Ten years ago, the mile-long stretch of Michigan Avenue between the Lodge Expressway and I-96 was at low ebb. Aside from a few bars, clubs and diners, some of them lively enough, the graying strip in the shadow of Michigan Central Station was a textbook case of urban disinvestment, with vacant storefronts clad in ancient iron wicker. On some days, you could have fired buckshot down the road with no casualties. And if you wanted something to eat, one of your main choices was White Castle.
How times change! In 2005, Slows Bar-B-Q opened, showing that a repurposed city space could draw customers from all over metro Detroit. Though a cluster of Corktown boosters and groups had laid the foundation, Slows was the first of many small businesses that began to appear along the neighborhood’s main drag. The pace of investment has quickened in the last several years, with almost a dozen establishments opened or revamped in Corktown since 2011, and several more scheduled to launch this year.
You could call it gentrification, but it’s not quite there yet. Michigan Avenue is getting that crucial first wave of creative investors staking their claims, catering to a hipper clientele of young professionals. (Don’t expect a Chase Bank or Urban Outfitters on Michigan Avenue anytime soon.) That’s why it’s the perfect time to see what’s happening along this historic thoroughfare, and learn how central cities are becoming some of the most sought-after environments in the country.
With this in mind, we decided to take a day out of the office and eat and drink our way down the street, meeting the people who are driving this change — and maybe ending up half in the bag.
I get going a bit late, but it’s still pretty early when you’re on bartender time, like my tour guide, Evan Bradish. He works on Michigan Avenue at Ottava Via, but on this particular morning, he’s recovering from a bartending shift at the Painted Lady, bleary-eyed and running on two hours of sleep. Luckily, he’s game enough to throw on some clothes and join me for my Michigan Avenue tour.
It’s mid-morning when we finally roll in to the Detroit Institute of Bagels. Whitewashed and sun-splashed, with strains of warm salsa music on the sound system, the interior is a welcome change from the biting wind and single-digit temperatures outside. We take a seat at the bar near the rear, amid original exposed brick, a wall covered with customers’ chalk drawings, and another adorned with photos of the original space and its recent transformation.
This is a neighborhood spot, with real hands-on owners. You can tell because they’re right there right now. Originally from Bloomfield, owner Ben Newman, 30, didn’t go to culinary school. He studied urban planning, deciding to put his money where his mouth was. Talking about why he took this long-vacant building and turned it into a bagel stop, he takes pages from urban guru Jane Jacobs: eyes on the street, small businesses, diversity. But instead of writing dissertations about that stuff, Newman is backing it up with his quirky shop. True to the neighborhood ethos, he lives just a few blocks away, and has for more than three years. He says it’s a great feeling to “get out at 3 a.m., carve out a little unfrosted part of your windshield and drive a few blocks home.” (Jane Jacobs probably wouldn’t have driven, but she didn’t have the polar vortex to contend with either.)
After looking around the city for a good location, Newman rejected renting, saying he couldn’t easily find a “white box” ready for repurposing, adding that many properties had dirt floors, as well as landlords who expected renters to do a build-out on their own dime. Rather than rent, Newman bought this building in November 2011. It’s actually the sole remaining part of a three-story, three-storefront structure (pictured among the original photos on the wall). His funding mix included $10,000 raised by crowdfunding to buy a used oven, as well as a $50,000 grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy.
Newman’s partner, general contractor Alex Howbert, tells us that the building, a former Tigers bar, had been vacant for more than 40 years. Giving the building new life was a special challenge for Howbert.
“Keeping an old building like this was a lot of work,” Howbert tells us. “It certainly would have been easier just to tear it down and build new. But you wouldn’t get that beautiful old character that you have here with the arches and the whole aesthetic of it.”
He explains their labors, how they shored up load-bearing walls in the front to install bays of windows without the building tumbling down, and had to sand every individual beam in the ceiling just to clean it up and apply good paint.
“There’s also a lot of reuse,” he says. “This is an old basketball floor. The cladding on the front of the bar was originally the space’s ceiling. The table and the bar up in front were old bleachers, made of beautiful old maple wood.”
Pointing to the brick arch that opens onto the kitchen, Howbert says, “It was a great day when we knocked this arch open and joined the two spaces, once it was totally weathertight and secure. … It was certainly expensive. A big project.”
Yes, but increasingly the sort of project that pays off, given the premium customers are willing to pay for that feeling of history and locality. There’s little doubt the goodwill generated by rescuing a vacant building and preaching density and walkability plays into the joint’s success. And Newman says they’re doing well, between walk-in business, catering and weekly orders.
Of course, goodwill can only take you so far. But the food at the Detroit Institute of Bagels is hearty and satisfying. All the food is done with a bit of extra class, from the big sandwiches down to the cucumber-infused water. The bagels themselves have a nice crispy rind, and aren’t the poofy jumbo-sized carb-bombs you find in stores. I bite into one with a satisfying crunch, and the chewy dough offers the perfect resistance. Bradish orders a luxurious lox sandwich, cream cheese, red onion and capers. It may cost $11, but it’s worth every penny to my hungover friend.
Then I dig into the Chicago Bagel Dog, an all-beef Sy Ginsberg frank wrapped in bagel dough and cooked, then sliced open and dragged through the garden, stuffed with green relish, a pickle, a slice of tomato, a sport pepper and chopped red onion, all in a crisp poppy-seed bagel coating. You know how you sometimes leave that last bit of bun on the plate? Not with this dog.
It’s almost noon when we stroll down to PJ’s Lager House, where jocular daytime bartender Paul Maiale is setting up. We each ask for only a digestif for now, although the Lager House’s kitchen churns out great food, as one customer dropping in to pick up a take-out order attests. Owner Paul “PJ” Ryder has told us in the past how, after the smoking ban, he decided to amp up his food offerings, including plenty of vegetarian options. Bradish praises the vegetarian biscuits and gravy, and I fondly recall a barbecue tempeh sandwich I once crushed here. Ten years ago, it would have been unheard-of to request such delicacies in a Michigan Avenue bar, but Ryder and company churn it out, especially during the bar’s popular weekend brunches.
Braving the icy wind, we stroll down to Brooklyn Street Local, another hands-on local business. This weekday’s lunch has drawn a bit of a broader mix than the bagel shop, with a few older diners among the twenty- and thirtysomethings. Clean and bright inside, there’s a mild quirk-factor, the sort of place that has stylish chairs but uses milk bottles as carafes and rocks glasses for water. A small library of books at our elbow includes The Mullet Book and Look at This F*cking Hipster.
We order a chicken-and-pesto sandwich and, naturally, a bowl of poutine, for which the joint is somewhat famous. There’s a bit of a wait, given the size of the crowd and the small size of the kitchen, but it’s an enjoyable place to people-watch. It takes us a while to realize what’s different, but we see no television, and diners are actually reading books, with nary a laptop to be seen.
We chat with one of the owners, Deveri Gifford, 32. Deveri and her husband, Jason Yates, opened the joint in May 2012. The couple emigrated to Corktown from Toronto, taking up residence on Leverette Street two years ago, and turning this former coney island into a smart little café.
Canadians moving to Detroit? We begin speculating whether attitudes toward cities are any more enlightened north of the border. She replies, “It’s funny. I think a lot of cities have that urban-suburban divide. I think in Detroit it seems a little more prevalent. But I know in Toronto there’s definitely a big divide between urban and suburban. You see very different attitudes and mentalities. I mean, think about Mayor Rob Ford,” she says, as we all burst into laughter. Seriously, though, she explains, “If you look at the districts that voted for him, they were all outside the core of the city. So I think that’s kind of a common thing, I definitely saw it a lot in Toronto.
“But being in the city was very important to us. We didn’t have any interest in being in the suburbs. We wanted to be right in the actual city, and we certainly have made a lot of friends who live in the city and who’ve been really supportive. … I grew up near a really small community, so that kind of closeness has always been very important to me, but I love the city as well, so Detroit, for me, is kind of like the perfect melding of the two, because it does feel like a small town a lot of the time, and you get to know everyone in your neighborhood. I love it. I think the sense of community in Detroit is fantastic. It’s one of the main reasons I love this city.”
And with Brooklyn Street Local, Gifford and Yates have given everyone another reason to love the neighborhood. The menu’s choices are a little more playful than standard diner fare. Plus, the place is much more friendly to dietary restrictions — even the pesto in my chicken sandwich comes with options. As for the poutine, Bradish digs in while explaining its virtues. “It’s one of those things where a side dish is just so damn hearty it almost becomes like a main,” he says. “You’ve got it all. You’ve got your starch, your protein, your fattiness. And these curds are more pungent than usual.”
Fortified, we head out again into the ice and snow, ready for our next stop.
Approaching Ottava Via from the rear, Bradish describes what’s not there yet. The tread-marked dirt lot will be a bocce court. The snow-covered outdoor hearth will be full of dancing flames. The cozy, enclosed courtyard will fill with diners. Outside, at least, it’s still a work in progress.
But inside, it’s finished. It’s beautiful. Maybe a little too nice for the likes of us. The interior is all dark wood and chic lighting fixtures. The sound system is playing “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.” The crowd is definitely older, more upscale, more male. The customers sport blazers, neckties or warm-looking long overcoats. On the wall in a hallway is a depiction of the neighborhood by local artist Jerome Ferretti, full of signs for businesses old and new, many of them brand-spanking new.
The dining room is wide open at 1 p.m., but we take seats at the bar. That’s because Bradish sees his co-worker, bartender Paige Glennie, working there. They shoot the breeze on a new menu of cocktails while Glennie mixes up a few favorites. In seemingly moments, she presents me with one of Bradish’s creations, the Julius Julep, a cocktail of muddled basil, unrefined sugar, bitters, rye whiskey and ginger beer, all topped with two basil leaves and a light drizzling of balsamic glaze. Well, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, as they say. And thank goodness for that, because the drink is like nectar, like the Kentucky Derby taking place during a Tuscan sunrise. The vinegar works surprisingly well, and the basil as fragrant as grandma’s kitchen.
While this concoction is pulling me apart, Bradish chronicles the building’s many lives. “Originally, it was a bank. Then it was a bakery. Finally, it was a pawn shop. They had their soft opening here in July 2013, so it hasn’t even been a year yet.”
As for the customers, Bradish says, “We get a lot of business folk, kind of white-collar office workers. At night it’s usually couples and groups coming in for a nice dinner. Before there weren’t a lot of options here that felt comfortable for that crowd. They’re not going to go down to Corktown Tavern and tie one on after a coney dog! They want to sit down, have a place that’s comfortable, not overly raucous, have a nice calm, collected time and a decent meal. But it can be surprisingly varied. We also get a really strong group of service industry folk from around town on their nights off, and some local younger people or the hip crowd.”
Thinking it over, I wonder about the coming culture clash, when revelers drive in from the suburbs for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and find this upscale island in a sea of green beer and Jell-O shots. It would seem all concerned are in for a bit of a shock.
We order some meats and cheeses, and they arrive attractively plated. Having not had bresaola in years, I’m excited when it arrives. Bradish finds the air-dried beef a bit too dry for his liking, so I show him a trick learned from a Milanese, squirting it with lemon and adding a dab of olive oil. The next slice goes down better. The house-made mozzarella is light and fluffy, and comes with a bundle of arugula and a peach-and-honey marmalata. It’s just enough food for lingering, so we have another drink to wash the rest down. By the time that’s done, we’re behind schedule and rush out again.
It’s fucking freezing outside, and so we’re relieved to get inside Astro Coffee, the hip artisanal coffee joint opened by Daisuke Hughes and Jessica Hicks in 2011. The spot is a smash hit thanks to its emphasis on quality coffee, and the house-made and locally sourced specials on the chalkboard don’t hurt. People regularly jam into the cozy coffee shop just down the street from the Sugar House and Slows, and today is no exception. In fact, it’s so popular today, there is nowhere to sit, stand or even levitate if you could. Confident that the place is a success, we reluctantly head back out into the cold.
We cross the street and head inside the Mercury Burger Bar. One of the more established new businesses, the Mercury seems our kind of place. Compared to where we’ve been, its clientele is the most diverse, both on the floor and behind the counter. The sound system roves between Motown and classic rock, and the restaurant’s throwback tweaks, such as oversized vintage-looking M’s and a giant Mercury grill pictured on the rear wall, dovetail neatly with the building’s historic landmark sign.
There are plenty of places to sit, along the windows, downstairs, even on a heated patio, but we naturally belly up to the bar. Our old buddy Grant Mitchenall is there to serve us, and we take a shot and a beer from the burger house’s full bar. To keep us from getting too sloppy, I order a basket of garlic fries. It turns out that these hand-cut fries are a revelation to me, so crispy and chewy, dappled with tangy crushed garlic and herbs, that I can’t stop eating them.
Bradish pays no mind to the fries, saying, “You get some spillover from Slows here, but you also get a lot more longtime city residents. Maybe it’s the menu, which is kind of like “refined” bar food — burgers and such, but actually done well,” he says with a laugh. “They also have tater tot nachos! Can you beat that?”
Another server, Gabriel “Gino” Issac, checks in on us and recognizes Bradish, quickly finding out that they’ve had the same roommate. “I’m so sorry,” Gino says with a laugh, adding, “Let me get you a shot on me.”
The disdain is a joke, but the shot is real enough. Bradish pours it back. I remind him about the booty dance party he’s supposed to DJ later that night. “No problem,” he says. “I’ll have myself a disco nap, wake up, do a shot, and get down to business.” I remind him about the garlic fries, and he hesitantly takes a handful of starches to appease me.
By the time we leave Mercury Burger Bar, we’ve become pals with Issac, who promises to meet us at our next destination, Two James Distillery. With the help of a grant from the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, a duo of entrepreneurs cranked up their small-batch stills last spring, unwittingly getting the first distillery license in Detroit since Prohibition was enacted. Now they bottle Old Cockney Gin, Grass Widow Bourbon and 28 Island Vodka in their distillery’s tasting room.
Hurdling the streetside snow banks, we walk up to a long, squat, brick warehouse almost smack in front of Michigan Central Station. We stomp the snow off our boots, pull open a plain metal door and troop into sudden elegance. In an open, airy space, the walls decorated with art, sits a circular bar. Above it all, high windows frame the beaux-arts facade of Michigan Central Station in all its glory. It’s kind of breathtaking seeing it framed next to art like that, a majestic colossus linking you to the past.
After drinking that in, we pick our poisons. The tasting room’s cocktail menu includes a few mixes made with “shrubs” made with McClary Bros. drinking vinegar (for our second taste of it today), including a rich-red beet-and-carrot concoction we sample. I try some bourbon, and it’s so smooth it hardly kicks. But I settle on something I’ll sip, a Negroni. When the drinks arrive, Bradish already has a bottle in a bag to go. It’s the joint’s “Rye Dog” whisky, and he almost seems to be guarding it.
One of the partners in the distillery, Andrew Mohr, is on hand to explain the whiskey’s appeal, and it’s a little amusing to hear rye whiskey pedigreed as if it were a boutique local cheese at Whole Foods.
“That’s our unaged Michigan rye whiskey,” Mohr says. “The grain is 100-percent rye, all locally sourced from an Ann Arbor farm. But we’re putting most of it ‘in barrel,’ and hopefully our first small batch of the rye whiskey will be out in about 12 months.”
Why Two James? Mohr’s business partners, Two James co-founders David Landrum and Peter Bailey, named the distillery after their fathers, both named James. It only makes sense to build a shrine to forefathers in the shadow of the past. (Even if Chicago-born Bailey is a Michigander by way of U-M, he’s lived in Detroit for a decade, and Landrum’s and Mohr’s families have Detroit roots.)
Mohr says the distillery will be hosting a number of events, ranging from receptions for the rotating art displays to a three-day distilling workshop with master distiller David Pickerell. But Mohr anticipates things will really get hopping when warm weather returns and the tasting room can throw open its roll-up door to Michigan Avenue to air and sunlight. I hardly can believe it. Ten years ago, most doors on Michigan Avenue were closed and opened on a buzzer, and most open-air drinking came out of a bottle in a bag. What a difference a decade makes.
The after-work crowd starts tumbling in the door, including our new pal Issac. Wine blogger, Slows server and just plain ol’ neighborhood guy Putnam Weekley comes in with a friend in tow. The voluble Weekley grows a little wary when asked about the changing neighborhood.
“Isn’t the standard question, like, ‘Is it good or bad?’ I don’t have an opinion on that as much. I tend to think more people is better than less people,” he says. “I have a selfish interest in Michigan Avenue, being that I like to see communities being bridged together via service and security. And all these little businesses are part of the glue that brings it all together.”
But at the center of Weekley’s neighborhood life is the thing he can’t stop talking about: that focal point, Michigan Central Station, now staring at him through the window in the fading sunlight. He’d rather discuss that.
“I meet so-called enlightened people who say, ‘We should bomb that place and raze it to the ground.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what are you going to replace it with?’ I kinda like the economy that’s built up around the train station. I mean, my whole life revolves around the train station. I’ve got my bank, the place I work, the grocery store, my house, my bar. It just circles me, and it’s beautiful.”
At dusk, we enter Motor City Wine. Husband-and-wife team Melissa and David Armin-Parcells only moved their wine bar, shop and music venue from downtown to Corktown last year, into the former Express Bar. The move is so recent that the couple is still hard at work building it up. David is screwgunning part of the bar together, and we actually help him lift a small refrigerator and drop it into its new home while we’re there.
After successfully operating their business on Woodward Avenue, above Foran’s Grand Trunk, they were able to purchase the new Corktown space, with its commodious parking lot. The two love urbanity and density, but, in transit-poor Detroit, parking is something they had to grudgingly consider, the better to pack folks in for pop-up dinners and music nights. Best of all, they landed smack in the middle of a neighborhood they love, and they’re making the most of it, aiming to provide a peerless gathering place. Come springtime, their outdoor courtyard should have lovers of wine and music gathered around their outdoor fire.
When asked, David agrees with my rough estimation that the new start-ups employ at least 100 people, and the economic activity, even not counting Slows, is in the millions of dollars. “And everything along here is an independent business, which is great.”
I try to catalog all the places we’ve been, let alone all the places we’ve missed that are off the avenue, such as St. Cece’s and Green Dot Stables. All day we’ve heard scuttlebutt on who’s opening what when, including the new Bucharest Grill in the old Great Wall Chinese joint, the deli named Rubbed in a former nail salon, a new bar called UFO Factory down by the old taxi garage. We even hear a new microbrewery is in the works.
David the third Canadian-born Corktowner we’ve talked to today, and his upbringing in Toronto seems to have left him with a healthy understanding of neighborhood life. “Toronto was full of small, independent businesses, and you did as much shopping as you could three blocks from your house, and you went to the restaurants that were right there,” he says. Speaking of Michigan Avenue today, he says, “There’s more of a neighborhood culture, which didn’t really exist in Corktown before. Now it’s thriving. People are actually walking.”
Glancing out the window at the dark and cold, he quickly corrects himself: “OK, not today! But people actually walk. They’ll start at one end, just like you did, and they’ll have a drink down there, they’ll have some dinner, they’ll walk up here and have a drink. And that’s great.”