How Detroit Is Turning Itself Into America's Coolest City

Detroit has experienced a renewed focus on art, culture and independent businesses. This is a fitting scene from Diego Rivera's mural of an automotive assembly line at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Jame R. Martin/Shutterstock

Once the center of the automobile universe, Detroit was hit by waves of setbacks as automation, foreign competition, municipal mismanagement and lack of economic diversification brought financial troubles and, eventually, bankruptcy. The economic downturn hit the city and its businesses, but it also affected citizens. The crumbling, abandoned homes all around the city give the impression that many locals simply gave up and walked away.

In some ways, Detroit has been quietly turning its fortunes around since well before its 2013 bankruptcy filing. That might be a surprise to some because so much of the media coverage is still focused on abandoned factories and neighborhoods filled with vacant homes instead of on new businesses and renovation projects.

But a closer look at Detroit’s tourism statistics shows things really are changing. The most recent arrivals count for the Motor City puts the annual number of visitors at 19 million. Not all of these were tourists, obviously, but even so, 19 million is triple the number of visitors the city welcomed in 2008.

Why are people coming?

Michigan Central Station is a 17-story building that has been abandoned for 30 years. Ford recently purchased it with promises to renovate it.
Michigan Central Station is an abandoned, 17-story building located in a trendy neighborhood. Ford recently purchased it with promises to renovate it. Atomazul/Shutterstock

Yes, some tourists are intrigued by the ruins of the past. Abandoned factories and century-old buildings are now open for tours. These tours are a safer, tamer and more-legal way to engage in the kind of "urban exploring" that has come into its own with the rise of Instagram and YouTube. Architecture lovers and history buffs also are drawn to these once-buzzing factories, stations and public spaces. In a sense, this has helped define Detroit's recent success as a cultural and tourist destination.

Abandoned Detroit is not just for curiosity seekers, however. Big business has embraced the past as well. Ford recently bought Michigan Central Station, a 17-story building that has been abandoned for 30 years, and announced plans to renovate it and turn it into an office building. Central Station is right outside of downtown Detroit in a neighborhood that has become trendy for locals and tourists. It's also a popular investment target for entrepreneurs drawn by cheap real estate and the chance to get in on the ground floor of the city’s reinvention.

Urban wineries and boutique hotels

Woodward Avenue is one of the most iconic streets in Detroit.
Woodward Avenue is one of the most iconic streets in Detroit. NicoleTaklaPhotography/Shutterstock

One of the more surprising elements of this new Detroit scene is wine. Detroit Vineyards, relying on grapes grown in a distinct micro-climate along the Detroit River, is not only one of the world's few urban winemakers, it's representative of a surprising number of wineries in the Detroit metro area. They join an increasing number of microbreweries and artisan distilleries that have created a vibrant drinking scene.

Where can you find these Detroit-made beverages? The city has seen a spike in new restaurant openings over the past few years. Some of these spots are focused on creative New American cuisine, while others dole out favorites like pizza and Coney Island-style hot dogs.

Then there are boutique hotels, again inspired by cheap real estate and the ability to get in early in Detroit’s reinvention. Well-known brand names like Aloft join local boutiques like Trumbull and Porter Detroit in creating a lineup that includes modern hospitality spaces and hotels housed in historic buildings.

America's new 'coolest city'

Heidelberg Project in Detroit
The Heidelberg Project in Detroit is an effort to bring art to a city block in the middle of Detroit, which has become something of a mecca for art aficionados. Daniel Lobo/flickr

Forbes called Detroit one of the "coolest cities to visit" earlier this year. In addition to the historic architecture and aforementioned restaurant and hotel booms, Forbes cited the city's unpretentious authenticity and willingness to transform vacant spaces rather than bulldozing them and rebuilding from scratch.

Forbes also pointed to the Heidelberg Project, an effort to bring art to a city block in the middle of Detroit. This urban neighborhood has become something of a mecca for art aficionados. People come from all around the world to see the works, which artist and organizer Tyree Guyton changes from time to time.

Heidelberg is only one example of a unique arts scene that seems to mirror the up-and-down fortunes and penchant for innovation that has defined Detroit in recent years. Artists are either coming to the city to seek new opportunities, returning home after stints elsewhere, or deciding to remain after gaining degrees or working on temporary projects.

A new scene with the same down-to-earth vibe

The buzz from Lonely Planet, which called Detroit the No. 2 city in the world to visit in 2018 (topped only by Seville, Spain), is probably partly to thank for the increase in interest from tourists and culture-lovers. Admittedly, these "rankings" are subjective, but they all mention the same cocktail of cool innovation, history and Midwestern down-to-earth-ness as reason to visit.

In other words, more people are going to Detroit because it's an accessible, unpretentious place with a lot to see and do, not because they feel sorry it. Judging by the energy put into recent development and renovation, Detroit certainly hasn't stopped moving ahead to feel sorry for itself.