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In Detroit, Motown nights are reborn


Five years after Detroit declared itself bankrupt, nightlife in Motown is hopping again.

Nightclubs and bars mixing the Midwestern city's African American musical heritage and a bubbling new creativity are sprouting up like mushrooms.

And even Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul herself, wants a piece of the action unfolding from Corktown, behind the city's train station, through Midtown and all the way to the business district.

Pop-up restaurants in local watering holes compete with live music venues offering rock, pop, dance, hip-hop, jazz, funk and folk in a vibrant cocktail reflecting the city's indelible influence on the American music scene.

"Detroit is on a boom right now," said Troy Ramroop, owner of The Grasshopper Underground, an electro music club that has produced several hip DJs.

He said that not long ago, clubbers in Michigan had to go to Chicago or New York to party all night. "But now you can drive 20 minutes and find it," said Ramroop.

"You have a lot to do here in the city. It's always been (that) music is everywhere. It's good music," said clubgoer Shari Staples, who was hanging out at the Northern Lights Lounge on a cold January night.

The downtown club features performances by Dennis Coffey, one of the guitarists with The Temptations -- an icon of the Motown record label in the 1960s and 1970s.

"You get a lot of musicians. That's the heart of the DNA in Detroit," said Coffey.

- Well-lit streets -

Working with a firm called Bedrock Real Estate, hometown girl Franklin -- she of "Respect" fame -- wants to open a club of her own, a live music and fine dining venue appropriately called Aretha's. The project is said to be in its infancy.

This is all a far cry from the sad, ugly days when Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013, crushed by some $18 billion in debt.

From a musical standpoint, Detroit is now more like the city that was celebrated in Jack Kerouac's Beat generation novel "On the Road" and, through Motown Records, gave rise to stars such as Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross and The Supremes.

To get all this done, the city and billionaire Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, have done tons of work to renovate the downtown area and lure banks like JPMorgan and companies such as Twitter, Microsoft, Nike and Whole Foods Market to set up shop there.

Streetcars roll, new apartment buildings are popping up, and most streets are now well-lit, with surveillance cameras set up -- some of them connected directly to police stations.

The bottom line is that the city's population decline has slowed and crime is down. The number of homicides in 2017 was the lowest in 51 years.

City Hall has created a program to help small businesses and formed a special nightlife task force.
"You can't have a successful city if, you know, everybody just goes to work and goes home," said Aaron Foley, who has been hired to pitch the city in a position called "chief storyteller."

- Trash -

"I think more than anything the population density helps. There are a lot more people living down here in midtown," said Zach Tocco, business manager of the Majestic Theatre, a 1,100-seat concert hall that has seen the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Fela Kuti and Patti Smith.

Ramroop's parties are popular, but still he says he is just getting by.

"We've tightened up on our bookings. We've cut our costs where we could and we survived," said the immigrant from South Africa.

Graeme Flegenheimer, 26, wants to make his mark on the local cultural scene by supporting artists. He is working on a project that aims to turn museums and churches into nightclubs.

"In America, we don't have the cultural funding that France has, or Denmark, for example," said Flegenheimer, who used to work in advertising in Los Angeles and left to open a spot called El Club.

The venue is located in refurbished warehouse space, with graffiti and street art streaking the walls. It is aimed at "all ages."

El Club has earned some street cred -- cult movie director John Waters, known for films like "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray," celebrated his 71st birthday there last year.