You can tell a place is undergoing gentrification when a coffee shop, a bookstore and an organic health food market pop up in an area littered with fast food joints and ramshackle warehouses.
But clues that a city is really going through a post-industrial revival are much more subtle. Hipster stores and yoga studios aren't the only things that make the place. Other factors play into transforming a city from wasteland to wonderland, like real culture, noteworthy attractions and of course great places to eat and drink.
We explored less devoured budget travel gems --Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Minneapolis--cities once balanced on the economic precipice only to sustain as a stronghold for independent artists, forward-thinking entrepreneurs and corporate backers, and looked at how they're being transformed into unique vacation destinations worth a second look.
DETROIT, Mich.: Paris of the Midwest
Detroit and its artful decay is often viewed as a place where cool people want to photograph (not necessarily reside) thanks to a haunting, fascinating collection of abandoned buildings. When Detroiters made their suburban migration to swank suburbs, they left Motor City ironically car-empty and bike-friendly. Things have changed slowly for the “Paris of the Midwest,” thanks to good vibes, affordable housing, and flourishing art and sports tourism.
“People who weren’t making enough to buy in places like Chicago came here after the 2008 crash,” says Curbed Detroit’s Sarah Cox. “They focus less on the decrepit, and more on this opportunity for cool, affordable housing.”
SLEEP: Boutique hotel Honor and Folly sleeps swanky artsy types. Hostel Detroit provides hip urbanites low-cost accommodations and “ambassador” tour guides. Film buffs with dough dig the Westin Book Cadillac, of Frank Capra’s “State of the Union” recognition. It reopened in 2009 after a $200 million renovation.
ART: The Henry Ford Museum, Detroit Institute of Art and Motown Historical Museum are absolute musts. So is MOCAD’s installation, “Mobile Homestead,” a replica of the suburban home constructed by Detroit’s Mike Kelley. The colorful sprayed work of Detroit graffiti artist Antonio “Shades” Agee commissioned by GM, Chrysler, and smaller guys like 1515 Broadway and DSE is ubiquitous. The Heidelberg Project regurgitates the Detroit decay metaphor on a neighborhood block featuring discarded objects scattered across suburban multifamily homes and yards.
EAT: Saturdays belong to the Eastern Market with gourmet goodies and people watching. Small Plates scores excellent brunch points with city dwellers and suburbanites, who, wallet-and waistband permitting, grab dinner at the acclaimed Slows BBQ.
PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Most Livable City
An urban city with a small town vibe is a sentiment that makes Pittsburghers proud –almost as proud as they are for their beloved Steelers and Pirates. The smokestacks that once besieged the former steel town are now textural accoutrements of Pennsylvania’s cosmopolitan oasis. Eighty-nine neighborhoods shape the city into a place authentically hip without being painfully hipster. The epicurean locavore, museum (Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory) and boutique-shopping (Lawrenceville’s Butler Street) scenes converge urban with pastoral, courtesy of three scenic rivers and 22 miles of riverfront walking and biking trails.
“We have these great mom and pop things to do because we got corporate guys like Whole Foods and Target,” says I Heart PGH’s Lindsay Patross. “Those stores bring foot traffic to neighborhoods that otherwise never would have.”
SLEEP: The luxurious Fairmont Pittsburgh scores big with locally-sourced Habitat restaurant and a BMW cruiser bike share program. The boutique Priory Hotel is a restored 19th-century Benedictine rectory and the Parador Inn of Pittsburgh, a Caribbean-themed 1870s mansion.
EAT/DRINK: Between the sleek gastropub, Meat and Potatoes, farm-to-table Element and Chef Kevin Sousa’s celebrated Salt of the Earth and his latest Union Pig and Chicken BBQ joint, PGH’s food scene rocks the palate. Many menus offer the local Wigle Whiskey; tour and tasting are offered at the distillery too. Wednesday is the PGH night out: The Banjo Club practices at the Elks Lodge; Pub Quiz night is hosted by local music-preneur, Dave Mansueto at Brillobox. Polish Hills’ Gooski’s, dive bar allows smoking, and is where local music legend Lord Grunge hangs ready to sling back a few.
EXPLORE: Lawrenceville, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield, and Polish Hill are awesome neighborhoods to shop, dine and booze. Venture Outdoors and Kayak Pittsburgh arrange group jaunts along the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongohela Rivers. The Duquesne and Monongahela inclines to Mt. Washington offer another sweeping vantage point.
Buffalo, N.Y.: Digestible Architecture
Buffalo has long given America good architecture. Tucked within Victorian homes and mansions are the designs of starchitects Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, and Frederick Law Olmstead. Millions are now dedicated toward restoring and reviving these structures and the city’s heritage. Wright’s Darwin Mart House scored a $50 million restoration. Historic Canal side waterfront district is undergoing a $295 million development project, and currently hosting over 400 summer events. The National Garden Festival, a 1,000-garden party (June 23-July 29) symbolizes Buffalo’s community building and urban rebirth.
ART: Small galleries and artist-run spaces abound in Sugar City and Allentown, an artsy hipster-without-pretense neighborhood. July 26 to August 5 is the massive Infringement Festival. Currently on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is “Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-Garde in the 1970s.” Babeville, a converted church that houses the artist-run Hallwalls, was saved from demolishment by Buffalo’s Ani DiFranco. GooGoo Dolls’ Robby Taka started the annual Music is Art festival. The Western New York Book Arts Center offers letter pressing, screen-printing, paper making and bookbinding classes.
EAT: The surrounding fertile farmlands supply Buffalo’s successful farm-to-table movement. To date, there are 400 independently-owned restaurants from Polish to Mexican, Burmese to Iraqi. Farmers markets are aplenty; food trucks on the rise, and artisanal food producers like White Cow Dairy and Five Points Bakery leave chain restaurant struggling to survive. Filling Station in the Larkin District (a suddenly hotspot for business and entertainment) is garnering insta-buzz. The Blue Monk and Village Beer Merchant are growler go-tos for microbrew aficionados.
[“These aren’t] the mundane openings of everyday restaurants, [they’re] significant milestones for the city,” says BuffaloRising’s Newell Nussbaumer. “There’s no more yellow haze over the city from the steel plants. Our water is getting clean. The cost of living is low, and there’s no traffic.”
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.: Best for Bicycling
With average January temperatures of 13 °F., it's no wonder that Minneapolitans take their spring and summer months very seriously. Those sun-shining months are a chance to step outside and soak in the myriad of either free or affordable sites and activities—and there’s no better way to do that than on two wheels. Bicycling magazine twice named the city "Best Bike City," ahead of Portland, Ore. Navigating the 166 miles of Minneapolis' bikeways or of its Twin City St. Paul (another 40 miles of dedicated bike lines will soon be completed) is easy; whether it’s catching free music in Mears Park in St. Paul or exploring the Walker Art Center and its gigantic Frank Gehry glass fish. The bike-friendly cities also mean a lot less car traffic for you to check out the number of James Beard-awarded chefs and music venues (did we mention Minneapolis is the home of legendary pop star, Prince?)
STAY: Minneapolis is home to some powerfully striking hotel conversions. The Art Deco W Minneapolis -The Foshay in its previous carnation was the first skyscraper erected west of the Mississippi. Today it serves up prohibition-era drinks, sweeping views and quintessentially W modern décor. The Hotel Ivy inspired in the Ziggurat (Mesopotamia meets Iran) architectural style was initially commissioned pre-Depression to be the Second Church of Christ Scientist. It mostly served as an administrative building and then sat vacant until its luxury hotel conversion in 2008. Those who recall the Minneapolis Athletic Club is now home to the upscale Lifetime Fitness, and part of what is now The Grand Hotel.
ART: Minneapolis Bike Love combines art with biking. Its Art Crank, a now annual event, features bicycle-themed art, attracting both the casual and hard core cyclist from around the world.
EAT: The 20 plus blocks that make up Eat Street boast exotic options like Hmong and Somali restaurants that can tantalize the palate as much as James Beard-nominated joints, such as Piccolo and Alma. The satiating food truck trend in ubiquitous in America. Minneapolis’ are best represented along five blocks of Marquette Ave. Chef Steven Brown, Minneapolis’ celebrity chef, recently opened Tilia, and already there's a line outside the door every day. The Bachelor Farmer was opened by the two sons of Governor Mark Dayton, who are also grandsons of the founder of Target. (They're Rockefellers on their mother’s side.) Name dropping aside, the food panders thoughtfully to the locavore.
DRINK LIKE IT’S 1999:
Marvel Bar, nearly impossible to get into, is a worthwhile challenge. The barkeep named Pip has established a cult following for his collection of culinary cocktails. Zen Box Izakaya is for the Japanese drinking aficionado, and his or her wannabee friends. There’s a Hitachino white ale on tap, an impressive shochu and sake menu, and Japanese style fried chicken. A 35-minute drive away is Chanhassen, where the musical magic that is Paisley Park and Prince reside. The artist currently known again as Prince is known to occasionally throw last minute jam sessions and parties on Friday nights, which are open to the public.