The revitalization of Detroit wasn’t something that happened overnight; nor has it been fully realized (yet). Instead, the story of the Motor City circa 2012 is closer to that of a former champ reclaiming his swagger – still a work in progress, but making encouraging strides nonetheless. And when looking for those telltale signs of civic pride, the best place to start is Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. There, within the same block as local stalwarts such as Avalon International Breads and City Living Detroit – the brokerage firm run by Austin Black that’s dedicated to selling neighborhoods and not simply “real estate” – you’ll find City Bird.
Owned and operated by siblings and native Detroiters Emily and Andy Linn, City Bird began in 2005 as an online store offering handcrafted Detroit-themed arts and crafts. These items proved so popular that the Linns decided to open a brick-and-mortar version of City Bird in 2009, adding not only another source of foot traffic to the neighborhood, but also a destination for selling and distributing wares produced by Rust Belt artists and artisans. In the process, the Linns have added their own indelible stamp on the idea of what it truly means to be “locally sourced.”
How did you end up opening a shop together?
Emily: Andy’s background is in urban planning and mine is in art, and we’ve always worked on things together – and worked well together. It seemed like a great opportunity to expand our business and become more of a part of the neighborhood and hopefully contribute to the vibrancy of the neighborhood.
Why choose Detroit as the place to start your business?
Andy: I think because we grew up here, we developed a great sense of pride for the city from our parents.
Emily: We’re both excited about the city. There are a lot of exciting things happening right now, and we’re happy to be a part of it.
What in particular excites you about Detroit today?
Andy: I’ve been here my entire life, and as long as I can remember people have always talked about a “renaissance” and the city turning around. But at this particular moment, right now, there seems to be so much energy and it feels like we’re reaching a critical mass. It is different now.
What was this area like even five years ago?
Andy: I think it’s important to note that this neighborhood has always been known as an arts-centric area but really has become more vibrant and accessible. And a big part of the foot traffic you see now can be attributed to having the bakery (Avalon International Breads) just down the street.
A few years ago when the recession hit, it seemed to affect Detroit the hardest. Was there ever a feeling that it was time to try somewhere else?
Emily: Detroit was hit hard, but I think in some ways it’s easier to do things here rather than in other places just because there’s a lot of space and support to do things. Also, we aren’t as emotionally invested in other communities as this one. It’s a special time to be here.
Andy: Everyone here is doing something and working together to achieve larger goals, which I think is beautiful.
Do you feel a lot of support from the community?
Andy: The one thing I’ve found is the feeling that we’re all in this together. We all benefit from having more restaurants, more amenities and more stores in the community.
Tell us about City Bird’s focus on featuring local artists from Detroit and other Rust Belt cities.
Emily: We were really excited to be able to feature things made locally and give artists a venue to sell their things. And we thought featuring artists from other Rust Belt cities was a good fit because we all have a shared history, present and future.
Andy: That was one of the reasons for opening the store – to provide a space and an outlet for local artists to show and sell their work.
And you create much of it yourselves?
Emily: Yes, most of the Detroit and Michigan-themed items we create ourselves, and when we first started making things we realized there were a lot of people interested in buying Detroit-themed things and celebrating the city. If you go to New York, there’s tons of New York-centric things you can buy, but that wasn’t really the case here.
How involved are you in the local community?
Emily: We do a lot with the store, donating products to organizations. We sponsor the neighborhood teams within a soccer league and a softball league, and we also help organize a parade in the neighborhood, the March de Nain Rouge.
What do you see for the future?
Andy: Our next project will be this book we’re working on, “Belle Isle to 8 Mile: A Guide to Detroit.”
Emily: There hasn’t been a comprehensive guide to the city since 1974, and so we wanted to change that. And our brother is an urban planner and makes lots of maps so we’re working on it with him. We have over 600 sites in it, from essential locations to obscure oddities.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility toward the city of Detroit?
Emily: Definitely. I think that’s why we feel compelled to work here. A friend of ours once told us that Detroit is big enough to make a difference in the world but small enough that you can make a difference. And that’s something we think about a lot.