• Image about Detroit
Lafayette Greens
Peter Baker
A recent surge in work, including the arrival of young entrepreneurs lured by TechTown, a business incubator formed through a partnership with Wayne State University, has led to demand for local residences. The problem is that many of the buildings in the neighborhood are 1920s-era gems that have fallen into a sad state of disrepair and need hard-to-find financing from banks to be rehabbed.

But a template for success exists. Originally opened in 1926, the Wardell Apartment Hotel was one of the premier addresses in town. Artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, stayed in the property while Rivera worked on his expansive murals across the street at the Detroit Institute of Arts. When Michael Berger, president of Berger Realty Group, purchased the 12-story building in 1986, wall-to-wall carpeting veiled the original hardwood floors and drop-down ceilings hid the art deco detail. Now called The Park Shelton, Berger restored the building to its original grandeur so that every tile and molding reflects its acclaimed past. Not surprisingly, there’s a long waiting list for the building’s units.

“Occupancy is at an all-time high. We’re turning people away,” says Berger, who manages another historic building of refurbished apartments in Midtown, located across from the Detroit Medical Center.

Berger has lured restaurants and retail stores to the street level of The Park Shelton, like Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes and the Peacock Room, a boutique that sells silk scarves, men’s ties and women’s vintage clothing, and which fits in nicely with the building’s storied past. The ultimate sign of gentrification, a Whole Foods Market, has already broken ground in the neighborhood and is set to open early next year. There are also talks of a rail line running along Woodward Avenue from downtown to Midtown and onward.

Other areas of the city, especially pockets on the east and west side, have not fared as well. When a population dips as precipitously as Detroit’s did, the results are numerous abandoned and boarded-up homes, leading to an increase in crime. In the 2010/2011 City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America, published by CQ Press, Detroit was ranked the third most dangerous city in America, behind only St. Louis and Camden, N.J.

“Media couldn’t resist coming into Detroit and taking photographs of abandoned buildings and streets, which we call ‘ruin porn,’ ” says Katie McGowan, curator of education at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, located a few blocks from The Park Shelton. In response to the coverage, McGowan’s summer exhibition showcased the talents of local inventors. Driving the wide boulevards of the city, it’s hard not to think of Detroit as a hotbed of ingenuity. After all, this is the place where Henry Ford showed Thomas Edison his version of a quadricycle and was told he should manufacture his gas-powered automobiles. It’s where a young Berry Gordy asked his family for an $800 loan to start his own record company, thanks to the persuasion of his friend Smokey Robinson.

Clearly, Mayor David Bing, a former ?Detroit Pistons basketball star, has more than his fair share of challenges ahead. A passed budget in May proposed more than $250 million in cuts, including the elimination of more than 2,500 city jobs and a reduction of 10 percent in pay for police officers. But plenty of optimists are banking on Detroit’s future. Loepp, who grew up on the city’s east side and has already seen Motown overcome much adversity, remains rosy about what lies ahead: “Every study you look at, if you have a thriving central core, it impacts positively on the entire city.”

Walk through the massive Eastern Market on a Saturday morning as residents purchase cherries and irises from local farmers, or indulge in the heavenly pain au chocolat with almonds at the Golden Wheat booth, and it’s impossible to ignore the civic pride that resonates amid the ubiquitous Motown and University of Hamtramck shirts. This never-say-die spirit, especially from Detroit’s native sons and daughters, has helped rejuvenate a city that can finally dream of a Super Bowl title for its beloved Lions. Sure, it’s a long shot — but Detroit has already beaten some very long odds.


A correspondent for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, Stephen Jermanok last wrote about the Mukuru slum in Nairobi for American Way.