Kid City

For the curious child and uninhibited parent, Detroit is a perfect place to explore.

It is invigorating. It is flawed and unsavory. It is diverse. It is unpredictable. It is not always convenient or safe (but neither is a parking lot at a suburban shopping mall). But it's that mixture of good and not-so-good that makes hanging out with your family in Detroit an incredibly cool experience.

Beyond the big attractions — a ballgame at Comerica Park or an afternoon at the Science Center — there are great opportunities to discover Detroit's beauty with your children. Listen to live music, talk to penniless strangers, visit downtown museums – or simply notice the graffiti on an abandoned building, the spires of a crumbling brick home, or the hum of an out-of-tune guitar played by a street busker. 

Live music

At the core of Detroit's identity is music; it's in our blood like the automobile, but, as we've all learned, music is more timeless. If you believe that it's never too early to ensnare your children in the fervor of Detroit music, check out these spots where live music is both accessible and exceptional.

Call it a Sunday morning revival of sorts, but instead of the fiery preacher on the pulpit, it's blueberry pancakes and someone banging like wildfire on a guitar. At the Steak Hut on Lafayette (between Rosa Parks and Trumbull in Corktown), kids are exposed to live local music that parents can appreciate too. In this cozy, but drafty, southwest Detroit diner, patrons share the floor with musicians playing blues, folk, rock or bluegrass. So grab a booth or a few counter stools, get yourself a cup of joe and a plate of hippie hash, and take in the tunes.

On a recent visit to the Steak Hut, and the folk band Moonsqualler ended a Carter Family song with the percussionist knocking over his gas tank drum and dropping his bells and chimes on top of it. What kid doesn't love a car wreck, smash 'em up sort of ending? Entertainment changes weekly, so call for details: 313-961-0659.

Older children, who aren't tucked in by 7:30 p.m., will likely enjoy the Saturday night mariachi show at Las Brisas on the far west side of Mexicantown. Girls – and boys with a flare for fashion – admire the matching, sequined charro outfits, and giggles can't be suppressed as lovely falsetto floats from the mouths of men with bellies as rotund as granddad's. Kids love the moments where stomping takes center stage as much as the endless supply of tortilla chips and salsa. Trumpets start blaring and Mexican guitars start strumming at 8445 W. Vernor at 8 p.m. sharp every Saturday. Call 313-842-8252.

Tall buildings, river views

The center of downtown is a heartlessly fabulous place for children. Mysteriously empty streets, a sea of plywood windows, and larger-than-life skyscrapers make this a miniature dreamland for intrepid youngsters.

Ride a loop or two on the Detroit People Mover, which, as useless as many adults may find it, is adored by children. Whether your young rider is glued to the window eager to learn about every passing landmark, or sits perceptively in a seat, tuned in to the speed and rhythmic rocking of the train, it's a crowd pleaser. Eyes widen while passing through the dark innards of Cobo Center and rolling high above the blue-green waters of the Detroit River.

Exiting stations to explore neighborhoods on foot adds to the adventure. Jump off at Bricktown station for a bowl of German sausage soup at Jacoby's or at the Greektown station for some fancy-schmancy pastries at Astoria. At 50 cents a ride, the 20-year-old light rail system is hands down the cheapest thrill in town.

Kid-centric spaces

Easily accessed from the Detroit People Mover's Broadway station is Detroit Puppet Theatre, one of the most endearing children's venues in the city. Puppeteers from the former Soviet Union pull together magical performances in their modest theater, and children are completely and whimsically carried off to another realm – fairy tale worlds where a clever Russian butterball outwits a drowsy, bathrobe-clad bear or a precocious spider from West Africa overcomes challenges, with Rap music setting the stage.

In the hallways outside of the theater, PuppetART Museum displays a grand collection of puppets, from tiny to huge, furry to shriveled in appearance. Puppet making workshops are offered after many performances. Shows are on Saturday afternoons through May; performances change monthly.

For other Detroit museums, check out Detroit Children's Museum and Detroit Historical Museum. Detroit Children's Museum is located on 2nd Ave., south of the Fisher Building in an old Detroit Edison substation. It's equipped with all the stuff you wish you had at home under one tall roof – games, puzzles, blocks, art projects, and books – and decorated way cooler than your kids' bedrooms with kites and puppets mounted from ceilings and brick walls. Children can do rubbings of Wood's "American Gothic," dazzle you with a puppet show, or play checkers, trains or blocks until their heart's content. Relaxing, warm and inviting, it's a fanciful change of place when cabin fever sets in at your homestead.

The Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward Avenue in the Cultural Center also caters to the under-4-foot set. The museum has loads of Detroit memorabilia and an operating assembly line (pulled from Clark Street Cadillac Assembly Plant), including a two-story body drop that enthralls children and adults. Little kids dig the enormous model train exhibit. Along the nearly life-size make-believe streets of old Detroit, imaginations run wild as kids pretend to be little Winifreds and Egberts of centuries past.

Good eats

Just across Woodward Ave. from the Detroit Historical Museum, you'll find healthy eats and a multi-cultural atmosphere. At the International Café, in the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit on East Kirby, kids can chat with people from around the globe lunching in this humble, basement space and eat tasty, affordable Indian dishes and Middle Eastern specialties. The owner, Prem, of Sikh faith, is welcoming, and fields questions graciously and thoughtfully to children inquisitive about his splendid turban and rich accent. For daily specials call 313-377-2555 or 313-874-2103.

Another healthy eatery lies across Woodward on W. Willis. Kids love Avalon International Breads (313-832-0008) for its pizza and muffins, but, mostly, the doggone yummy cookies – weighty cookies without chemical preservatives and coloring; cookies with peanut butter and chocolate chips. Avalon's tiny Midtown locale has adult beverages, in the way of excellent coffee, and breads to take home. The sit-down area is limited, but patrons are laid back and considerate, squeezing your brood in if there's room. Avalon is moving to more ample digs on Canfield later this year.

Get outside your comfort zone
Without getting too preachy about it, Detroit offers your kids another kind of opportunity you won't get in a monochromatic 'burb.

Wandering outside Avalon, for example, you are likely to run into some of Detroit's most loquacious street people.

While that would make some uncomfortable, a young child, on the other hand, is unnerved by approaching a homeless person to ask questions about a holey jacket or missing limb. Children are not hyper-conscious about differences in skin color, hair styles, pierced eyebrows or foreign accents.

You can use interchanges with folks that are not just like you as opportunities for learning, and that may be more valuable than anything you'll encounter in a museum or theater.

Big cities offer an industrial, willful beauty – one that is accented by the diversity of those who walk its streets. That kind of beauty radiates from Detroit, it seems, more than any other city in the country.

We're lucky to live in a metropolitan region, so be proud to take your children into the heart of Detroit, especially a city that's so brilliantly tarnished around the edges.


The Detroit Children's Museum and Famous Chrome Bumber Horse

Slavery Exhibit at the The Wright Museum of African American History

Downtown Skyline

The People Mover

PuppeART Museum and Theatre

Glancy Train Collection at the Detroit Hstorical Museum

Folk Dancers Outside the International Institute

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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