Detroit is “Awesome”!

One of the biggest problems with the “word inflation” that permeates our culture is it makes it more difficult to explain the truly exceptional.  In an era when everything is “phenomenal” and everyone is “awesome”, it makes it that much harder to describe something that really is extraordinary.

Having spent the last couple of months working in the midst of downtown Detroit, I can tell you that the transformation going on down there is nothing short of amazing. When I take walks before work or during my lunch break, I literally (yes, really “literally”) have feelings of euphoria when I see all that is going on.

For the longest time, I’ve dwelled on the sad thought that Detroit was once the *fourth* largest city in the U.S. and a thriving center of both business and culture. All that was in decline just about the time I was born. I often hear Steve Wonder’s “Up-Tight” in my head while imagining Woodward jammed with cars from the early 1960’s. All the women look like Jackie Kennedy or Diana Ross. Some of the men wear hats and all of them are wearing ties whether they need to or not. It is a cool picture, but one I felt would always remain an image in my head and not reality before my eyes. Now, I feel as if I am going to be handed a chance to walk in the midst of what I once thought to be impossible – what it must have felt like to be my age now in the hustle and bustle of Detroit in the early 1960’s.

The largest and most obvious sign of this revitalization is the construction on the M1 Rail , a 3.3 mile stretch which has Woodard in various stages of demolition/reconstruction. Though it will be another eighteen months or so until the street cars are rolling, just crossing Woodward and seeing fresh, new rail running off into the distance already gets me pumped up.

Even more exciting than the M1 Rail is the number of buildings, both on Woodward and elsewhere, that are undergoing *major* renovations. There are any number of buildings where construction workers are tearing away the exteriors of building, soon to be replaced with….I don’t know yet! I’ll have to wait and see.  I’ve seen street-level businesses along Woodward with much of the store front missing as workers inside gut the interior and build it back up again, better, newer and wired for the 21st century.

As an unabashedly proud IT nerd, one of the most exciting things for me to see is the rise of the high-tech industry downtown. Just the other day I learned that Amazon.com actually has over a hundred software developers occupying an entire floor of 150 West Jefferson and that they’re adding more. There is a sky-scraper right off Campus Martius that, according to the large painting on its side, is the home of Galaxie Solutions, a software staffing company, as is Strategic Staffing Solutions which has taken up residence in the historic Penabscot Building on Griswold. Back on Woodward there is Detroit Labs which makes mobile apps and I have to say that their workplace is uber-cool…I’ve been to some Ruby meet-ups there. It is difficult to not notice the employee shuttles for Quicken Loans coming and going from the Compuware Building.  The company was voted the #1 best large-company employer for IT workers in the country last year. At the north end of downtown near Cass, signs in the window promote “Coding Bootcamps” where people can acquire the skills to hop on to the IT bandwagon. Our own IT department is growing seemingly every day, so forgive us all if the downtown crowd looks a lot like the cast of “Office Space”, with a dash of artists and a pinch of lawyers in suits tossed in for good measure.

I haven’t for a moment forgotten that all of this is “downtown” and that “the neighborhoods” constitute about 98% of the land space of Detroit, but I think the M1 Rail is going to be a catalyst to spread the growth, much more so than I ever thought.

As rents for downtown apartments continue to rise, the M1 Rail opens up a tremendous number of new possibilities as the areas a quarter mile or more on either side of the rail all become candidates for residential redevelopment. Work downtown? Live near midtown or New Center and ride the rail to your job downtown. Personally, I am looking forward to the completion of the line so I can expand my lunchtime possibilities up to New Center as well as be able to stroll the Detroit Institute of Art for forty-five minutes during lunch, getting there and back on the rail.

And none of this even counts the 50+ block of development known as “The District” undertaken by the Ilitch family.

So, forgive me if I a seem a bit upbeat and optimistic about Detroit, but from what I see up close every day, it’s gonna be “awesome”.

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