Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

Photo Gallery: The Colonials Of Asuncion, Paraguay

I’ve always had a deep love for decrepit colonial or colonial-style buildings; in fact, I appreciate decrepitude in many things, such as classic cars, port cities, barns and houses (but not men). Even after a week in Paraguay, I’m still constantly reaching for my camera to capture shots of Asuncion’s seemingly endless restored and crumbling historic buildings (many of which are also gothic in style).

I have no idea what most of these buildings are; some are governmental or municipal, others are abandoned or private homes. In a sign of the times, some house modern shops or (god help us all) fast food joints on their bottom levels.

Asuncion is one of the oldest cities in South America, and while all of these 19th and early 20th century reproductions are treasures, there’s just something about the ones that have fallen into disrepair that I find irresistible. Long may they stand, Whopper-free.

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The New Reno: Yes, Virginia, There Is Gentrification

renoI’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that Reno has historically not been one of my favorite places to visit. But I spend a fair amount of time passing through, because my brother and his family live nearby, in the ski town of Truckee. Flying into Reno is convenient for anyone wanting to visit Lake Tahoe.

For years, my brother, Mark, has been telling me that Reno is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, what with the implementation of Wingfield Park – the city’s kayaking park that runs through downtown – and the Truckee River Walk with its galleries, cafes, and brewery. But don’t worry: Reno is still The Biggest Little City in the World, rife with the requisite prostitutes, crack houses, tattoo parlors, pawn shops and all the unsavory characters one would expect to find.

Yet, I discovered a younger, gentler, hipper Reno over Thanksgiving when I was in Truckee. Reno is trying to dial down its hard-core gambling, all-you-can-eat, come-all-ye-societal-fringe-dwellers rep. The most noticeable change is the gentrification underway along the South Virginia Street Corridor, the major north-south business artery. The street is paralleled to the east by a mix of decrepit and charmingly restored Victorian and Craftsman homes. Housing, Mark says, is ridiculously affordable.

I did a book signing over the holiday off South Virginia at a bustling new cheese shop, Wedge. A lovely addition to the area, Wedge has an excellent selection of domestic and imported cheese, as well as house-made sandwiches, specialty foods and primo charcuterie. Want a good, affordable bottle of wine, some soppressata, and a hunk of award-winning, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese from Wisconsin? Wedge has it.

When Mark and I arrived at the shop, he commented on how much the area was changing, citing the soon-to-be-open wine bar, Picasso and Wine, next door. The employees cheerfully agreed that there were lots of exciting developments underway, but that “there’s a crack house just two doors down.” They weren’t joking, either. We were parked in front of it.renoClose to Wedge is Midtown Eats, an adorable, farmhouse-modern cafe, and Crème, a sweet breakfast spot specializing in crepes. Get lunch at popular soup-and-sandwich spot Süp, imbibe (and eat) at Brasserie St. James brewery, Craft Beer & Wine, and mixology geek faves Reno Public House, and Chapel Tavern (over 100 whiskeys on shelf!). Making dinner in your rental ski cabin or condo? Visit the Tahoe area’s only Whole Foods.

If you’re in need of some sweet street-style, hit Lulu’s Chic Boutique or Junkee Clothing Exchange. If it’s your home that’s in need of an inexpensive upgrade, Recycled Furniture is the place. As for those tats and street drugs? You’re on your own.

Future plans for the South Virginia Corridor include greater emphasis on facilitating more pedestrian-friendly walkways, public spaces featuring art installations, fountains, and benches, and street-scaping. Gentrification may not always be welcome, but for Reno, it’s the start of a whole new Big Little City.

[Photo credits: Reno, Flickr user coolmikeol; bike path, VisitmeinReno.com]

Reno’s ‘Cheese Truck’ Subject Of Quirky Documentary

“Reno, Nevada. The Biggest Little City in the World. Famous for our casinos, quick divorces, and legalized prostitution.”

So goes the opening narration to “The Cheese Truck,” a funny little documentary made by Jason Spencer of Storm Front Productions. The 26-minute film follows what amounts to a day in the life of GourMelt owners/drivers/cheese geeks Jessie and Haley, as they feed Reno’s hungry masses.

This gem of a film caught my attention for three reasons: I just flew in from Reno last night, after spending a week in Lake Tahoe visiting my brother and his family; I work in the cheese industry and did a book signing at Wedge, Reno’s new (only?) cheese shop, six days ago, and I couldn’t believe someone had made a movie about Reno’s on-trend food scene. Ouch.

“The Cheese Truck” may also gently poke fun, but its objective is to show viewers how much work goes into operating a food truck, as well as highlight Reno’s Renaissance. As my experience at Wedge also showed, there are a lot of fun things popping up in the Biggest Little City, especially the South Virginia Street Corridor neighborhood.

Look for more details on the second coming of Reno next week. I’ll tell you where to find a great bottle of wine, used combat boots, and handcrafted soppressata, amongst the tattoo parlors and crack houses.


Harlem: neighborhood revitalization paves way for a new Renaissance

Harlem revitalizationHarlem. The very name of this former Dutch settlement conjures up a contrast in images: the cultural Renaissance years of the 1920’s and ’30’s, when the “New Negro Movement” attracted writers and other literary types from all over the world. The rise of a middle and upper middle class of black Americans. The Golden Age of Jazz, when legends like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton could be found playing at iconic venues such as the Savoy Ballroom, Cotton Club, Apollo Theater, and Lenox Lounge.

After the Great Depression and WWII, Harlem experienced hard times. Once glorious buildings grew neglected; crime and poverty soared in the wake of an increasingly disenfranchised community and the social unrest of the civil rights movement. Then, in the late 20th century, Harlem began to get her groove back, and the neighborhood—which stretches north to south from 155th Street to 96th Street–began to gentrify. It’s still a predominantly black community, which is fueling a growing revivalist movement that’s an homage to the historic neighborhood’s cultural past.

Today, you’re just as likely to see beautifully restored brownstones (at newly jacked-up prices), eclectic boutiques, bars, and clubs, and destination restaurants. But some things are still the same. The inevitable downtown hipsters making the trek to soul food institutions such as Amy Ruth’s and Sylvia’s Restaurant. Street vendors hawking everything from incense to dodgy electronics from blankets spread on the sidewalk. Walking up the subway steps, you’re assaulted by a cacophony of sights, sounds, smells–not all of them pleasant. Welcome to Harlem, 2011. A work in progress, but definitely a destination in its own right.

[Photo credit: Flickr user i am drexel]

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harlem revitalizationSleeping

One of the biggest changes to take place is the December, 2010 opening of the Aloft, Harlem’s first hotel in nearly a century. The goal of the property has been to work with the community, and enrich the neighborhood by partnering with local businesses, which supply everything from grab-and-go food at the hotel’s 24/7 re:fuel, to floral arrangements.

The Aloft, a division of W Hotels, is a contemporary, more affordable sibling to the swanky, upscale chain, with locations all over North America and a growing number of properties throughout Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. The Harlem outpost is centrally-located on Frederick Douglass Blvd. It’s across the street from the 125th Street subway station, which makes getting downtown a snap.
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My room was clean, comfortable, and stylish (with free Bliss Spa Products: yay!), with modern, functioning amenities (read: Wifi is free and actually works). If a view is important to you, best to request a room facing the front of the hotel. On the other hand, if you’re a voyeur or exhibitionist, I highly recommend Room 625. One other note: the ground floor xyz bar is seriously popping on the weekend, and not just with tourists, either. Expect loud music and dancing to go into the wee hours; if you’re sound-sensitive, also best to request a room away from the acoustic zone. Or just join the party.

To See and Do

The Aloft is literally steps away from a number of Harlem’s top cultural attractions. Modern art fans will enjoy The Studio Museum on W. 125th, which showcases local, national and international work by artists of African descent. Also nearby is the Apollo Theater, and the Hip Hop Culture Center, which offers everything from youth activities to historical artifacts, exhibitions, and educational programs. The Jazz Museum is another don’t-miss, over on E. 126th.

Eating and Drinking
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Considered some of NY’s best, Patsy’s Pizza in East Harlem has been dishing out coal oven-fired pies since 1933. But a flock of new dining and drinking establishments have opened within the last year or so (all within stumbling distance of the Aloft).

Acclaimed Ethiopian-Swedish chef/Harlem resident Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, named after an infamous Harlem speakeasy, is a homey contemporary restaurant specializing in comfort food that “celebrates the diverse culinary traditions of the neighborhood.” Think dinner or brunch dishes like dirty rice and shrimp; fried yard bird with white mace gravy, hot sauce, and shake; cow peas; and sweet potato doughnuts. Don’t forget to loosen up with a Gin and Juice or The Spicy Lady (Plymouth gin, jalapeno/rosemary syrup, lemon juice, and creole bitters), first. P.S. If the name of the restaurant sounds familiar, it may be because Obama hosted a $30,800-a-plate fundraiser dinner there in March. He liked the corn bread.
Harlem revitalization
Harlem’s first beer garden, Bier International, sloshes up domestic and international offerings. It also serves brunch and lunch, and is family-friendly (how is mom and dad tying one on while the kids eat bratwurst not a family activity?). And yes, Virginia, there is fine dining in Harlem. The 5 and Diamond, which opened last year, is a popular spot offering contemporary American fare. It’s located on Frederick Douglass Blvd., which has been declared by no less than Frank Bruni–former restaurant critic of the New York Times– as the new “Restaurant Row.”

If serious mixology–with a laidback vibe and sexy, Prohibition-era style–is your thing, head to 67 Orange Street. I adore any place with craft-distilled and house-infused spirits, made-to-order juices, seasonal, intelligent, well-made libations, and a lack of attitude. Bar snacks run the gamut from oysters to deviled eggs, orange-roasted duck leg, and stuffed olives (at hard-to-beat prices). The name, by the way, is a tribute to the long-gone Almack’s, one of the first black-owned-and-operated bars in New York City.
Harlem revitalization
Harlem is evolving at a fast pace; best to visit now, while it’s still an affordable, uncrowded, diamond in the rough.

Want to learn how to shake up a refreshing Moscow Mule or other classic cocktail? 67 Orange gives you recipes, right here.

[Photo credits: pizza, Flickr user Pabo76; soul food, Flickr user fiat luxe; brownstone, Flickr user gsz]