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Proof of pure life in the city

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Amanda Faye Cain
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Published 12/2/2009

The evening anchors on Detroit's ABC affiliate Channel 7 (WXYX-TV) recently interviewed Time Magazine writer Steven Gray, one of at least a handful of staff reporters imbedded in the city for the next several months for Time's "Assignment Detroit" project. Gray and his colleagues are posting blogs and short video exposés on the Assignment Detroit website, attempting to shed light on our complicated and historic city. They're also writing articles to be printed in Time's entire print arsenal: Essence, Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated. It's kind of a big deal. 

Gray's been in town for couple of months now, so one would assume that's more than enough time to uncover some tales of the town that one couldn't find on the Yahoo homepage. One would assume ...

Most of Gray's blogs have been uninspired at best. Here are some headlines — and, yes, they're all from 2009:

"Can Detroit Prevent a Return of 'Devil's Night'?" "In Detroit, Even the Politicians Carry Weapons" "From Mitch Albom, an Exploration of Faith." Scintillating stuff, to be sure. 

When the local TV news asked him what the biggest surprise, negative or positive, has been, Gray said it was "how optimistic folks here are despite all the statistics out there that exist. I'm still trying to figure out why that optimism persists." 

Seeing as how Gray, in the same interview, couldn't even name a place in Detroit — not a single restaurant, shop, gallery, music venue or bar — that he frequents, we can assume his mission to discover the things that inspire Detroiters will be difficult at best. It's as if he's reporting in the blue glow of his computer screen, from some Holiday Inn, with zero curiosity for the actual feel of the city.  

Perhaps old Gray should pop into the Guardian Building for a panini at the Stella International Café, order a cappuccino at the Rowland, browse the city-centric goods and apparel at Pure Detroit and go from there. Maybe he'd hear the story of how the husband-and-wife team of Kevin Borsay and Shawn Santo opened a shop in the city to sell T-shirts alongside goods from Detroit's arts and culture hubs (Detroit Opera House, Symphony Hall, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Pewabic Pottery) 11 years ago and never looked back. Maybe they'd draw him a map so he could — ha, if he dared! — trek to Pure Detroit's two other locations, in the RenCen and the Fisher Building, the latter of which houses the second Stella Café as well as Vera Jane, a women's boutique also owned and operated by Borsay and Santo. Eventually he'd find out they're also partners in Archive Design, an urban planning and architectural firm with offices in the Guardian. Gray'd learn that they raised their child in the Cass Corridor for the first three years of her life, that before Project Runway aired its first episode they opened a Design Lab where the public could witness the process of fashion design from hand-drawn concept to ready-to-wear couture, or that they completely lost sight of their 10-year anniversary because business was booming? 

Detroit's architectural gems inspired Pure's story from the get-go. Santo, who from 1995 to '97 published the arts and culture weekly The Left End, was living in a loft inside one of Detroit's oldest buildings, the Schwankovsky Temple of Music (1891), when she got engaged to architect Borsay. Wanting to separate their personal and business lives, she was keen to find office space in the city. The owner of the David Whitney Building offered a space he had there, but first he showed her this old cigar shop on the first floor, knowing her architectural inclination. 

"He turned the key to this 1950s shop called the Watkins Cigar Shop," Santo says. "The original cherry wood humidor was fully intact, there was an original soda fountain, and it had mini-loft on the second floor with a leaded glass beveled door, like a mezzanine. It was charming." 

And just like that, with the turn of a key, the couple's lives were placed on a course neither foresaw. 

"All I could think was that people, as many people as possible, needed to see this space, so why not open a small store there," she continues. "I thought I could have my office upstairs and just run down whenever anyone came in — I had no idea of what retail was like." 

Their naïveté was comedy. Pure Detroit opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1998. "We had an interview on WJR the day after Thanksgiving and the interviewer goes, 'So this is the busiest day of the year for you, how's it going so far?' And we were like, "What? Why would that be?" We were so out of tune on the whole Black Friday thing that we didn't even open the day after Thanksgiving — we felt we owed it to ourselves to take it off because we worked on Thanksgiving."

Santo remembers how she felt the day she first stepped inside the David Whitney cigar shop — how that led to the trio of structures Pure Detroit now lives in. She talks of the locals who continue to support them. "I'm not sure people really understand the value of their dollar staying in the local economy," Santo says. "It's kind of trendy right now, but that's the talk we've been talking and the walk we've been walking for the past 11 years."  


Pure Detroit celebrates its 11th birthday with Pure 11, a bash featuring 11 live bands (The Silent years, Phat Kat Big Band, Prussia, The Great Fiction, The Juliets, Black Lodge, Scarlet Oaks, Ohtis, Charlie Slick, Catfish Mafia, Sisters Lucas) and the work of 11 visual artists (Amanda Faye Cain, Kill Taupe, Jesse Jacobi, Tony Roko, Marianne Audrey Burrows, Justin Ames, Gwen Joy, Michael Segal, Cedric Tai, Tracey Nawrot and William Juice Singer) for just $11. At 8 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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