Tuesday, July 22, 2008

R.I.P. Asian Village

Originally published in D-Tales here.

This one hurt.

Effective yesterday, Asian Village is closed for good (or for God knows how long until GM decides to lift their "We no likey" decree and allow AV to continue to operate, assuming that the owners would even be interested in continuing to do so at that point).

See apparently wha' ha' happened wuz The Powers That Be (in this case, General Motors as the leaseholders of the building AV was in) decided that they didn't want a nightclub operating that close to (a) their building and (b) their Riverfront, which they are supposedly developing (with partners) with even more overpriced condos that no one can afford to buy and will be reduced to 1/3 of the original asking price after sitting empty for the first 3 years a la the Skylofts et. al. in Royal Oak , aka Loftapalooza.

This is really quite unfortunate. For the year that they have been open, Asian Village has struggled. First having to shut down the Pacific-Rim-themed coffee shop, then temporarily shutting down the Asian cafeteria, and never quite getting around to opening the Asian-themed market. Then Fusia cut back their hours, then hired on a brilliant new chef--Shawn Mac from Twingo's and boocoo (and no it's not his fault any one of these places shut down--someone accused him of having poor management skills and advised him to stay in the kitchen where he belongs. Well, write this down for future reference: Mac never managed any of these places and only ever acted as the sous/executive chef with the responsibilities those titles entail. The issues that shut each of these places down fall on the heads of others, not him. All he ever did was design award-winning menus that garnered acclaim in culinary magazines), and began to get some much-needed recognition. Then Scott Hummel came on board as the event planner and AV started hosting high-profile, well-received events. Then Jay Noonchester and his friends started having club nights, called Sutra, there every Saturday, which then branched into Fridays (separate of Noonchester & Co.). Then GM got pissed and shut them down, citing zoning issues.

Now, I'm not in disapproval of zoning laws. Nor am I arguing that AV had a very clearly-defined identity as a restaurant(s) (it didn't, and it changed frequently). But I will say that, despite the lack of consistency in branding, AV finally found a niche that worked. And I will also say that, while they were not "zoned" for a nightclub, COME ON. This wasn't some booty-shaking, wet-T-shirt-contest-having, college night with girls in bikinis, lines of 18-to-21-year-olds wrapped around the building and hoopdies in the parking lot blaring gangsta rap fratboy thug fest. This was a lounge, where wealthy young doctors, business owners, lawyers, and NFL players hung out and sipped $30.00 glasses of whiskey. And I know you can't say "this kind of club is okay, but this kind isn't." However, this was a restaurant which simply chose to host special events. No different that any other restaurant that might bring in a DJ or band and charge a cover to see them after a certain time. Sure, it might be a sneaky little loophole, but there it is. Mon Jin Lau gets away with it. So does Crave. So does Oslo. So does Fishbones. La Dolce Vita. Andiamo. And countless others. What was different for AV was the fact that they were on GM's lease and their operations did not fit in GM's carefully monitored mold.

I've documented in detail what I have seen as the rise of Asian Village. I've seen it transformed from being on the brink of bankruptcy with constant rumors of financial struggles and being near closing. I've watch it shift from its original incaranation and conception to what it has since become. I've watched it from being near-dead on a Friday night and closing at 9:00PM to being the latest hotspot in Detroit and packed past 2:00AM, listened as the buzz grew louder, even helped people pick out outfits to wear there on a Saturday night. I've hosted events there and have been treated wonderfully and had top-notch experiences. I feel an affinity towards much of the staff there, having known a number of them from various places before. I watched as the owners slowly got their proverbial shit together and finally put the RIGHT people in the RIGHT places, setting themselves up for success. And I watched as those many moves and difficult decisions and restaffing and reconceptualizing slowly but surely began to pay off.

All to be shut down in the end, right at the point that they were finally making all the right moves, on track to become a Detroit success story.

This, to me, is very sad. Disappointing, really. Ironic, no doubt (the timing, that is). And completely unnecessary.

What, it isn't enough that businesses in Detroit already have to shut their doors due to flagging business even though they've been around for decades, now we have to start shutting down the successful ones that might actually attract the kind of moneyed, youthful clientele that the city actually needs if it has any hope of becoming the revitalized, rejuvenated, and culturally thriving destination city that it hopes to one day become?

What, GM gets their panties in a bunch because of "zoning issues" (underlying implication--they don't want club rats dirtying up their Gold Coast) and completely shuts it down???? No warning, no slap on the wrists, no "no more nightclub, no-ah-ah," no second chance, no opportunity to get proper zoning, they just shut the fucker down?

This has nothing to do with low food and liquor sales or mismanagement (even though quite the argument can indeed be made that there were too many cooks in the kitchen whose names were on the business loan and not one of them agreed on anything and damn near drove the place into the ground on multiple occasions--only to survive time and time again). This has everything to do with the city's largest corporate entity throwing its weight around and decreeing what businesses can and cannot operate in the city--what does and does not suit them.

And thas sum buuuuuuuuuuuuullshit.

Asian Village was, to me, symptomatic of New Detroit. It struggled at first, and initially people didn't quite know what to make of it. But eventually people got more open-minded and decided that they actually kind of liked this new place, and started to check it out with a newfound sense of curiosity and appreciation.

Only to get shat on by the likes of GM.

The closing of AV is akin to New Detroit taking a step backwards. If we can't even keep these new, ambitious businesses open and protected from closure by special interest groups, how exactly is this city supposed to rebuild? Especially when the special interest group is GM, and part of the reason we need to rebuild is because they had to go and get themselves bankrupt and a whole lotta people lost their jobs. And now they're making the decisions on which businesses stay and which close? All based on their greed for overpriced waterfront property that they don't want sullied by the presence of club-goers (which was less the 1515 Broadway crowd and more the Crave the Sunset crowd--in other words, the kind of people who have money, want to spend it, and should be encouraged to spend it in the city, and hell, might even be the ones who could afford said overpriced waterfront property)?

Asian Village was exactly the kind of high-end, upscale, trendy place that New Detroit needs to reidentify itself. And now it's gone. Not because Detroiters have no taste, or because they didn't "get" the concept, or because it was too upscale, or because people couldn't afford it, or because it didn't live up to its hype--it's gone because a greedy corporate entity deemed it so.

I think Miss Janet said it best when she asked, "What have you done for me lately?" (The City of Detroit asks GM.)So long, AV. We tried.

And good luck to the hard-working, talented people who now find themselves unemployed.