Back in the bad old days, office workers in downtown Detroit staged a macabre daily sporting event. At quitting time there would be a mad dash to the parking lot — eyes out for muggers, or worse — then, quick, fire up the car and race home to the suburbs. As night fell, downtown turned into a ghost town.
Those days are a dim memory — and not just on sunny days like Thursday, when Game 4 of the American League Championship Series drew more than 40,000 Tiger fans downtown to Comerica Park, their eyes dancing with visions of sweeping the despised Yankees from the playoffs. Today, as often as not, people who work downtown don’t race home to the suburbs for a simple reason that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: they also live downtown, in buildings that once stood empty.
The reverse exodus has become so pronounced that downtown Detroit can now be fairly accused of imitating such desirable New York addresses as Chelsea or TriBeCa. Yes, it’s gotten so bad — or good — that it’s now nearly impossible to find a vacant apartment to rent in downtown Detroit.
Mandy Davenport is a recent volunteer in this army of foot soldiers, mostly young people, who have moved into downtown. Many work in high-tech jobs, or they pursue creative careers while supporting themselves with day jobs, or, like Davenport, they’re part of the real estate boom.
“The only thing I used to know about downtown Detroit was Tigers games,” says Davenport, 30, who moved from tiny Williamston, near Lansing, about six weeks ago to take a job as office manager in the Broderick Tower, an elegant 34-story tower on Woodward Avenue that is being converted into luxury apartments. “My friends in California told me I was stupid to move here, I’m going to get killed. Frankly, I thought it was going to be scarier. There’s a lot to do — bars, restaurants, concerts, games, the Eastern Market. It’s a lot of young people, people moving in from the suburbs. A lot of people want to walk to work.”
As she speaks, she’s standing in the Broderick’s duplex penthouse apartment that looks down onto the diamond where the Tigers and Yankees are doing battle. From the other side of the apartment you can see the muscular clump of downtown skyscrapers, the silver ribbon of the Detroit River behind it and, off in the distance, Windsor and the vastness of Ontario.
Davenport is now living a few blocks away, and she’ll move into a 17th-floor apartment in the Broderick Tower when renovations are complete later this fall. Which raises a question: How are you going to keep them down in Williamston after they’ve lived in an apartment with a view like this? Answer: You’re not.
“Once I got here to downtown and felt the energy,” Davenport says, “I knew I made the right decision in coming here.”
If Davenport had a powerful pair of binoculars, or maybe a telescope, she would be able to pick out an older gent in an usher’s uniform working the third-base side of the upper deck way down there in the ballpark. His name is Dick Dettloff. A Detroit native, still spry at 85, Dettloff had a tryout as an infielder with the Tigers in 1944, but World War II came between him and his dream and he became a Marine instead of a shortstop. After the war, he worked for 43 years as a body engineer at General Motors.
“Look out there,” Dettloff says, pointing over the rim of the stadium to the north. “Those are all new condos. Downtown is coming back, and you’ve got to give a lot of the credit to Mike Ilitch. If our guys win the World Series, that’ll bring a lot of money into this area. They’re talking 70 million bucks.”
Ilitch, owner of the Tigers and the Red Wings, has to share the credit for the rebirth of downtown Detroit. Peter Karmanos built a new headquarters for his software company Compuware in 2003. Dan Gilbert, son of a Detroit bar owner and founder of Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest online mortgage lender, relocated his headquarters from the suburbs to the Compuware building in 2003, bringing 5,000 workers downtown. He also gave them financial incentives to live in the city. General Motors moved its headquarters into the riverside Renaissance Center in the 1990s. And the N.F.L.’s Lions started playing indoors at Ford Field, next to Comerica Park, in 2002.
The eruptions of joy from the park come as no surprise to George Royce.
“I’ve never seen a city so tied to its sports teams,” says Royce, 26, a drummer in a rock ’n’ roll band who has a day job as a waiter at Detroit Beer Company, a few blocks from the downtown loft where he lives. He grew up in Chelsea, a small town west of Ann Arbor, and a couple of years ago he and a friend decided to make a move: “We said, let’s go to Detroit. It’s cheap, and we knew something was starting here. It was vague and it was word of mouth, but you could feel it. There’s a bizarre combination of things — exquisite grand architecture and other buildings that are broken down, extreme wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other.”
Royce acknowledges that Detroit is not for everyone.
“The people who live here usually have something going on,” he says. “They’re artistic, they’re handy, they’re self-starters. People who are finicky don’t come to Detroit. There’s a filter at work here. You’ve got to have self-sufficiency.”
As he speaks, Detroit Beer Company is enjoying a lull after the pregame rush. A few ticketless sad sacks sit at the bar, drinking beer and watching big-screen approximations of the drama that is unfolding a few blocks away. As soon as the Tigers record the final out of their four-game sweep of the Yankees, George Royce gets up from his chair.
He knows what is coming to this city that’s so tied to its sports teams. The postgame rush. And Royce knows this one is going to be epic.
Bill Morris, The New York Times