Just before the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection on July 18, Whole Foods opened a relatively low-priced version of their store in Midtown Detroit, the area around Wayne State University. Midtown is Detroit’s neighborhood with fixies and really small dogs, so it’s only natural that, like Williamsburg, Silver Lake, San Francisco's Mission district, and their ilk, despite Midtown’s relative affluence, the poor are just a few blocks away. Having a Whole Foods there is a “game changer,” according to Mayor Dave Bing, and “Detroit’s 112th grocery store,” according to those who regularly buy food there.
But excuse me. You’re one full paragraph into a story with “Detroit” in the headline, and there hasn’t been any rubble porn. Here you go:
To their credit, Whole Foods hired about 100 Detroiters to open the store. They go out of their way to get a lot of their products from within Detroit, and they really want you to notice:
There are also a lot of messages about how they’re “proud to be here,” which sort of comes off as overcompensating in an “Ooh a gay wedding! Fun!” kind of way. This is apparently one of three experimental, low-income Whole Foods specially designed for distressed locations where media coverage is assured. The other two are going to be in New Orleans and Chicago’s South Side. I’m guessing these are going to form their “Proud to be Here” trifecta.
If it weren’t for all the “Proud to Be Here,” signs, you would never know you were in Detroit, what with a nationally recognizable retail outpost and fully renovated parking lot. It forms a fully branded corporate oasis in the middle of a city where the walls have street art where most cities would have advertisements.
A slightly higher-end grocery store is only the start of a whole yuppie renaissance for the Motor City, but what that future really holds is anyone's guess. I hung around the parking lot and asked some of the patrons what they want next for the city (besides another Whole Foods).
Colin, resident of Midtown
“Light rail. I don’t make very much money, and it’s hard to keep my car going. The People Mover really only takes you to places that you can easily walk to anyway. Plus it’s very expensive on minimum wage to continuously fix your shitty car, because you can’t afford a nicer car, because you work for minimum wage…”
Andre, resident of Midtown
“The Pistons in Detroit. I love Auburn Hills, but they’re the Detroit Pistons. We have the Lions here. We have the Tigers here. It would be a great move to also have the Pistons actually in Detroit. It would also bring jobs to the city. That would be a huge benefit.”
Cynthia, resident of Lafayette Park
“Security. Because I actually haven't been feeling that as much lately. Well… I just got mugged. At gunpoint. It was the first time I've actually encountered that, so now I can kinda see a different side of things. I'm trying to erase that. I never wanted to be that skeptical person but, now it's kind of eerie, and I'm, like, scared.”
Roger, resident of Midtown
“Jobs. And more police on the streets.”
Alissa, resident of Midtown
“Garbage cans. This area is nice because of the Whole Foods. The rest of the time people just throw their shit everywhere.”
Zach, resident of Midtown
“To see everyone in government fired. There’s a lot of shitty management going on. I’d like to see a restructuring of the whole thing, based on the same principles, but new people. In this article could you title me ‘local malcontent'?’”
George, Resident of Midtown
“Development at Tiger Stadium [which was mostly demolished in 2008].”
While this guy, George, was answering my question, a huge guy who never stopped looking at his feet came up and asked both of us if we wanted anything to eat or drink. I thought he was working security at Whole Foods for a second. Then he said he just got out of the hospital, and he wanted us to let him use his Starbucks account to get us some food at the Starbucks that was right behind me at the time. Both of us said we had just eaten. I realized after he walked away that it was a convoluted way of asking if we’d trade some cash for a Starbucks card. Sometimes I’m too thick for subtle panhandling.
Site of old Tiger Stadium, 2011. Photo by Flickr User wyliepoon
“They’ve been trying to figure out what to do with that leftover corner of Tiger Stadium forever,” George continued. “I’d like to see some land developers come in and develop more than just downtown. There’s so much empty space now that could be used for something better.”
I know George’s sentiment doesn’t sound very original if you’ve been following the whole Detroit story from afar, but when you spend time wandering around this huge, half empty city, most of it feels like a perfectly good, unused shed in someone’s backyard. It’ll be really good for something, someday. It’s probably got a lot of spiders in it though.