As a child, when watching a sporting event, we frequently (okay, almost exclusively) cheered for the underdog. Often, they were defeated and we would shrug our shoulders in disappointment and maybe even wallow a bit in the loss. Occasionally, there was a victory, and the pure joy we felt was unparalleled. They defeated the odds. They proved them wrong. I love that story. I never tire of it and Detroit embodies it.
I grew up near Detroit, which in my youth burned on Devil’s night, and was awash in trash, swirling around the streets until getting caught in the metal bars that covered storefronts. Astonishing buildings that were touted to be examples of some of the best architecture in the United States sat abandoned, neglected and left to vandals. Over the last few decades, when visiting the city, I would marvel at the sheer numbers of these beautiful historic structures, these forlorn elegant giants, and I would think, “Come on underdog…get going.”
We visited my favorite underdog city this month, and it was clear, the positive momentum has finally gained traction. The historic fabric is being mended and improved, not abandoned and demolished. The current redevelopment is thoughtful, deliberate and places restoration of the city in high regard. The old train station, which stands proud in Cork Town is a perfect example of this. The new owners, Ford Motor Company, are investing hundreds of millions of dollars not only in the building, but the surrounding neighborhood. The industry that helped create this great city is now helping to bring it back.
During this visit, we stayed at The Shinola Hotel which is also emblematic of the city’s historic fabric being woven into a new story without losing sight of the original narrative. The Shinola property actually consists of five buildings, two of which are historic. They retained the elaborate red tiled facade of the Rayl building which was designed by Wirt Rowland, an architect known for innovative use of materials. They also remodeled the Singer Building, which was designed by what is now the nation’s oldest continuously operating architectural firm (Smith, Hinchman & Grylls). It used to house the Singer Sewing Machine Company and is clad in limestone. Yet, there is more history at which one can marvel; part of the Shinola property also includes Parker’s Alley, which is an homage to Thomas Parker. He was one of Detroit’s first black landowners and the exact lot (Lot 70 in section 7) is subsumed within the Shinola development. He bought that lot for $1 in a land drawing that occurred after the great fire of 1805. Clearly, Mr. Parker believed in underdogs too.
Upon entering the hotel, you sense the history and importance of the building. The finishes are elegant, simple and the craftsmanship, exemplary. The historical importance of the buildings’ sensitive remodel is not only imparted to visitors in their guestbooks, but also in video clips played in their rooms. One of the most striking aspects of this elegant hotel is how comfortable and welcomed you feel here. The Hotel staff beam with pride about the project, but there is no arrogance or entitlement. Along with pride, they demonstrate equal amounts of humility and appreciation. That trifecta is born from struggle and this is the quintessential experience you get from this city and it’s people.
On the plane ride home, I reflected on the history of Detroit, and realized that the fire of 1805 unbeknownst to the city and the future residents, ended up providing the framework for the grit, the heart, and the perseverance that has made Detroit what it is today. That fire leveled the city, save for one stone fort; however, the people of Detroit did not abandon their town. Shortly thereafter, Father Gabriel Richard penned the city’s motto: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” which translates to “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.” Such is the spirit of an underdog.
Photo Credits: Joe’s Fist: Macombmihomes.com; Central Station: Derek Gauci; Shinola Hotel: Wall Street Journal