July 17, 2015
The place where it all began is the place where it begins anew. At least that’s true for Detroit‘s Corktown neighbourhood. Located just to the west of the city’s downtown, Corktown is Detroit’s oldest surviving district, with a history going back to 1834. And now, in the midst of Motor City’s flowering rebirth, Corktown has become a nexus for its new wave of regeneration. From farm-to-table restaurants and urban distilleries to heritage landmarks and up-and-coming tech hubs, the district exudes that ineffable Detroit spirit which makes this city like nowhere else.
Corktown’s lengthy history means it’s home to heaps of cool heritage sites – start your tour of the neighbourhood, then, with a bit of a wander through the Corktown Historic District. Some of Corktown’s strongest visual associations are its colourful Victorian houses, which date back to its 19th century settlement by Irish immigrants (Corktown was named for County Cork in Ireland). Go for a stroll south of Michigan Avenue to find the highest concentration of these photogenic painted buildings.
One of Corktown’s most famous historic landmarks is also one of the city’s most embattled – the Michigan Central Station, which came to symbolise Detroit’s gritty period of urban decay. But now, things are changing: though much-admired by urban photographers, the dilapidated building is being improved by various construction efforts while the adjacent Roosevelt Park is also in the midst of renovation. Imagination Station, a local non-profit that’s taken over empty lots in the vicinity, is also helping to work their transformative magic on the area.
If you’re coming to Corktown, you best be prepared to eat – the area is, after all, one of Detroit’s most foodie-friendly corners. Begin your day of dining and imbibing at the stylish Astro Coffee, which transformed the local java landscape when it opened back in 2011. Alongside the excellently steamed flat whites, you’ll find products sourced from local farms and pastries baked in-house. For a casual lunch, Mercury Burger Bar slings some truly indulgent patties – opt for its signature “˜juicy’ burger, which comes stuffed with cheddar cheese. Beyond the burgers, a range of other sandwiches, hot dogs, fries and shakes make this the place to get your Americana fix.
You certainly can’t talk about Corktown’s thriving food scene without mentioning Slows. The destination BBQ joint opened up in 2005, and is widely credited with having paved the way for the neighbourhood’s next generation of independent eateries. The restaurant’s famous yardbird sandwich has made food television cameos, while locals keep coming back for the wings, brisket, and cornbread.
Then there’s the latest generation of restaurants, which have revamped disused or underdeveloped properties in the area by giving them a new gastronomic lease of life. Gold Cash Gold earned its moniker from the former pawnshop premises that it now occupies; the eatery merges down-home Southern fare with trendy twists, like its burrata and seasonal pesto starter, or buttermilk pie with rhubarb jam for dessert. And keep a lookout for Katoi. Once a food-truck and a pop-up and now slated to open its brick-and-mortar location in Corktown this autumn, the Thai eatery will serve up plates like spicy ribs alongside watermelon salad and khao soi, with Chinese dough and jackfruit custard for dessert.
It isn’t a complete meal until you wash down your grub with something refreshing. In addition to its artisanally minded eateries, Corktown is home to breweries and distilleries that are at the forefront of the city’s booze culture. Like Two James Spirits, which has the distinction of being the first newly licensed distillery in Detroit since Prohibition. Head to its tasting room and sample distillations ranging from un-aged white rye whiskey to London dry gin; tours are also offered on weekend afternoons.
Once you’ve seen how the good stuff gets made, it’s time to enjoy it in another form: venture to Sugar House for craft cocktails to geek over. Alongside its house specialties and punch bowls, the bar also offers a menu of a whopping 100 classic cocktails.
And then there’s the neighbourhood’s craft beer scene. This past winter marked the simultaneous opening of two new Corktown breweries: Brew Detroit and Batch Brewing Co. The former is a sprawling brewery and contract brewer for other Michigan brands; its tasting room lets visitors sample the beers while visiting food trucks cater to their appetites. The latter purports to be the city’s first “˜nano brewery,’ meaning that it produces small batches of creative brews ranging from hibiscus saisons to hop-forward barleywines. No matter which you opt for, you’re in for some tasty suds.
Don’t come to Corktown in search of big box stores and chains. For those after some local retail therapy, note that the neighbourhood’s strength lies in its quirky independent businesses. Start with a bit of culture: John K. King Used & Rare Books has been a hub for bibliophiles since 1965; today, it is spread across several multi-storey buildings, which means you’re in for hours of browsing. Then there’s the cheery Hello Records, which offers all the selection of High Fidelity but with a much more friendly attitude. And for some cute vintage finds, Eldorado General Store is packed with clothes, accessories, and housewares with personality.
But Corktown isn’t just a blend of Detroit’s characterful past and its promising future. It also melds up-to-the-minute urban buzz with a more rural character. Evidence? A number of urban farms call the area home, like ACRE, a relatively new arrival that has sustainability as its mission – and aims to keep Detroiters eating healthily and locally. Brother Nature Produce and Hope Takes Root are also helping to keep things green.
But lest you think that Corktown isn’t plugged into the future, just look to Ponyride. The business incubator, non-profit and collaborative workspace is paving the way for a new wave of Detroit small businesses to set up shop, from denim companies to metalwork studios. If anything, it’ll only help ensure this neighbourhood continues to thrive in the coming years.
Thanks to Virgin Atlantic’s daily flights to Detroit, you can discover Corktown for yourself.
Have you explored Corktown? What’s on your Detroit itinerary? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Claire Bullen