Blog: Toby Barlow

Toby Barlow is co-president and executive creative director of JWT Team Detroit where he oversees work on both local and national accounts. He is also the author of "Sharp Teeth," a novel about werewolves.  Toby lives downtown in Lafayette Park and will be writing about his vision of a better Metro Detroit.

Post No. 2


Why would you ever take a vacation to the same place you’ve always been? If you already find yourself surrounded by a bunch of Banana Republics and Gaps and Pottery Barns, well, why go anywhere else? Socks, toasters, you’ve got it all right there.

And yet time and again when I’m traveling, I am always shocked to see the same vanilla big box stores and restaurants plopped down in the middle of unique places that once had character. Sure enough, everything gets less interesting. Why travel to Georgetown or Charleston when you can buy buy fancy deodorant at the Body Shop right there in Lansing and Troy?

Which is why as Detroit develops its downtown, it has to stop praying that big box stores will come save it. The Catch 22 is that only way to do lure the stores downtown is to prove there are already shoppers there. And the only way to lure shoppers downtown is by having stores there. So how do you do it? And where will they go?

I’ll never forget the first time I turned the corner and discovered Capitol Park. It felt like someone had stolen a chunk of London and dropped it right down in the middle of South Eastern Michigan. It’s like one tiny corner that a century of lousy city planning didn’t screw up, at least not physically. The area was as desolate as any place else in downtown, with the exception of the people sleeping on the benches of the bus depot, but it was easy to see that this spot was different, it had potiential.

Soon after, I heard how now that the city is moving the bus terminal, it has some kind of  master plan for Capitol Park. I have no idea what the plan is or what it involves, but I hope that it goes something like this:

Introducing Toby Barlow’s Slightly Delusional "If I Were King of Detroit This Is What I Would Do With Capitol Park: A Fantasy"

The only way to get shoppers downtown is to cram some corner of downtown with cool, curious, easily accessible shopping experiences.

Capitol Park, right by the Book Cadillac hotel, will offer special city grants on low ten year mortgages for unique boutique stores and shops that have already shown a commitment to the inner city.

So, a visitor finding themselves downtown might swing over to the Capitol Park and stop in at the Mezzanine to look at furniture, the Bureau of Urban Living for some nice wine glasses, Design 99 for some funky design piece, or the John King Annex for a cup of  coffee and a book.

Now, these are all businesses that already exist in the city, but you have to drive for twenty minutes around town and find three parking spots to see them. By consolidating them you will offer visitors something they can’t get anywhere else, unique Detroit places with unique Detroit visions.

Get Ryan and Philip Cooley to open a little stand equivalent to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack and suddenly the little square is a bonafide unique destination, one people would actually come visit.

Once the nick-nackers, cool hunters andgift shoppers start rolling into town, those Banana Republic, Chipotle Burrito, Pottery Barn conglomerates will come scurrying in too, all set to push the little guy out of the D. Who knows, maybe Detroit will protect the small businesses who helped bring the city back, or maybe the greater forces of evil will prevail.

But that would be a nice problem for the city to have, wouldn’t it?