. They were not designed to create urban communities.

“It’s difficult to get people to stop,” Ms. Murphy said. “We have to get creative with our programming. But the community here has been so supportive. This is a neighborhood of readers.” She is hopeful that Detroit Vegan Soul, opening next door, will create a critical mass of foot traffic, the beginning of a movement: BBQ tofu and Elena Ferrante. The G.R.D.C. is also in ongoing conversation with the city about small but powerful infrastructural changes like traffic-calming curb extensions, raised crosswalks, or grassy medians that will encourage people to slow down and perhaps even buy a book.

SUCH STRUCTURAL REIMAGINING seems important to making Detroit more people and environmentally friendly. A 21st-century city now incorporates rainwater catchment gardens and solar parks and car-charging stations into its designs. But again and again I came up against this idea that true urban sustainability cannot be about infrastructure alone. True sustainability is dependent upon people.

The good news is that Detroiters are perhaps Detroit’s greatest asset. They have never stopped innovating and caring, and nowhere is this more evident than in the vast proliferation of urban gardens and farms that dot the city’s landscape.


Cynthia Davis, owner of Sha La Cynt, a local vegan dessert company, putting the finishing touches on her pop-up store in downtown Detroit.

Sean Proctor for The New York Times

In many ways, Detroit seems ideal for such an urban agricultural revolution: What better way to activate those 40 square miles of vacant lots than to turn them into farmland? If you visit the vast farmers market in Eastern Market on weekends you will find a cornucopia of local produce from some of the city’s 1,400 gardens and farms.

For Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, urban agriculture cannot simply be about profits; it must be an act of social justice. Mr. Yakini founded D-Town Farm, a seven-acre farm near Grandmont-Rosedale, as an education center to teach children about self-empowerment, food production and environmental stewardship, with a particular emphasis on African traditions of planting and harvest.

I visited D-Town Farm on a dense, humid day in July. Mr. Yakini was busy mowing the fields. “Give me a second,” he said. “You can go to work if you’d like.” I joined a University of Michigan masters student and a farmer named Babatunde as they thinned tiny corn sprouts. There is something instantly gratifying about plunging your hands into soil still cool from the night. With a simple touch I had made contact with the food chain.

“It’s about food sovereignty,” Mr. Yakini said when he finished mowing. “Many people in this city don’t have access to fresh food. They aren’t in control of the food-delivery systems. We’re trying to hand that back to people.” As part of this hand back, D-Town has plans of opening the Detroit Food Commons, an ambitious development that will include a co-op grocery store, a community incubator kitchen and a lecture hall. These are the future palaces of the food sovereign.

RecoveryPark, on Detroit’s East Side, provides another model of urban farming entirely. The farm is in an area that was particularly hard hit by the city’s downturn. There are more vacant lots than houses.

“We found that in order to be profitable you really need at least 10 acres,” said Gary Wozniak, RecoveryPark’s founder. “You need to go large scale.” To this end, RecoveryPark has purchased or acquired over 400 parcels of land, totaling about 60 acres in all. They are essentially a commercial farm that just happens to be in a city. A key component of RecoveryPark’s mission is to offer jobs and training to addicts and those in recovery programs who would otherwise struggle to find work.


Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, founded D-Town Farm.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“We’re in this for the long term,” Mr. Wozniak said. “In Detroit, you have to be.”

On paper, RecoveryPark’s business plan is a thing of beauty, a potentially unprecedented model of urban farming. But looking over the vast expansion plans of commercial greenhouses, hoop houses and indoor tilapia farms, I found myself wondering: Can we still call this an urban neighborhood? It’s like a Zen koan: If you plop a 60-acre farm in the middle of a city, is it still a city? Where are the sidewalks? Where are the places for casual contact?

ON MY LAST VISIT to Detroit in July, I stayed at the Ark, one of the more unusual places I’ve ever found on Airbnb. It’s a solar-powered shipping container shack in the middle of an urban farm called Food Field. The farm, run by Noah Link, stands on the site of an abandoned convent. There’s an orchard of fruit trees and emus perambulate right out your back door. Food Field has an on-site farm stand and sells to a range of Detroit institutions including the chic Selden Standard restaurant and the Detroit Zen Center.

At the Ark, everything is off-grid. The solar panels feed a limited bank of batteries, and so I became profoundly aware of my electrical usage. A box fan, when left on, would cut out in the middle of the night. I would sweat and curse the simultaneous hipness and impermeability of shipping container shacks until the roosters roused me at dawn.

The Ark, for all of its lumps, strikes me as a wonderfully adaptive place — Noah supplants his farm income as a host for out-of-town guests and these guests are in turn introduced to the infectious, survivalist spirit of Detroit. The Ark, like the city itself, is not always comfortable, but it is an experience you will never forget.

As I was leaving the Ark for the airport, my phone beeped. It was Ben Wolf, the shipping container fabricator. He had forgotten to tell me about his next project. He was working with a Shakespearean enthusiast to build a mobile, three-story Globe Theater completely out of repurposed shipping containers. They were going to tour the theater around the city, performing Shakespeare’s complete works for the masses.

“Wow,” I said. “All the world’s a stage.’

I had no doubt such a dream was possible. In Detroit — that fair city rising from the night sky — all dreams are possible.

If You Go

Detroit is buzzing these days. Here are a few suggestions about where to stay and eat as you take in this city on the rise.

Where to Stay

El Moore is a beautifully restored sustainable urban lodge with a range of accommodations, including chic eco-cabins on the roof.

Detroit Foundation Hotel is an upscale boutique property in the former headquarters of the Detroit Fire Department.

Where to Eat

Selden Standard is a chic midtown farm-to-table destination.

Detroit Vegan Soul offers new takes on old soul.

Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles is a great neighborhood spot in the up-and-coming Livernois corridor.

Russell Street Deli, a mainstay in Eastern Market, serves dangerously delicious soups.

Wright & Company is a new center of Detroit mixology.

Correction: November 21, 2017

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the model of a Ford rental. It is a Ford Fiesta. There is no Ford Fiat.

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