Detroit

Detroit: The 21st Century Boomtown

The Motor City has epitomized both America's past industrial dominance and the despair of economic decline. It now is the epitome of urban resurgence.
Detroit: The 21st Century Boomtown
Image credit: Geoffrey George | Getty Images
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Iconoclast
10 min read
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With a mayor who resigned after being convicted of federal felonies and a bankruptcy in which creditors threatened to loot priceless Van Goghs, Picassos and other works from the city's Institute of Arts to settle the city's debt, Detroit seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a boomtown. Yet in 2018, Detroit is seeing a long-overdue resurgence.

Detroit, it seems, just won't give up.

Perhaps an apt metaphor for Detroit is the recent travails of Henry the Hatter. The Detroit landmark is the country's oldest hat retailer, and one of the oldest stores of any kind anywhere in continuous operation, but was forced to move from its longtime Downtown location when the property owner decided the building could be put to more lucrative uses.

Current owner Paul Wasserman was nonplussed. "When I got the news that I had to leave I just figured it was time to retire, but the outpouring of support from the community was just astonishing," he said. Wasserman knew he had to find another Downtown Detroit location. "Detroit is my home, I came here from Brooklyn when I was two and started working in the shop at 14, not only is this a big part of my life, I now see that it's a big part of the community as well."

The new location is in Detroit's Historic Eastern Market, a hotbed for Detroit entrepreneurs both new and old. Abdul "Duke" Fakir, founding member of the legendary Motown recording act the Four Tops and a long time customer and friend of Wasserman, cut the ribbon on the new store. He waxed nostalgic as we sat and talked hats. "I've been coming to Henry's since I was a kid," said Duke, "and when I heard the Broadway location was closing I was just devastated; I mean that shop was Detroit, I was so glad to hear that not only was it not leaving Detroit but that it was coming here (to Eastern Market)."

Related: He Owns the Oldest Hat Store In America and Knows How Tough Entrepreneurship Really Is

This six-block public market is the only farmer's market in a major city that has been continuously used as such since the city was formed. In recent years, the sheds that house farmers hawking their wares have become ringed with at least 250 independent merchants from meatpacking plants to art galleries and retail shops. The new Henry the Hatter sits comfortably between a microbrewery. A boutique baker of custom cakes and candies is across the street. While the old shop was a piece of history, the new store is a work of art.

Eastern Market is not the only area seeing an unprecedented interest and growth in entrepreneurial ventures. While big developments like the new home to the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons may garner the bulk of the headlines, there are lesser-known areas that are incubators for entrepreneurs. Corktown -- so named for the preponderance of its original settlers who came from Cork, Ireland -- is where Lana Rodriguez started her business, Mama Coo's Boutique.

"I chose Detroit because it's my home. Even though my family moved to the suburbs when I was a sophomore in high school, I always thought of Detroit as my home," she said.

Rodriguez started her business because she saw a need. "There just weren't any places to buy affordable clothes and gifts in Detroit, and I didn't see why my friends and I had to go to the suburbs to shop," she explained. "Our motto for our boutique is that everyone deserves to look and feel fabulous; it's our mission that everyone is treated like they are going to spend thousands."

Once the home of the original Tiger Stadium, the neighborhood's future looked grim when the ballpark closed. Entrepreneurs have slowly claimed the area and now it is showing signs of a real, sustained vitality.

Sergio "Checo" Vallejo is a true entrepreneur. He and his family own and operate a small grocery store in southwest Detroit, and when he isn't working in the store he is creating low-riders that are true works of art. Checo is well known in the Southwest Detroit neighborhood known as Mexican Town. He attributes much of his success to the support of his community.

"We all know each other and it's a great place to live and work. Detroit has a bad reputation, but there are some really great things about it," Vallejo said. When asked what he thought could be improved about Detroit's resurgence he is quick to respond. "I only wish that they would pay more attention to the neighborhoods instead of focusing so much on Downtown. What they are doing downtown is great, but there are communities that need help too.

Related: How This Founder Scaled Globally and Found Sustained Success

Detroit attracts a lot of attention from out of town investors. JJ Hook, location manager and producer for Paramount films explained that while 46 states offer tax incentives for the motion picture industry, Detroit remains particularly attractive to filmmakers. "The lure of Detroit was equally financial and creative. Once offering the best State rebate in the country and having an abundance of urban decay, classical and modern architecture, Michigan was a true filmmakers playground," he said.

Filmmaker/entrepreneur Mark Wahlberg was so impressed by Detroit that he decided to build at least three Wahlburgers restaurants in and around Detroit.

"Detroit shares a lot of the same great working-class roots and down-to-earth people I grew up with in Dorchester. So many good things have been happening with the city lately, with people like Dan Gilbert putting their commitment and money behind it, and I think it will be great to be part of Detroit's resurgence. My partner and good friend Nino Cutraro lives in metro Detroit as well and believes in the city. I also think it will be a smart investment given the current growth in Detroit.

"I think the main challenge is demonstrating to the people of Detroit that you have genuine care and love for the city. It has to be about more than bringing a well-run business; it is about becoming part of the community and giving back," says Wahlberg.

Not everyone sees the Detroit resurgence as universally good or even real at all. Iconic Detroit figure, Jimmy Doom, a life-long Detroiter speaks for many who feel that while development of Detroit is good, with it comes the inevitable and unwelcome carpetbaggers and robber barons who aren't good for the city and are frankly not welcome. As an actor, Doom could live anywhere but staunchly refuses to leave Detroit.

"I'm a better actor because of my surroundings," he said. "Because this city is real. There's no bullshit, no pretense. At least there wasn't. Now every other person that moves here thinks their trust fund is gonna save the planet one-creative-cooperative workspace at a time."

Related: To Entrepreneurs Everywhere: Don't Forget the Motor City

Doom tends bar and holds court at a bar in Hamtramck, a neighborhood that was once an enclave of Polish immigrants. It has become a haven for quirky Detroit die-hards and displaced hipsters looking to drink bad beer ironically. Doom sees his fair share of out-of-towners looking to "save Detroit."

"These people come here and act like it's some big favor to us. Like they're saying 'We're building you a freeway!' I think 'We already have a freeway, we'd prefer that you politely merge onto it'."

Related: Detroit, Seattle and Milwaukee Are Included in the 10 Best Cities for Starting a Yoga Studio

Doom doesn't mind people coming to help but doesn't see "help" as tearing down the city to make way for another trendy coffeehouse. He's sick of out of towners looking to make a quick buck and leave Detroit.

He gave the example of a real estate investor from Dallas who recently bought a house to remodel with vintage distressed wood and marble floors. Doom said that while the investor claimed he "wants to see Detroit restored to its former greatness" but is likely just driving up rents in the neighborhood.

"He intends to rent this house out at a price way too high for the neighborhood, then he will go the next house and do the same thing. Pricing people out of their own neighborhood isn't 'helping'."

Doom is adamant in his love for his city, although he admits that sometimes he doesn't recognize his old haunts. "Am I sorry that Woodward (Detroit's main thoroughfare) isn't lined with abandoned and decaying buildings anymore? No, but I'm not really thrilled that every other storefront is a national retail chain either. There are things that make Detroit unique; I don't want to see Detroit become Chicago East or Boston West. If people want to come here and be a part of our community I think that does some good, but the last thing Detroit needs is people who solely want to exploit it for personal financial gain then go back to Malibu."

Coleman Young Jr. recently ran unsuccessfully for mayor using the strategy that significant populations have been left behind in this resurgence. Entrepreneurs seem to disagree. Lana Rodriguez is particularly vocal on the subject, "There is room for everyone here -- new businesses and old, there are so many resources available for new businesses and old, but you have to get tapped into the small business ecosystem."

Mark Wahlberg is similarly emphatic, " I don't want to speak for the feelings of others. At Wahlburgers it is all about family and embracing others like family. That is what we hope to bring to Detroit, and leave no one out."

But, perhaps the best response comes from the man who has the most reason to feel bitter, Henry the Hatter's Paul Wasserman.

Related: Stock Market of Things Launches in Detroit, Building a New Exchange As City Reinvents Itself

"I'm glad I'm here and I'm glad we were able to find a location in Detroit," he said. "This place (the new location) far exceeds my wildest vision; it's just beautiful, and I would tell those who feel left behind that there is still plenty of room for everyone -- not all the property is owned by big developers and there are still some great locations."

In the ordeal of moving Henry the Hatter, Paul learned how the people of Detroit cherish its unique character and community. When asked about it Paul is typically humble and sporting a warm and infectious grin and says, "I'm just the caretaker of all of this," he said as he spread his arms wide and raised his palms.

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