By Ian Thibodeau | email@example.com
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on April 04, 2016 at 6:00 AM, updated April 04, 2016 at 8:12 AM
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DETROIT – The 400 block of West Canfield in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood looked less like a functioning city street, and more like a shopping mall on a recent sunny Saturday.
Groups of shoppers bustled up and down the block, moving between stores and across the street, some toting bags from Willys or Third Man Records or City Bird.
The stores on that block are not necessarily neighborhood staples, but higher-priced boutiques, with many of their well-dressed patrons coming from outside the city to shop.
And that’s a good thing, according to Midtown Detroit, Inc. President Sue Mosey.
That’s what Midtown is supposed to be, she said, at least in parts.
“First of all, everybody’s got to get out of their head that this is a traditional neighborhood,” Mosey said. “This is not a traditional neighborhood… This neighborhood is built to serve the entire (Metro Detroit area)… This is about servicing everybody.”
What is Midtown?
Midtown sees about 3 million visitors a year, according to statistics gathered by Midtown Detroit.
About 60,000 people work at institutions like the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University and Henry Ford Hospital up the road, in addition to the small businesses.
Roughly 30,000 college students attend Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies.
And, 20,600 people live in the Midtown area, according to 2015 numbers.\
A look at Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, then and now
A look at Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, then and now
Businesses on Canfield Street in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood have found a market that brings people in from outside the city to spend time in the area
Add to that national attractions like the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Mosey said it’s not hard to see that Midtown is meant to serve a bigger area than just those who live within the borders.
In a city where the median household income is $26,095 and 39 percent of the population lives in poverty, the 400 block of Canfield is undeniably different than any other block in Detroit.
Willys, the Shinola sister-store that sold $200 jeans and $90 shirts, is closing, but will be replaced by a Filson store. Filson makes the $90-and-up flannels, $600-and-up watches and other goods formerly sold at Willys.
Shinola draws attention from around the country. President Barack Obama flashed a Shinola watch during a visit to the city, which included a stop in Midtown, last year.
While the retailers all have a few affordable options like journals or keychains and other knickknacks, the price point is high for most items.
Note that retail, even high-end retail, is not new to Detroit. Downtown up until Hudson’s departure in the 1980s was a shopping destination; still today stores like Hot Sam’s and Henry the Hatter are remnants of the flashy, expensive shopping scene that once was.
Woodward Avenue storefronts downtown are starting to fill up with stores like Nike and John Varvatos, but in Midtown nationally-recognized fashion brands are new.
Mark Denson, manager of business attraction with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, explained that the 400 block of West Canfield is specifically meant to be a destination shopping area.
“Not every store that opens is for every resident,” Denson said. Certain stores are meant to appeal to different demographics.
Mosey bristles at the notion that Midtown has become a place that only offers high-end watches and expensive clothing, though.
She said just 11 percent of the stores in Midtown qualify are labeled “high-end,” by Midtown Detroit.
Local college-age people wearing boots, cuffed jeans and frumpy sweaters often populate the area during the week.
But on weekends, the crowd is different.
An older mix strolls Canfield — they’re of every color, mostly well-dressed, and they mostly get in their cars and drive away after they’ve finished with the block, which houses a few “fast casual” restaurants in addition to the shopping.
And that’s what the block is meant for, Denson said.
“It’s a burgeoning tourist destination,” he said. “(Higher-end retail) is an important component” for the neighborhood and even Detroit as a whole.
The Midtown boom, the rebranding, is by no means isolated to Canfield. Midtown is dense, expensive and well-known almost in its entirety, and that’s due to calculated, meticulous work from many since the 90s.
Mosey has been instrumental in defining Midtown, Denson said.
She said it took 30 years to get Midtown to where it is today, and a huge amount of the momentum was built in the last five years.
What was Midtown?
John Linardos, founder of Motor City Brewing Works, has been brewing beer on the northwest corner of the Canfield block since 1992. His dad grew up in Midtown — long before it was called Midtown — and Linardos has lived in Midtown since 1985.
He loves the neighborhood, he said, but what initially attracted him to Midtown is pretty much gone.
Linardos didn’t open a taproom until 2001. And even then, after staples like Traffic Jam and Snug, Avalon International Bread and Cass Cafe had firm roots in the area, it was rough.
“When I first opened the tap room, it was still really dark, and I mean that physically, down here,” Linardos said.
The streetlights were out, and a majority of the buildings were empty.
“It was not unusual at all for people to bring cars, stolen cars, on Canfield and torch them,” he said.
On that front, things are better, Linardos said. He doesn’t have to call the Detroit Fire Department to come get a burned-out car out from in front of his business, but some of the edgy attitude that was iconic in Midtown has been sucked out of the neighborhood.
“When I moved down here, one of the things I liked about it was kind of a Wild West attitude,” Linardos said. “If you had an idea, you just did it… That energy, that just do it, it was cool, but you had to watch your back.”
Linardos said he appreciates the oft-boasted walkability of the neighborhood — that it’s safer. He’s also seen a boost in business and a change in the people walking through his doors, mostly on the weekends.
A look down Woodward Ave. in Midtown.
“I have definitely seen a change in our clientele… I didn’t anticipate (the brewery) being for the people who were in Detroit for a convention,” he said. “I just envisioned the neighborhood being here, a local spot.”
The high-end retail across the street makes sense, the brewery owner said, though rising costs of retail space in the area stymie the experimentation that created some of the longer-lasting Detroit brands.
There has to be a cluster effect for businesses to flourish, though, with people trickling out of one popular store and into another, he said.
“Now on Sunday, there’s a ton of people walking around… You need those people walking around the neighborhood to shop (and) spend the afternoon in the district,” Linardos said. “Is (high-end retail) necessary to help build a district? Yeah, I think it is.”
But Bedrock Manufacturing Co., which owns Shinola and Willys, wasn’t really aiming to answer any sort of call to action, said Chief Operating Officer Heath Carr.
In 2011, they just wanted to find a storefront for Shinola that was close to their offices at the College for Creative Studies.
Mosey sold the company on Midtown and that particular block of Canfield, according to Carr.
The 441 West Canfield location allowed the company to assemble their bicycles on-site and build out a custom store.
The block further coagulated around the watch and bike maker that’s become an internationally recognized brand, and neighboring storefronts were filled with Third Man Records, Run Detroit, Willys and Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria and Brewery.
Carr said Willys was opened due to consumer demand.
“The consumers wanted another opportunity on that street to buy some products,” he said.
Shinola sees about 5,000 customers a week in Midtown, Carr said, and about half of those people walk into Willys.
“We’re doing way more volume than we ever thought we’d do there,” Carr said.
The clothing store isn’t closing, it’s rebranding, he said.
“It was more about just enhancing the real estate there,” Carr said.
The rebranding comes about eight months after Fellow Barber closed to make room for musician Jack White’s Third Man Records store.
Fellow offered $40 haircuts, and a $50 shave.
Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis said in a recent magazine article that Shinola is, in fact, losing “millions.” Kartsotis told Inc.com the loss is part of a concentrated effort to invest in building brand.
And the brand has clearly built notoriety.
Though the prices may seem high for a city with a median income of $26,095, these pricey stores see a plethora of activity.
The businesses around them are, too.
Linardos said that while it might have been a cooler scene in the early 2000s, there’s a better economic climate in Midtown now.
According to Denson, it helps to think of that part of Midtown like a mall.
That includes the higher-end restaurants a few streets away like Selden Standard and the Whitney.
“Maybe you don’t eat there every day, but it’s an important mix,” he said.
In the same way someone in Ann Arbor might know they have to go out of their way to get to Costco or Meijer or Whole Foods for groceries, instead of walking up Main Street, Detroiters know where to go for day-to-day needs, and where to go when they want to window shop.
There’s no reason Midtown in Detroit can’t be held to similar standards of other big cities when it comes to shopping options, Mosey said.
What will Midtown become?
The unique shopping and dining destinations on Canfield “give Midtown a sense of place,” Denson said.
“That’s what the real draw is,” he said. “You’re not going to drive out of your way to buy something that’s right next to your home.”
He also dismissed talk of gentrification.
“It’s a mater of utilization,” he said.
Midtown retail space was simply empty and fallow, he said. Vacant and abandoned locations have been filled. And minority-owned businesses, like Textures By Nefertiti and Source Book Sellers, have as much of a place in Midtown as Shinola.
Denson said it’s important for people to see the vibrancy outside of that one block.
On the residential end, developer Robert Slattery, 58, has lived in the neighborhood since 1975. He’s redeveloped 14 properties in Midtown, invested $50-million in the buildings, and plans to start on his 15th project soon.
Lofts in his Willys Overland Lofts complex on Cass Avenue have fetched close to $400,000. Most recently, a 1,606-square-foot condo in the building listed for $530,000.
Slattery said the crowd in his buildings, though all wealthy, vary in age. A large percentage of those living in his lofts are older than 50, he said.
“They have money, and they’re established,” Slattery said. “I have millionaires in my buildings.”
The neighborhood gets a bad rap for not being inclusive enough, according to Denson.
“You’ve got every imaginable housing type right there in Midtown,” Denson said, noting that public housing, student housing, multi-family, market rate and single-family dwellings all stand within blocks of each other.
There’s a relationship between housing prices and retail — in fact, it might be the prominent millennial demographic in Midtown that attracted the retailers, not the other way around.
With recent talk of zoning changes in Midtown, it’s possible those trying to push the neighborhood toward something of a shopping district might inch closer to ideals slowly taking form: Getting people on the street, giving them parks and store fronts and cafes, and getting outsiders talking about Detroit.
“There’s plenty of a mix of price points and types of products (in Midtown),” said Mosey.
There’s an expensive grocer, and a bargain store, and she and her team works with countless startups and small local retailers.
Mosey’s work isn’t done, either. She said she has a long, running list of suggestions coming from residents on what they want to see happen in the neighborhood next. The neighborhood needs another dry cleaner, for example. A couple more salons might work, too.
People also want to see a better mix of basic clothing stores in the neighborhood, she said.
Mosey said repeatedly that Midtown is meant to serve “the entire Metro,” and while that offers a place for a couple high-end retail stores, “it’s not by any means the most significant part.”
There’s a huge market for mid-range retail and fast-casual dining in that part of the city, she said.
For Linardos, the brewery owner, the change in Midtown is complicated.
His company hasn’t changed, he said. They’re making beer with the same attitude they had when the started.
Mostly, the businesses and people popping in around him and other long-time Midtowners are “aware of the fact that they’re moving into a neighborhood with a lot of history… most people have been respectful,” he said.
But he took issue with the “walkability” buzzword.
“People say ‘Oh, well, you can walk, you can walk, you can walk,'” Linardos said.
“When I started, you could kind of do the same thing… I could walk to Cass Corridor Food Co-op and I could walk and see concerts and I could walk to galleries… It was just more bootstrap, and that part of it, that was awesome.
“All of that just kind of evolved or transformed into this.”
Midtown Detroit keeps statistics on everything that opens, closes or expands in the neighborhood.
There are currently 170 businesses operating in Midtown, according to Mosey.
The group labels 18 of those businesses as high-end retail or fine dining.
That’s 11 percent of Midtown businesses.
“The data does not support these claims that the neighborhood is becoming some gentrified boutiquey place,” she said.
Since 2013, Midtown Detroit reports that 65 women or minority-owned businesses have opened in Midtown, New Center or TechTown.
New Center and TechTown border the Midtown neighborhood to the north.
Midtown Detroit lists 54 restaurants classified as “casual dining” or “quick eats,” with meals at or under $12 for dinner. Locations in that category include Hopcat, Traffic Jam & Snug, New Center Eatery, Alley Taco, fast food, La Palma and Olympic Grill.
Shinola and Selden Standard may get the most press, Mosey said, but they’re not all the neighborhood has.
They’re necessary and important anchors for other businesses, which are employing Detroiters, she said, however small they are.
Ian Thibodeau is the business and development reporter for MLive Media Group in Detroit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter.
MLive, April 4, 2016