10 Things To Like About Detroit Now

Detroit is like an empty lot down the street that’s sat vacant for years. Some people in the neighborhood doubt it will ever be put to good use. Then one day, you notice that the rubble is being carted away, and there are actually some green shoots popping up from the newly cleared ground. Somebody, it seems, thinks they can make something of it.

That’s what’s happening with the Motor City these days. Despite wrenching financial problems (it’s this close to Chapter 9 bankruptcy), deteriorating city services and endless political wrangling over its future, the empty lot is seeing life.

Entrepreneurs, some civic minded, others out to make a buck, are snapping up long abandoned properties and sprucing them up. The ground swell of activity is attracting younger residents and empty nesters to the downtown neighborhood. National brand names are starting to appear next to local businesses, with more on the way.If you aren’t familiar with the city, you not might think it’s very full, and that’s because it isn’t. Detroit is sized for 2 million, and only about 670,000 live there now. You don’t find the critical mass of neighborhoods and pedestrians in New York or Chicago or parts of New Orleans.

Detroit has also big, wide avenues built for the kind of traffic that’s only seen after Tiger games let out, or there’s a festival downtown. Don’t let that daunt you: there’s plenty going on, it’s just that you’ll have lots of space around you as you’re exploring.

Here are 10 things to love about Detroit now.

1) and 2) Eat a crepe, munch a cookie. One of the most charming aspects of Detroit’s revival is that it has been led by crepes. You’ll find crepe places in main parts of the city, but the best known is Good Girls Go To Paris, a few steps from the Detroit Institute of Arts on East Kirby in Midtown. Get there early for a good seat and be prepared to share a table. The 50 varieties of crepes start at just $7, and can easily be shared. The “O” (feta, spinach, kalamata olives and Greek dressing) is ideal for salad lovers.

Skip a dessert crepe (although they’re delicious) and head nearby to Avalon International Breads. Avalon has grown from its original storefront in Detroit’s tough Cass Corridor to a thriving company whose breads and cookies are found in shops and restaurants all over the Detroit area. Its cafe is the centerpiece of an “agri-urban” movement it’s trying to foster, by focusing on local ingredients in a city environment. Try a Dequindre Cut trail mix cookie, chock full of cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, which has been known to double as a breakfast on early plane flights.

3) Cocktails in Corktown. The Corktown neighborhood, west of downtown, is the oldest in the city. It boasts cobblestone streets and some of the hippest renovated housing. There’s also been a flurry of new restaurants and bars, some of which have had various degrees of luck in staying open. One that’s enduring is The Sugar House, a 1920s-style craft cocktail bar on Michigan Avenue.

Detroit played a major role in prohibition. Stories tell of a legion of bootleggers running cases of whiskey across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, late at night, and landing on the city shores to be loaded into unmarked trucks. The Sugar House, like other bars here, brings that era back to mind. There’s punch service, for groups of three or four, and plenty of vividly named drinks. It’s not a big place, and when seats aren’t available, you’ll have to wait to get in, so time your visit.

4) Eye-catching colors. Southwest Detroit, home to the city’s growing Latino population, has undergone a metamorphosis in just a few years. Once, it was only a few streets, with tourist-focused Mexican restaurants. Now, Southwest Detroit, which some people call Mexicantown, sprawls along West Vernor Highway. There are shops, bakeries, taquerias and restaurants, and most notably, a series of murals.

The eyes of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera gaze out at passersby on the Bagley Street pedestrian bridge. Kahlo and Rivera lived in Detroit while he was painting his own murals inside the art institute, long a favorite tourist attraction. Nearby sits The Cornfield, on a wall at Ste. Anne and Bagley Streets, with its vivid imagery of Mexican farmers. There are enough murals to take an afternoon of art gazing. The murals are often being touched up, so feel free to chat with the painters while they are doing repairs.

5) Melting pot. Eastern Market, on Detroit’s near east side, is the oldest continuously operating public market in the United States. Every week, up to 40,000 people trek here for produce that is trucked in from Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. One of its biggest days of the year comes up May 19, when the annual flower market takes place. That’s when local gardeners lug home the flats they’ll plant for summer color.

Eastern Market underwent a renovation over the past few years, and its customers are a lively mix of Detroit residents – black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern. There’s a wholesale market that supplies many area restaurants and produce shops, and permanent stores and restaurants around the market’s perimeter. One favorite shop is the Rocky Peanut Company, which has been at the market for 110 years. You’ll find dried fruits, nuts, chocolate covered goodies and seasonal specialties.


6) Jump on a bike.
You might not think of the Motor City as a good cycling city. But those big wide (and often empty) streets are ideal for bicycling, and Wheelhouse Detroit has capitalized on that to offer two-wheeled tours of the city. From now until October, Wheelhouse offers trips every weekend and sometimes during the week. Its guides will take you to spots like Eastern Market, Belle Isle, the island park designed by the creator of Central Park in New York and to Hamtramck, the Polish enclave surrounded by the city.

There are architecture focused rides, a tour that looks at the city’s automotive heritage, visits to historic neighborhoods and more. Wheelhouse offers rentals of city style bikes, touring bikes, trek bikes, tandem bikes, and it rents child carriers as well. The company can create tours for groups and also can custom design a tour if your interests fall outside its regular categories.

7) Put a lid on it. There’s finally been some hustle and bustle in Detroit’s downtown retail district after a long spell in which stores stood empty. One place has stuck it out since 1893, however. Henry the Hatter is Detroit’s pre-eminent shop for men’s hats. Every man of distinction in the city has bought a hat at Henry’s. It has fedoras, caps, Borsalinos, straw hats, fishing hats. And given how many stylishly dressed men there are in the city, that’s a lot of hats.

Henry’s is a great place to hear conversations about everything that happens in the city, from the Detroit Tigers to Mayor Dave Bing (a hat wearer) to the latest place to eat. Given the vast selection, you’ll probably walk out with more than one chapeau. Because let’s face it, a man needs a hat.

8) Music and prayer. Detroit’s black churches have held the city together in its toughest times and one of the most important is the Greater Grace Temple on the city’s northwest side. Far from just a church, Greater Grace is the centerpiece of the $36 million City of David, a 19-acre complex that includes a conference center, media production facilities and a school. The church itself seats 4,000, serving a congregation of nearly 6,000.

There are two services each Sunday (one in the summer), providing an opportunity to meet Detroiters, listen to gospel music and hear a sermon by its eloquent senior pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis. Dress is business casual, but a number of women churchgoers use services as an opportunity to wear their newest hats. Many are purchased from local milliner Luke Song, the maker of Aretha Franklin’s inaugural chapeau.

9) The past and future. Detroiters are super sensitive about ruin porn. That’s the practice of photographing crumbling buildings, which some artists have turned into a livelihood. To be honest, Detroit offers plenty of opportunities to see the remains of its past, and it won’t overcome that hurdle until more renovation has taken place. But there’s one building in town where everyone wants to pose. It’s Michigan Central, the empty shell of the railroad station and office tower that was the line’s headquarters. Michigan Central, once the tallest railroad station building in the world, closed in 1988.

For years, the building (just off Michigan Avenue west of downtown) sat as a hulking reminder of Detroit’s past, its windows broken, its interior trashed. Threatened with demolition, the building was finally cleaned up in 2011. Now, there is active discussion about how it could be reused and a preservation society is seeking ideas. In the meantime, the building has become the city’s most famous backdrop and Roosevelt Park out front is a popular meeting spot. Realtors have even begun advertising apartments with a view of Michigan Central.

10) Batter up. Unless you hate baseball, there’s no excuse to visit Detroit and fail to see a baseball game. Given that Detroit made it to the World Series last year, you might think tickets would command steep prices. But deals abound, especially until the weather reliably warms up this summer. The Tigers are offering upper level box seats in May for $13, half the normal price.

Those cheap seats provide an opportunity to get the most out of a visit to Comerica Park. Arrive before game time, and stroll the concourse, which has a carousel and a Ferris wheel. Visit the statue of Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcaster. There’s also a booth behind Section 134 on the third base side where the Tigers sell authentic souvenirs, such as uniform jerseys, autographed balls and even bases.

[Photo credits: Austin Stowe and Micheline Maynard]

5 Tips For Experiencing Toronto’s Changes

As the author of “Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto,” Shawn Micallef knows more corners of Toronto than most visitors will ever see. He can take a look around a neighborhood and pick out the new places in an instant. But newcomers may not know the difference. Here, Micallef offers his five tips for enjoying Toronto (with a little help from me).

  1. Hop on a street car. “It’s slow, it’s above ground, and the stops are every block. You can get off, walk a block, if you’re bored, get back on.” He advises picking one street – such as College, Queen, or Spadina – and riding it from end to end. An affordable way to do so is the Day Pass sold by the Toronto Transit System at all subway stations. Up to six people, with a maximum of two adults, can ride the system from the date on the pass until 5:30 a.m. the next day, meaning you can take a street car to sight see, dine out, and drink until bars close, if that’s your fancy.
  2. In the summer, go to the beach. The Toronto Islands are just a short ferry ride from downtown. The breathtaking view of the skyline is exchanged for a visit to cottage country, akin to a 1930s movie set. Toronto is proud of its eight Blue Flag beaches, recognized internationally for their cleanliness and safety. The islands are also home to Hanlan’s Point, a clothing optional choice, one of the few such public beaches in the country. “It’s all the weirdness of urban Toronto landing on a beach,” says Micallef.
  3. In the winter, go underground. Visitors to Toronto are often amazed when they venture down a staircase and find an entire city beneath the city. Underground Toronto stretches for 17 miles, from Front Street up to Yorkville. There are restaurants, shops, shoe repair stores, the basements of major department stores, parking garages, and more than 125 access points to buildings up above. “You could live down there,” he says, as a reporter for the Toronto Star did recently. Even if you don’t want to spend that much time, at the very least, it’s a pleasant short cut.
  4. Visit a market. Toronto has embraced farmers markets with gusto. During the height of the summer and fall harvests, there is a market somewhere every day of the week, with some starting at dawn and others in the evening. Because of its varied ethnic groups, Toronto markets range well beyond fruits, vegetables and cheese. I’ve tasted Thai influenced dumplings and salad, enjoyed Dutch pancakes and taken home vegan tarts. Don’t overlook the permanent St. Lawrence Market, either, where stalls are open six days a week. The Kensington Market area in Chinatown abounds with sights and smells, and newcomers from Latin countries and South Asia are adding their own contributions.
  5. Watch for contrasts. With neighborhoods shifting, you will find old school and new school right next door to each other. Conduct your own pub crawl or tea tastings. Sample baked goods from traditional and modern purveyors. And talk to the owners. Torontonians have the same friendliness found in Chicago and New Orleans. They’ll tell you what they think of what’s changing around them.

For more on “Toronto In Transition” click here

[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

Toronto In Transition: Coming In From Elsewhere

Over the past 40 years, Toronto’s Queen Street West has undergone a transition that’s shifted it from trendy boutiques and galleries to international chains and lively restaurants. As a result, the art scene that long called the street home has been pushed farther west to an area called West Queen West.

And now, even West Queen West is seeing its own transition. The galleries, little cafes and funky hotels are still there. So is the mental hospital that is the area’s major employer. But there are other newcomers, including one from way across Canada.

Gravitypope, with roots in Edmonton, Alberta, and stores in Calgary and Vancouver, opened its first Toronto store this fall. It’s the kind of well-groomed, innovative spot you’d see featured in Town and Country Magazine or a Nancy Meyers movie, with shoes and clothing that look meticulously selected by fashion stylists.

In another time, Gravitypope would have found a home in the opposite direction on Queen West, among the well-known names. But with that part of the street chockablock with retailers, its owner, Louise Dirks, decided she’d be better off away from the fray.

“Everybody kept saying, ‘go to Queen, go to Queen, go to Queen,'” she says of the area. “But I couldn’t find a space with a decent basement,” which was a requirement for the extensive inventories her stores carry.

Dirks is among a number of new arrivals who are staking their claims in Toronto neighborhoods. Some of them, like Nicole Angellotti at Lit Espresso Bar in Little Portugal, are already established in other parts of town, and see opportunities for expansion.

Others are rolling the dice on their first ventures in the city, hoping that the Toronto customers who visit their stores elsewhere are willing to do business with them at home.

Toronto author Shawn Micallef says their investments are the strongest endorsement a neighborhood can receive. “When outside Toronto moves in, you know the neighborhood is on peoples’ radar,” he says.

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Dirks pondered her move to Toronto for years before taking the plunge. She opened the first Gravitypope store in Edmonton in 1990, operating as a cafe with a selection of clothing for sale in the back for her first decade. In 2000, she added a second store in Calgary, and then a shop in Vancouver in 2004. Her shoe business grew along with her clothing business, and with them, she incorporated a Web-based operation.

Over the past five or six years, “I got at least one email every couple of weeks from Toronto, begging for a Gravitypope out east,” says Dirks. In 2008, she went on a tour of Toronto neighborhoods, scouting by walking up and down the streets.

Finally in 2011, she settled on a brand new building in West Queen West, only a block from the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH). Getting settled was a challenge, and the space was ready months after she originally expected. But since opening in the fall, “Every day has been awesome for us here,” Dirks says.

The location is “a bit fresh,” she says, and thus far, her customers have had no problem venturing out to her. On Gravitypope’s first day of business, 90 percent of her customers were former Western Canadians whose moves had preceded hers.

Manny Nikolaou, who runs Cafe Bernate next door, is among those glad to see a substantial business move in. “In the last five years, this whole area’s changed,” he said, while pulling espresso shots. “Before, it was a bit of a rough type neighborhood.”

He was also a little wary when a Tim Horton’s opened across the street, for fear it would take away his sandwich business. But the “quick sandwiches” made at Tim’s aren’t stealing the customers away from Bernate’s lineup, which includes 30 different homemade offerings.

Nikolaou says upscale stores like Gravitypope can only help West Queen West. “We’re happy to see people like them come in,” he says.

A few blocks away, another western Canadian newcomer has made itself at home on Dundas Avenue West. Ride Away Bikes came to the neighborhood in 2010, setting up a shop that sells new and used bikes, and performs repairs.

The owners have two other shops in Vancouver, and saw opportunity in Toronto’s growing bicycle culture. While the city isn’t as bike friendly as other places, there’s a move afoot to expand the use of two-wheeled transportation. “It grows every year,” says Justin Brady, a store manager.

About two-thirds of his business comes from the surrounding neighborhood, but in the past year and a half, as cycling has become more popular, he’s noticed more people arriving from other parts of Toronto. “Probably, people would have noticed us before,” Brady says.

And, Brady will soon find out whether two new businesses on his end of Dundas West bring him more customers. Two doors down, Queen Margherita Pizza from Leslieville is opening one of its two new Toronto restaurants (the other is a few miles east, in an upscale area called Babypoint). Across the street, Susur Lee, the Toronto restaurateur who competed on “Top Chef Masters,” has opened Bent with his two sons.

The sleek black and red restaurant, which some liken to a nightclub, hasn’t exactly gotten off to a strong start. The Toronto Star gave it just one star, saying it was “more broken than merely bent,” while the Globe and Mail was kinder, pointing out the place has been packed since its opening.

Brady, at the bike store, is glad to see the outsiders draw crowds, at least. “It can only mean good things,” he says.

For more on “Toronto In Transition” click here

[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

Toronto In Transition: Pushing Neighborhood Boundaries

Joel and Joshua Corea grew up in Toronto’s Little Portugal, which lies west of downtown. They can tell you about the park where they played, the streets their parents didn’t want them to visit, and give you details of who owned which store.

Now, the Coreas have opened their own place, Archive, a gleaming new wine bar in the same sized storefront where many other entrepreneurs have gotten their start. The street sign on the corner says “Portugal Village” and just down the block are bakeries, banks and a radio station serving the Portuguese community.

But this end of the neighborhood is known by another name: Dundas West, after the street where Archive sits. It is still a little lonely looking area, lacking the polish of a gentrified neighborhood like Leslieville, or the bustling activity of Toronto’s Chinatown.

However, Dundas (pronounced Dun-DASS, as in behind) West has now become what’s known in Toronto terms as a “micro-neighborhood,” and its offerings are growing. In Archive’s block, there’s a standout breakfast/lunch cafe called Saving Grace, a small art gallery, two coffee bars – Ella’s Uncle and Ezra’s Pound – along with a laundromat and a travel agent.

It was the idea of starting fresh but with proximity to their roots that attracted the Corea brothers to Dundas West. They had restaurant experience, and a deep interest in wine, especially those made across Canada. “We wanted to create a civilized drinking establishment,” explained Joel, who had another idea in mind.

He and his brother wanted to make Archive a hangout for their colleagues in the restaurant business, who were often looking for a place to go after their establishments closed around 10 or 11 p.m. The only trick was finding the right spot.

%Gallery-174399%The Portuguese landlord, who knew the Corea family, “wanted us in here,” he explained, and so the transition from vintage clothing store, the old tenant, to wine bar began.

Creating Archive required a complete tear up, which was a team effort involving the Coreas, Josh’s girlfriend Tara Smith, who created the bar’s tapas menu, and her brother Brandon, a carpenter, who built the sleek bar, the furniture and laid the floors. The money came from the Corea brothers’ savings, plus loans and other help from family and friends.

Neighbors often stopped by to see how the work was going, and the community support came in handy when it was time to pass various fire, health and building inspections. Archive has the only liquor license on the block, which keeps crowds and noise to a minimum.

Still, the work sometimes seemed daunting. “A lot of days, I came in here, shook my head and said, ‘what are we doing?'” Joel Corea said.

By contrast, their friend Nicole Angellotti had experience under her belt when she opened Lit Espresso Bar on College Street West, right in the center of Little Portugal. It’s her second establishment, and her second foray into a traditionally ethnic neighborhood.

The original Lit Espresso Bar is on Roncesvalles Avenue, in what has been a Polish enclave. But in recent years, it’s become one of the most popular areas for young Toronto families, drawn by inexpensive rents and solidly built properties.

While Dundas West is still emerging, Angellotti has Portuguese neighbors to her right, and a sandwich shop to her left. Portuguese is spoken on the street, and traditional foods like sweet custard tarts are easy to find.

Lit, however, seems like the kind of sleek spot that can be found in any North American urban center, from Vancouver to Chicago. Tables are filled with young men and women typing on Macs, while a few spots are filled by moms with squirming children. “It’s a community space,” Angellotti says.

And, there are signs that like Little India, Little Portugal may be about to modernize, as well. Just down the street from Lit, construction crews are at work on the same kind of low-rise condominium building that’s being built across town, its streamlined appearance just as much a contrast to its ethnic neighborhood.

Angellotti, who grew up in the Toronto suburbs, comes from an Italian family, which she says gives her empathy with her family oriented Portuguese neighbors (and also confuses them, since her name makes them assume she speaks Italian or Portuguese).

One thing the two cultures have in common is a love of coffee, especially Italian roast. “One thing my dad always said was, ‘pick a business that’s recession proof,'” she laughs.

But her coffee is a contrast to what her neighbors are used to. Rather than serve pre-ground espresso shipped in cans from Europe, she’s roasting it herself, under a label called Pig Iron. She and her brother Joe, who is her business partner, are so convinced that Toronto will embrace locally roasted beans that they’ve decided not to open more cafes, for now, and concentrate on growing the coffee business.

The decision has actually been a bridge to her new neighborhood. “We do have some of the younger Portuguese guys coming in,” Angellotti says. “I feel like I’ve won a little battle every time they say, ‘this espresso’s good.'”

For more on Toronto In Transition click here

[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]

Tales Of A Reluctant Unpacker

There are two kinds of travelers in the world – those who unpack promptly after a trip, and those who can’t bring themselves to do so.

I fall into the latter category. More times than not, I am unpacking my suitcase in order to pack for my next trip. Apparently, I’m not alone, because when I asked friends about this on Facebook, I got more unpacking procrastination stories than replies from the tidy.

It’s a conundrum, because whenever I’m on a trip, I unpack my suitcase as soon as I arrive, even if I’m only staying for two nights. Things that need to be hung up immediately are placed in the closet, or put on hangers in the bathroom if a light steam is required. I create an accessories drawer, a T-shirt drawer and one for sweaters. Then I put my empty suitcase in a corner, or in the closet.

My parents were strict unpackers. As soon as we got in the door after a vacation, my parents toted the American Touristers upstairs. “Give me your laundry,” my mother would say, and woosh! Down the chute it would go. Sometimes, she would start a load that very night, and I’d fall asleep to the sounds of the washing machine.

Perhaps that’s one reason why I am in no rush now to get at my suitcase, although I’m getting a little old for parental rebellion.

I’ve decided there are some practical and some psychological reasons why I leave my battered Tumi on the dining room floor as long as possible.

  1. As long as you haven’t unpacked, the trip is still underway. One of my friends cited this thought. I love the idea that an unpacked suitcase keeps you in Paris, or New Orleans or Borneo. The unopened suitcase is like the Pandora’s Box of memories. Keep it zipped, and they stay with you. Open the lid, and they’ll fly away.
  2. I don’t need what’s in there. Usually, when I travel, it’s for business or a specific type of place. As a writer who works from home, I’m not wearing power clothes every day. And, since I try to pack light, I usually have extra versions of my travel wardrobe waiting when I get home. Likewise, I use travel sizes of my shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, etc., so the full-size editions are on the bathroom shelf.
  3. It means work. Unpacking means doing laundry, or taking clothes to the dry cleaners, or at the very least, hanging things up. If I’m jetlagged, or just tired from a long road trip like the one I took down South this summer, I don’t have the energy to deal with it right away. Also, I’ve usually done laundry to get ready for my trip, and there’s not enough for a full load when I get home, so I like to wait until there is. (Hey, we’re talking excuses here; I’m not saying this is logical.)
  4. If I don’t unpack, I don’t make a mess. I admit it: in my younger days, I was a devotee of the floor-drobe, i.e. things left in piles on the floor. Now, I don’t have that much space, so it’s a dresser-drobe, and I have gotten much, much better at being organized. (I promise!) Given that, a packed suitcase is the ultimate in organization. Nothing is lying about.

Of course, there are instances where I do unpack immediately, at least partially. I generally pack my makeup bag and my eyeglasses last, and I usually need both of those within a day of arrival, so those come out right away.

I also try to reverse pack when I leave, and put dirty clothes and dry cleaning on top, as well as the plastic bag with my wet swimsuit, if I have one. That spurs me to at least deal with that layer. I put a dry cleaning bag or another divider between the mussed and clean clothes, so I’ll know when to pause my unpacking.

And, I unpack any presents or food that are in the bag, although I prefer that those go in my carry on. Lastly, if I know I have a short turnaround between trips, I’ll usually do a fast unpack and repack before too much time passes.

But when you visit my house, don’t be surprised if you see books, travel posters and a black rolling bag stashed in the corner. Consider it decor.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user NiH]