Detroit Is Alive With New Possibilities—but Don’t Call It a Comeback

As the city forges a new identity, three tastemakers explain what a revitalized Detroit means to them—and what it can offer visitors.

Tall buildings dominate the Detroit, Michigan skyline

Historic buildings and vacant lots alike have found new life in Detroit.

Photo by Alex Brisbey/Unsplash

Detroit is usually thought of these days in terms of rebirth, revival, and comeback—a far cry from just over 10 years ago when the city filed for bankruptcy and was associated more with words like dilapidated and decayed. But that straightforward trajectory—from lost cause to creative hub—is a reductionist way to view the home of both the motor vehicle and Motown.

Most Detroiters will tell you not to call it a “comeback” because the city isn’t going back to how it was. Instead, locals hope that its ongoing redevelopment leads to a city with less racial segregation and more equal opportunities, all without forgetting its roots. This progress is visible everywhere from Michigan Central—a Beaux-Arts abandoned train station remade into a 30-acre “innovation district” by Ford Motor Company—to the vacant lots that residents have transformed into urban gardens and community art projects.

We spoke with three Detroit-based creatives and entrepreneurs about how the city has influenced them and what travelers can expect: Sydney G. James, a Detroit-raised muralist; James Sumpter, executive chef at the new Cambria Hotel; and W.E. Da’Cruz, a founder fellow at Michigan Central’s Newlab. They explain some of the many ways Detroit will surprise visitors. Then read on for our insider recommendations for where to shop, eat, play, and stay in Detroit.

Sydney G. James, left, and her Girl With a D Earring mural, right

Sydney G. James’s mural Girl With a D Earring is painted on the Chroma building, a coworking and event venue.

Photos by Lamar Landers

Sydney G. James

Visual Artist and Muralist

Sydney G. James is a Detroit-bred artist whose striking and realistic murals depicting Black Detroiters have become synonymous with the city itself. She is a recipient of a 2017 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship, and her artwork has been displayed on six continents, including exhibitions at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Muesum and Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MOCAD). She is also the cofounder of BLKOUT Walls, a Detroit-based street mural festival that brings together Black artists.

“I’m a born-and-raised second-generation Detroiter. My grandparents came up via the Great Migration. I grew up in Conant Gardens, which is the first neighborhood in Detroit where Black people were allowed to build and own their homes. Growing up, we lived in a house that my dad helped my grandfather build when he was 12. J. Dilla was literally our neighbor. I still live here now, in a home I purchased near my mom. It’s an area in Detroit that’s culturally rich in Black love and family.

“I’ve always been an artist. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to work in television, I knew the move was temporary. Detroit had been on a decline because of government neglect, but I knew it was going to go through a resurgence. I didn’t know what that resurgence was going to look or feel like, but I did know I wanted to be an active part of it, so in 2011, I moved home.

“Around that time, I’d started getting into street art. In Detroit, the vacant lots became a space for community art and reclamation. I was asked to take part in the inaugural Murals in the Market festival in Eastern Market, and a month after that Daily Detroit listed my mural Grind: Live From Detroit City as one of the best 18 murals in Detroit. That led me to getting more commercial jobs, and since then I haven’t looked back. However, I noticed at that festival and others, that I was always the only Black woman painter, or one of very few Black people. I was there to fill a quota. Now, Detroit is a majority Black city so the math was literally not math-ing.

“I started BLKOUT Walls, a biennial street art festival featuring all Black artists—such as Ijania Cortez, Tony Whlgn, and Marka27—in response to those experiences. Our first festival was in 2021 and produced murals in the North End area of Detroit. Last year, in 2023, the murals ran along the Woodward corridor, which was the first modern paved road in the world.

“As an artist, my work is very reactionary. I’m inspired by every interaction I have but specifically by the Black women that I encounter every day. My models are people I know personally. Everything about my art is intentional. For instance, my most well-known wall in Detroit is an 8,000-square-foot mural called the Girl with a D Earring, on the Chroma building in the North End. My model was Halima Cassells. She’s a North End native, community activist, and a real Detroit staple. To me, she represents the essence and power of Detroit. Unlike the original Dutch painting [Girl with a Pearl Earring], I wanted everything about mine to be bold, down to her hot pink D earring designed by the late Yolanda Nichelle, because Detroit is bold.

“On her garment, I painted logos and names of businesses that used to be or are still in the North End neighborhood [such as Red’s Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor, Underground Resistance, and the Smile Brand]. I did that because the biggest danger of this redevelopment movement that’s happening in Detroit is erasure and forgetting our history. Detroit was never dead because there were always people living here. It may have looked dilapidated, but it’s always been full of life.”

Executive Chef, James Sumpter, and spread at Cibo

James Sumpter is executive chef at the Cambria Hotel, which sits on the site of a former radio station. His restaurant Cibo offers Mediterranean food with a Detroit twist.

Courtesy of Cambria Hotel

James Sumpter

Executive Chef, Cambria Downtown Detroit

Cambria Hotel Downtown Detroit is one of the most recent in Detroit’s string of new hotels transformed from the remains of historic buildings. At 154 rooms, it’s adding much-needed space for visitors downtown as Detroit starts attracting more large-scale conventions and events. As executive chef, James Sumpter—a seasoned chef from Michigan—oversees the multiple food and beverage options. These include Cibo, a Mediterranean restaurant; Detroit Taco, fast-casual Mexican that’s open 24 hours a day; 5 Iron Kitchen, within the hotel’s resident golf simulator space; and the recently opened rooftop bar Cielo.

“I’ve been the executive chef for Cambria Hotel for a little over a year and a half. The journey through construction and opening the hotel was such a, let me say, undertaking. The building was the old WWJ radio station, one of the original radio stations with only three letters as opposed to four. That old building is where our hotel lobby and our food and beverage operations are, but then you take a bridge over to the new building with all the hotel rooms. There’s a real art deco influence that’s been retained.

“I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I had my first head chef role at the age of 20, and have worked all over the state from sushi bars to wine bars. I came to Detroit a couple years ago not for a job specifically, but because I wanted to live in this city— a place with a little more excitement and where I could advance my career in a more aggressive way. There are a lot of people like myself who came to Detroit to do something interesting.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that people in Detroit like exciting new flavors, but they also like soul food at the same time. For example, Cibo is a Mediterranean restaurant, but then I’ve put a twist on that. We have a fried chicken shawarma, but I’ve added a za’atar buttermilk biscuit and merguez sausage gravy on top.

“There’s also a big farm-to-table focus because there are actually a lot of urban farmers in Detroit. The 2008 housing crisis hit Detroit really hard and many properties became vacant for so long that they had to be torn down. People could then buy these lots for dirt cheap and turn them into green spaces. In fact, there’s one only six blocks away from Cibo, called Featherstone Garden. Annie Hakim, the grower there, uses sustainable and organic practices and that’s where I get our heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.

“Overall, there is a lot of opportunity here in Detroit. I’m over the stereotypes of angry chefs and the history of misogyny in my profession. In my work, I’m trying to cultivate an environment where people are respected and treated well. The same goes for my personal life. When we first moved here, my wife and I went on a kind of ‘church tour’ to find one we liked. There’s a ridiculous number of beautiful churches in Detroit. We found one near us in Bagley, called Gesu, that has a lot of diversity and a priest with progressive views. In Detroit, we’ve found interesting people who aren’t afraid to rub people the wrong way, in a good way.”

A mushroom burger being pan fried

The mushroom burgers at Mushroom Angel Co. were actually inspired by a chickpea meatball dish in Malawi.

Courtesy of W.E. Da’Cruz

W.E. Da’Cruz

Cofounder, Mushroom Angel Company

Before moving to Detroit in 2016, W.E. Da’Cruz had a career in U.S.–Africa international relations, where she spoke to female entrepreneurs in Africa on behalf of both the U.S. Embassy and the United National Economic Commission for Africa. In 2020, while on a Daniel Fast diet with her husband, she created a recipe making meat-like patties out of mushrooms. That led to their launch of Mushroom Angel Company, a plant-based foods company that is quickly growing in the Midwest.

“My husband Dominique and I founded Mushroom Angel Company at our home in Martin Park during the pandemic. We produce food that cuts and bites like meat, but is made from locally sourced mushrooms. The narrative of Detroit being a food desert has been prominent over the years. And with climate change, this created an opportunity for people like myself to create plant-based foods from mushrooms.

“We started selling at Eastern Market, which is an iconic food ecosystem here in Detroit. That’s where we were discovered by Meijer, a Midwestern grocery chain, and we’re now selling in six states after only three years.

“Last year we were blessed to receive a $30,000 grant as part of the first Newlab Founder Fellowship. Newlab is part of Michigan Central, Ford’s transformation of the old train station in Corktown into an innovation campus. As part of the fellowship, we have a dedicated workspace at Newlab, where we’re among some of the top leaders in Michigan. You can imagine the impact of bumping shoulders in the elevators with the leaders that are helping in our business growth.

“In my experience, Detroit has become a buffet of opportunities. Your only requirement is to get to the table and participate. People from all walks of life are now able to tap into resources and create an economic ripple effect across the city—and beyond. For instance, take my friends Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba, who own the Baobob Fare restaurant. When I arrived in Detroit, others in the community who knew I was African (my family is from Ghana) told me about Nadia and Mamba. I learned that they were refugees from Burundi who had recently arrived to Detroit. In my first three years in Detroit, I witnessed our friends start as pop-ups, build out their own restaurant in the North End area of Detroit, and introduce Detroit and the Midwest to East African food. Imagine not speaking the language or knowing the terrain, and yet still navigating how to launch and scale a successful food service business all while winning national awards [they are currently nominated as 2024 James Beard Award finalists for outstanding restaurateur]. This is a testament to the Detroit business ecosystem.

“There is a migration that is happening to Detroit, and my family is part of that migration. I have to say, I was hesitant to move to Detroit. I moved here from New York City with my husband and oldest daughter in 2016. Our story in Detroit, truthfully, shows how you can still create your American dream. We came with no family, no friends, and really no connection to it outside of its history of Black culture. I mean, why do you leave the Big Apple, right? There was no reason to leave New York, except to come to Detroit and be part of this renaissance in entrepreneurship. The fact that we are succeeding, even after founding our company during a pandemic, says a lot about what Detroit is doing for its community.

“You don’t have to be born in Detroit to be a part of its fabric. I’m not from Detroit, but my children are. I’m creating a legacy here for them and everyone in our community that our company positively impacts.”

Burger and Summer in Mykanos cocktail at Cibo

The Summer in Mykonos cocktail at Cibo is a blend of tequila, Turkish raki, and lime.

Courtesy of Cambria Hotel

How to explore Detroit like a local

At 143 square miles, Detroit is a massive city. It’s best explored neighborhood by neighborhood, including those beyond downtown—like museum-filled Midtown, edgy Corktown, foodie Eastern Market, and even Hamtramck and Highland Park (two cities enclosed within Detroit proper). Use this guide to plan your trip to Detroit.

Where to eat

Dining in Detroit starts with Detroit-style pizza. Buddy’s, the inventors of Detroit pizza and now a veritable Michigan empire, is the place to try it. In keeping with the city’s automotive history, the original pizzas were made in steel pans from an automobile factory. More elegant fare is available at restaurants within the city’s crop of new hotels: Cibo inside Cambria Hotel serves soulful Mediterranean cuisine; Hamilton’s inside Godfrey Hotel offers pared-back American food; Hiroki-San inside the remodeled Book Tower features ingredients imported weekly from Japan.

For East African eats, head to Baobob Fare, and order the 24-hour marinated samaki (flash-fried fish with sweet plantains, stewed yellow lentils, and sautéed onions). The restaurant is owned by husband-and-wife duo Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba, 2024 James Beard Award finalists who came to Detroit as refugees from Burundi. Sweet tooths can be satisfied at Bon Bon Bon, with a box of dark chocolate bons; Sister Pie, with a cult-favorite rhubarb lavender hand pie; or Huddle Soft Serve, with a nostalgic rainbow sprinkle cone.

Eastern Market, Detroit, on a Saturday morning.

The nonprofit behind Detroit’s Eastern Market dates back to 1891.

Photo By Ayman Haykal/Shutterstock

Where to shop

Woodward Avenue and Cass Corridor are the shopping core of Detroit. Stop at City Bird for quirky Michigan-themed gifts (such as local wildflower seeds or a Michigan-shaped cutting board), and Shinola for handcrafted watches. The Avenue of Fashion (along Livernois and 7 Mile) is a recently revitalized area known for its historically Black-owned businesses. Visit Simply Casual for casual luxe fashion, or Three Thirteen for Detroit-branded clothing. Eastern Market, the largest outdoor farmers’ market in the United States, is Detroit’s source of flowers, produce, antiques, and vintage items. In Corktown, swing by John K. King, a maze of over 1 million used and rare books (again, America’s largest bookshop), and Eldorado General Store, a den of locally made trinkets, vintage wares, and apothecary items.

A crowd outside the Motown Museum

The Motown Museum’s expansion will allow visitors to listen to every track on the label’s catalog.

Photo By Patricia Marks/Shutterstock

What to do

Detroit has no shortage of museums: the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan Science Center, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, to name a few. The Henry Ford, a museum and historical village complex, is one for the motor history buffs. The Motown Museum is particularly worth a visit as it nears completion of its $65 million expansion project. Built around the humble house where Motown Records had its headquarters and recording studio, the museum pays homage to Detroit’s music legends. Its expansion, called “Hitsville NEXT,” will feature 50,000 square feet of new exhibits, a recording studio, a theater, and more. Nearby in New Center, the Fisher Building and Cadillac Place are two Albert Kahn–designed landmarks from Detroit’s Roaring Twenties architectural boom. Drop into the Guardian Building, downtown, for another example—and be sure to look at the tiled ceiling.

Spend an afternoon walking the 3.5-mile Detroit International RiverWalk, passing natural parkland and views of Canada, or extend your walk by taking the Dequindre Cut path to Eastern Market‚ part of the planned 27.5-mile Joe Louis Greenway currently under development. For a different perspective, join Antique Touring and ride in a vintage Detroit-made Model A vehicle to Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River with the city’s best sunset view.

Where to stay

The Siren Hotel, which opened in 2018, stands out as one of the first in Detroit’s ongoing wave of new boutique hotels. The 106-room hotel is downtown a block off Woodward, in the revived 1923 Wurlitzer Building, which originally sold musical instruments. Now, the hotel is a beacon for other redevelopment projects, with its glamorous interiors that nod to the building’s Italian Renaissance revival design. Guest rooms come in tiers of luxury from “the hideout,” a compact room with bunk beds, to an expansive penthouse loft. Try the whipped cream–topped There She Goes cocktail at Candy Bar, the hotel’s decadent all-pink cocktail lounge, and on the second floor, visit Ash-Bar for its upscale spin on the Detroit coney dog (featuring short rib sauce and a duck fat brioche bun).

Sarah Bence is a travel and health writer whose words and photos can be seen in Time Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, Roadtrippers, and more. She is also the founder of gluten-free travel blog Endless Distances. Originally from Michigan, she now lives in London, England.
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