I recently spent a day in Detroit. It was a work trip. But two old college friends live in the area and so after work there was an evening of Detroit fun. And we had a great evening, which I will tell you about in a moment. But first, you may have heard something about Detroit in the news recently, something about bankruptcy. It's true, the city filed for bankruptcy. The thing is, and I can say this with only a little bit of familiarity with the city, Detroit has been a mess for at least 15 years now, and probably longer.
Office buildings in the downtown area sit abandoned. Entire office buildings. Neighborhoods are depleted of people, home after home burned out or boarded up, huge weeds and other greenery rising up and reclaiming the space. The new urban jungle. Maybe 600,000 people live in Detroit now, down from 2 million at peak, maybe 50 years ago. There are almost no new jobs. There is no smart way for the city to provide basic services, like picking up garbage, when perhaps only ten families live in a 5 square block radius.
Detroiters like to tell you that their city is so big that San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined would fit within its borders. And yet many of its residents do not own a sea-worthy automobile. But there are new sports stadiums, casinos, and a convention center. I hear about how the South Bronx is the poorest urban congressional district in the US, but it cannot be - it must be Detroit (or New Orleans?). Driving though this city made me feel like I was in a forgotten place, a place that was devastated and then never rebuilt. There is a set of large housing project buildings you see when you arrive from the airport on the main highway, all completely abandoned. Graffiti on top of one reads, in huge white block letters, "Zombie Land."
And yet the people I met at work were people who believe in their city and are working to help rebuild. And my friend from college who now lives in Detroit with his wife and two sons - he loves it. He says that he has learned to appreciate the beauty of the barren cityscape, the bones of the old buildings. He showed me the new park/performance space in the city center, office buildings that are now occupied after sitting vacant for 20 years, and new hotels, cafes, and restaurants. He told me that there are people investing in Detroit, and that there are good things happening, that this place is full of potential. After 24 hours and a bit of a tour, I can feel it in my gut - I agree with my friend. It is an oddly beautiful place. And there is plenty of room for intrepid and creative people to make their dream a reality. Detroit is urban America at rock bottom, and so there is no where to go but up.
Slows Bar BQ is part of the upswing. We went for dinner on a Thursday night and there was a 90 minute wait for a table. In NYC that would be a big turn off, but here in Detroit we were happy to hang out at the bar and enjoy a few pints of locally brewed pilsner. In NYC, why wait for food - there are 6 gajillion places with interesting food here. In Detroit it felt great to be in this airy and beautiful space bustling with people of all ages and types, woodsmoke in the air, good music and good vibes too. And then the food came, and it was genuinely excellent. Slows is serious BBQ, without question. We ate baby back ribs, tasty sides, and my friend had a pit smoked ham sandwich that was ridiculous. My favorite part of our dinner was when our community table neighbors saw me staring longingly at their St. Louis style rack of ribs, and insisted on sharing with us. Yes, they ripped a hunk of ribs off their own plate and passed it on down. There was also the check, which came to something like 75 bucks for four pints, a big dinner, and a few glasses of good rye whiskey which we shared with our generous new St. Louis ribs friends. Slows. I'm in, hook line and sinker.
This guy, Yani Frye is his name, made us our drinks at Sugar House. He was disarmingly friendly and he exuded this happy-as-a-clam aura. He is a guy who is genuinely happy to be making serious cocktails for Detroit. And without a trace of attitude, regardless of what the top hat might lead you to expect. His bar has no fewer than 6 big game busts on the wall including several bucks with complicated antlers. The lighting is mason jars, the vibe is unmistakably Brooklyn. But why shouldn't Detroit have a spot that uses this atmosphere (and top hat style costuming) to communicate its aspirations as a serious cocktail bar? It's all part of the Detroit upswing.The drinks were really good, by the way, by any standard.
And then we walked past the abandoned train station to our car and I slept in a hotel connected to a casino. Slows was my idea, by the way. My friend tells me there are other places that I would love. Next time I'm in Detroit, which I hope is soon, I will take him up on that.