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Is a Renaissance Brewing in Bankrupt Detroit?

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A yard in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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A house in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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A tree of dolls in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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A house in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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A playground in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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A tree filled with shoes in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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A polka-dotted house in the Heidelberg Project in Detroit.
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Honky Tonk man takes the win at Juggalo Championship Wrestling in Detroit.

It’s easy to find Detroit detractors these days, what with decades of decay leading up to the recent bankruptcy, dysfunctional city and emergency services, gangs of stray dogs roaming the streets and the list goes on. But it’s also easy to find cheerleaders.

For years, I’d been hearing about the growing arts and culture scene in Detroit, first from a friend who moved there, then from newspapers and magazines, then from visitors who arrived skeptical and left as Detroit’s Biggest Fans. “There’s a renaissance going on in Detroit,” I heard more than one person say.

Curious to see for ourselves, my boyfriend, Neil, and I took a weekend trip there last winter. We arrived with no set agenda and left with a newfound respect for the city, along with visions of street art, urban renewal and an unforgettable night at an Insane Clown Posse wrestling match.

The Art
The first thing I notice when I pull off the freeway into the Corktown neighborhood, a small, artsy stretch just west of downtown, is a woman and her small daughter standing by their old, beat-up car on the side of the road. There’s something bright and colorful on top of the car. I squint, but it still doesn’t register.

“They’re selling Girl Scout Cookies,” says Neil. As soon as we pass, I wish we’d stopped for a box of Samoas, or five. The door-to-door Girl Scout sales crew I’m used to suddenly seems so staid. This, this is the entrepreneurial spirit.

We check into the Westin Book Cadillac, which, when it was built in 1924, was the tallest hotel in the world. In 2008, it underwent a $200 million renovation and is, in part, a testament to a Detroit-in-motion. Plus, it’s walking distance from the competing Detroit Coney Island restaurants, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.

We head over to the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friday Night Live!, an event with live music, art classes, drinks and snacks that keeps the museum open late. There, a jazz singer belts out songs to a standing-room-only crowd. Those who aren’t listening sit at easels throughout the museum, drawing their own interpretations of works by Matisse, Rembrandt and van Gogh, while others wander the 100-plus galleries in the Beaux-Arts style building, chatting with friends or quietly taking in the exhibits.

Culturally sated, we head back to Corktown for barbecue at Slows Bar B Q, which is packed on a Friday night with families, hipsters and finger-lickin’ barbecue lovers. We knew from reading up on Detroit that Slows has become something of a symbol of the city’s revitalization. With a deep beer list and delicious, smoky ‘cue, Slows opened in 2005, and jumpstarted a small wave of development. The area is now home to a few different bars and restaurants, an inn, a popular coffee spot and an organic farm. But at 9 at night, when we leave Slows, the streets of Detroit still feel remarkably empty.

On Saturday, we set out for a walk along the Detroit River. Ahead of us lies a peaceful, meandering path that’s well landscaped and clean. Just a few yards away, to our left, are massive, run down, boarded up buildings. It’s a stark, post-apocalyptic theme that seems to be unavoidable in Detroit, and plays out in different ways throughout our visit.

We meet up with a friend who is a transplant to Detroit at Detroit Eastern Market, and wander through a bustling six blocks of fresh fruits and vegetables, clothing, jewelry and other items. Open year-round, this would be a beloved institution in any city. On our way out, en route to Supino Pizzeria, where the line of hungry patrons stretches out the door, we’re stopped by a man who asks us to sign a petition. He tells us that earlier this year, a 6-year-old boy died following a house fire, because paramedics took too long to get to him. The petition aims to get a larger presence of emergency vehicles on the streets (in recent news, in August the Detroit business community came together to purchase a fleet of police cars and ambulances for the city’s use). Visions of those abandoned warehouses return.

Our friend takes us to Heidelberg Project, a massive artistic undertaking that’s converted a dilapidated street of neglected and abandoned homes into an evolving work of art. The project was started in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton, and all of the items he uses are trash or abandoned items found in the area. We walk through the two-block-long project, along a polka-dotted street, gazing at trees filled with shoes, houses festooned with teddy bears or covered in records, an abandoned boat overflowing with stuffed animals, a la Noah’s Ark. As I wander around, trying to take it all in, I feel like I can’t take photos fast enough.

Along the way, our friend introduces us to a new term: “lawn mower flash mobs.” She’s filling us in on what it’s like to live near Detroit (she lives about 20 minutes away) and says that lawn mower flash mobs are a real thing. Men and women organize on social media, and then all show up at a neglected city park at the same time, mow the overgrown lot so that kids can play there again, and then disperse. She also fills us in on the martial law that’s taken to the streets of the city. The many abandoned houses here are, not surprisingly, magnets for crime. Since there aren’t enough police on the streets to stay on top of it all, she says that neighbors who get fed up with criminal activity often take matters into their own hands. She says it’s nothing new for residents to go to sleep near an abandoned house and wake up to find it burned to the ground. It’s a practice that’s been getting press since at least the ‘80s.

Throughout our tour, the snow starts coming down pretty hard. The white roads would have been managed by plows within minutes in our hometown of Chicago. But in Detroit, we don’t see a single snow plow the entire time we’re there (instead, we saw a near, slow-mo accident and lots and lots of cars sliding and skidding). So we end up parking the car and opt to stay on foot for the rest of the day.

The Juggalos
Back at the hotel, Neil and I do a quick online search to see what’s going on that night. We’re debating between a punk rock prom and an art show called “The Dirty Show,” when Neil came across what is, in our tourist minds, the most Detroit of Detroit activities: Insane Clown Posse Wrestling, aka Juggalo Championship Wrestling (JCP). It’s about to start at St. Andrew’s Hall, just a few blocks from our hotel.

If you don’t know the words Insane Clown Posse, you’re not from Detroit. The rap, or “horrorcore” duo, known for wearing black and white clown face paint over their facial hair, is from the area, so the juggalo and juggalette (that’s the name of ICP fans) pride is strong and true here. We didn’t know it, but we’d actually arrived in Detroit on the official Juggalo Weekend, and the clown-painted masses are out in force.

On the first floor of the venue, the die-hard juggalos assemble around the ring, hoping to get covered in the sticky-sweet beverage, Faygo, which is usually shaken and sprayed on to ICP crowds. We high-tail it up to the balcony level, where we could watch the juggalos, with their clown masks, carefully arranged facial hair and ubiquitous black t-shirts, watch the Juggalo Championship Wrestling. In the ring, we see a giant of a man gets beaten by a one-legged wrestler; girls battle girls; sledge hammers and circular saws double as weapons; tables break over bodies. There’s even an appearance by Honky Tonk Man and, of course, ICP, themselves. In all honesty, I haven’t had this much fun since I went to a monster truck rally on a Valentine’s Day.

As the weekend wraps up, the snow melts, roads clear and Detroit is moving again. We head home, and sure enough, like our friends before us, we come back converts, armchair cheerleaders for Detroit. Sure, it’s a city marred with struggles. But there are a lot of artists, entrepreneurs, Detroit devotees, and, heck, juggalos hard at work to show residents and visitors that Detroit may be bankrupt, but the heart and soul of the city are still in there.

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