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CriticCar Detroit: Reviews on the road

By Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 4, 2013

DETROIT — It’s a cold and windy Saturday night in Detroit, as a car containing three University alumni on an $80,000 mission stops at a red light on Woodward Avenue.

Outside the window is Campus Martius Park at the heart of the city’s downtown. There, underneath the gleam of a towering Christmas tree still standing several weeks after Dec. 25, huddles of skaters, bundled up in fluorescently colored coats and scarves, etch across the ice.

The traffic light turns green, and the car moves on, passing a darkened building with a glowing neon sign in the window that says “Detroit Never Gives Up.”

After weaving through more of the city’s streets, oftentimes a unique mix of vacant and occupied buildings, the car parks. Its passengers — Jennifer Conlin, a contributor to The New York Times; Shoshana Hurand, a program director at Artrain USA; and Joey Ostrander, a camera operator — enter a large, columned building that somewhat resembles Angell Hall. It is the historic Hilberry Theatre, which has stood at the corner of Cass Avenue and W. Hancock Street since 1917, and has housed the productions of Wayne State University’s theatre students since 1963.

Inside the theater’s dimly lit lobby, the three walk onto a sprawling ornate rug. Ostrander stands in the brightest area of the room, by the front doors, where photos of student performers line the wall. Conlin approaches a Wayne student standing behind a counter. He is the director of the Hilberry, wearing a sport coat and tie, and can’t help but grin as Conlin explains that she and her two companions are here to conduct interviews and record footage for a non-profit journalism company that aims to share the voice of real Detroiters — CriticCar has arrived at the Hilberry.

From the Nile to the Huron

Conlin grew up in Ann Arbor. She even has a Detroit Tigers iPhone case. But she and her husband Daniel Rivkin, a broadcast journalist, spent the last 20 years living and working abroad in cities including Brussels, Paris, London, and most recently Cairo, which they left during the 2010 revolution to return to the states.

Therefore, Conlin felt somewhat like a tourist when she first visited Detroit after her family moved into her elderly parents’ Ann Arbor home in 2010.

Having written many articles for the Times’ Travel Section about places as exotic as the Egyptian streets, Conlin decided it was time to look into what Detroit had to offer.

Conlin said she knows Detroit has had problems and high crime rates, but she said there is so much good as well. For someone who bought a plane ticket back to Egypt the day after Mubarak resigned to write an article about how Egyptian tourism had changed post-revolution, Detroit did not intimidate.

On May 5, 2011, just months after Chrysler’s “This is Detroit, This is What We Do” ad featuring Eminem aired during the Super Bowl, Conlin’s article on Detroit, “36 Hours in Detroit,” was published. It quickly became the most e-mailed article on The New York Times website, a feat that Conlin admits surprised her.

To craft the article, Conlin spent a night in Detroit’s Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel and ventured around the city’s restaurants, historic sites and art attractions. She encouraged readers to visit Detroit venues such as Cliff Bell’s jazz club, Cafe D’Mongo, Slows Bar BQ and Eastern Market.

“DESPITE recent news stories of a population exodus from Detroit,” the article opened, “there are many reasons to make a pilgrimage to this struggling city right now — and not just because Eminem’s slick Super Bowl commercial showcased the inner strength of the Motor City. No video can portray the passion one finds on the streets of Detroit these days, where everyone from the doorman to the D.J. will tell you they believe in this city’s future.”

The article praised Detroit’s most promising neighborhoods, stating “midtown, downtown and Corktown — are bustling with new businesses that range from creperies and barbecue joints catering to the young artists entrepreneurs migrating to Motown.”

Though excited with how many attractions the city offered, Conlin also saw the city’s struggles.

“Having lived in cities our whole life — in Paris, in Brussels, in London, in Cairo —we’re such urbanites that we could just see the kind of sadness that had taken over (Detroit),” Conlin said.

After the article’s success, she wanted to do more. She thought about ways she could help Detroit and considered following up “36 Hours” with more articles about the city.