America’s Comeback City: Beautifying Detroit 1 Seed at a Time

Detroit’s Shinola combines handcrafted cool with social responsibility

By Dominika Gorecki

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I grew up about an hour from Detroit. As a child, my family would frequently visit there to shop for specialty goodies from the Polish delis of Hamtramck, or to visit the hippos at the Detroit Zoo. The Hippos were always my favorite.

To a child, Detroit was magical — a maze of motor-age construction juxtaposed against modern glass towers. Boarded-up buildings stood in stone’s throw of impressive pieces of oversized public art. It was a city of paradoxes, both beautiful and dangerous. It was the birthplace of uplifting Motown melodies, and the murder capitol of America.

The last 40 years have been hard on Detroit – the last 10, even harder. But somehow, from the ashes of post-recession foreclosures and the shattering of the city’s very infrastructure, the spirit of Detroit is rising again.

Today, Detroit is financially bankrupt, but make no mistake, it is also spiritually brimming. Hippies, artists, and true believers are joining forces with old-time residents to build a new Detroit. Young entrepreneurs, ready to work hard and make a difference, have come together with old guard Detroiters ready to reclaim the city they love. Together, they maintain public playgrounds and grow urban gardens, open cafes and paint murals. In the American way, they mindfully tend to a city America left behind.

On Shinola’s website they ask, “Why not accept that manufacturing is gone from this country? Why not let the rust and weeds finish what they started? Why not just embrace the era of disposability? And why didn’t we buy a warmer coat before we moved here?” Their answer is: “Because we don’t think American manufacturing ever failed for being too good… Because we believe in the beauty of industry. The glory of manufacturing. We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there is a future.” Now that’s something I can stand behind. But I suspect they are still kicking themselves about the coat situation.

Shinola makes bicycles, watches, leather goods and journals. It is at its core what Detroit has always been: an ecosystem of quality where people understand that it’s not always easy to make things the right way. But in the end, taking the time to make things the right way makes them all the more beautiful. That’s how history’s made.

Last week, I came upon Shinola’s social media campaign while digesting my daily diet of digital content. I liked what I read: “‘Say Nice Things About Detroit’ was a word-of-mouth campaign created in the 1970s by Emily Gail, a small business owner in downtown Detroit. It was a challenging economic time for the city, with many businesses closing their doors and negative sentiment on the rise. With the hopes of inspiring her hometown to greater things, Ms. Gail decided to take the simple action of encouraging people to say something nice.” Shinola is resurrecting the campaign with the hashtag #SayNiceThings, in hopes of “seeding and growing positive sentiment—not just in Detroit and not just online, but across the globe.”

Each time #SayNiceThings appears on social media, the good folks at Shinola will write your tweets, posts and pins on paper embedded with wildflower seeds. This spring, the paper will be planted throughout Detroit, and specifically as part of the beautification of a dog park near their store. Providing dogs a safe place to play in a city where general safety is often a premium is deeply heartwarming and well worthy of “Saying a Nice Thing.”

See what nice things people have said by visiting: Shinola.com/saynicethings

To share some love, #SayNiceThings.