A city lover’s guide to America’s most underrated city

Let me start this tour of the city with a confession. Despite being a lifelong Midwesterner and veteran travel writer, I avoided Detroit. I expected to be depressed by seeing a once-grand place battered by economic disinvestment. I finally made the trip two years ago, and witnessed scenes of abandonment and decay that almost broke my heart--but also examples of perseverance and creativity that stirred my soul.

Shortly afterwards, I got connected to the Detroit Revitalization Fellowship Project at Wayne State University, which tapped 29 young professionals from across the U.S. to become part of organizations working to revive the city. The project--funded by the Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation and the Skillman Foundation--is part of an unprecedented philanthropic effort to reinvigorate Detroit.  

Seeing Detroit through the Fellows’ eyes--both Motor City natives and newcomers eagerly exploring what’s here--I got an up-close look at a city that has fallen farther than any other but is now waging an exciting comeback. 

"No city has gone through what Detroit has gone through. But that leaves the door wide open to do new things," says Fellow Matteo Passalacqua, an urban planner working with the North End's Vanguard Community Development Corporation to rehab housing on the city’s beleaguered to develop mixed-use real estate projects and live/work spaces for young entrepreneurs. 

Surprise, surprise

Surprises abound, beginning with the fact that you can actually see a lot of the Motor City comfortably on foot. Woodward Avenue offers an intriguing urban promenade covering two miles between Midtown and Downtown--the nuclei of Detroit’s revitalization. 

Home to Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts, Midtown is a haven for the young and the hip who congregate for housebrewed ales at the Motor City Brewing Works and Traffic Jam, scones at the Avalon International Breads, coffee, beer or wine at the newly-opened Great Lakes.

Under no circumstance should any visitor miss the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which not only hosts Diego Rivera’s world-famous murals and standout collections of European and African-American masters, but also serves as a social hub. "One night I saw an old Alfred Hitchcock movie with a live orchestra at the DIA’s Film Theatre. I could not believe I had never been to the DFT before," says Fellow Rena Bradley, an architect who grew up in suburban Southfield and moved back home from Washington, D.C. to develop vacant land with the Detroit Land Bank Authority. 

Stroll south on Woodward Avenue from the DIA, and you’ll see new housing and office developments with shops on the ground floor. That's the same street where the first mile of concrete pavement in the world was installed in 1909 and Bob Seger later sang, "ponycars are cruisin' on Woodward Avenue." 

There’s actually a housing shortage in Midtown right now, as burgeoning numbers of young people along with employees of Wayne State and the nearby Henry Ford Health System and Detroit Medical Center seek to move into the neighborhood. This is welcome evidence that the "Eds & Meds" revitalization strategy promoted by local boosters is working.

Walking on the Woodward side

The streets scene on Woodward displays Detroit life in all varieties--an Anime-themed café, social service agencies, a swank restaurant in a refurbished old mansion, old people watching the world go by, a Whole Foods store opening next year, the Majestic bowling alley/rock club, and one of the city’s ubiquitous Coney Island hot dog stands.  

Coming into downtown, you’re greeted by the Tigers’ new brick ballpark and the lavish Fox Theater--where Leonard Cohen performs later this month. You’ll pass Grand Circus Park, one of several landscaped squares downtown laid out 300 years ago as part of the city’s European-style street plan. Handsome mid-rise buildings line Woodward and surrounding avenues, a number of them empty but not detracting too much from the overall sense of vitality. Compuware and Quicken Loans spurred downtown’s revival by moving their headquarters and more than 6500 employees downtown from the suburbs. 

"Downtown has really had a turning point since I moved here. There’s been a lot of work to make the area feel safe and clean," says Fellow Thomas Habitz, an urban planner who is part of the team designing a $500 million expansion of the Henry Ford Health System’s Detroit campus, which will include new housing and commercial space. 

Campus Martius--an inviting square renovated in 2004 to include a café, music stage, ice rink and fountain--lured $500 million in new development to adjacent blocks. Also nearby stand three landmark art deco skyscrapers, including the unparalleled 1928 Guardian Building--for my money the most strikingly gorgeous building ever built in America. A riot of color and ziggurat styling, it looks like a co-production by ancient Egyptians and Mayans with Louis Comfort Tiffany as a design consultant. 

Wandering off Woodward leads to some singularly fascinating spots such as 1515, a coffeeshop and experimental theater with a Left Bank ambience; Cliff Bell’s, an art deco jazz club with a Prohibiton ambience; the London Chop House, a recently reopened  steakhouse with a Rat Pack ambience; and Café D’Mongo’s, a nightspot with an exquisitely curated rummage-sale décor and ambience all its own. 

Woodward Avenue meets the Detroit River at Hart Plaza, the social focal point of downtown and site of many festivals throughout the summer. Check out the iconic sculpture of boxer Joe Louis’s fist and the moving Underground Railroad Memorial showing escaped slaves looking across the river toward Canada. 

Rolling along the river 

Another pleasurable stroll is the River Walk, which edges along the Detroit River five miles from downtown to Belle Isle, a Frederick Law Olmstead park with sweeping lawns and landscaped lagoons occupying a 982-acre island. (Or see the sights on bike by renting from Wheelhouse Detroit.) 

You’ll pass Renaissance Center, GM headquarters and a remnant of the failure of 1970s' strategy to renew downtowns by concentrating new development in fortresses set apart from everything else. GM has spent millions to improve the look of the original Ren Cen and it shows. A short ways up the path, you can enjoy a picnic or just kick back shadow of the lighthouse in William A. Milliken State Park, Michigan’s first urban state park. It’s the trailhead for the DeQuindre Cut Greenway, a renovared rail line fashioned into an oasis-like biking and hiking trail leading one mile to the Eastern Market--which features 250 vendors from the region, plus surrounding blocks filled with bountiful bakeries, meat markets and specialty gourmet shops.

Two of Detroit’s most fashionable addresses are near River Walk--River Place, featuring luxuriously reconditioned apartments in red-brick factory buildings; and Lafayette Park, featuring townhouses and an apartment tower designed by modernist master Mies van der Rohe between 1958 and 1965 in a serene park-like setting just north of the river near downtown.  

Fellow Regina Ann Campbell, Director of the Milwaukee Junction Business Center in the North End, moved with her family to Lafayette Park after living in the suburbs for nine years. "We love biking with the boys along the river," she says. "I wanted my kids to have what I had growing up in Detroit." 

If thirst strikes you on the River Walk, stop in at the Atwater Brewery just west of River Place--an actual microbrewery where you can cozy up to the bar in the shadow 15-foot towers of empty beer bottles awaiting filling. If hunger strikes, head to Steve’s Soul Food, a tidy buffet in an old warehouse on Franklin Street close to downtown where you choose from a tempting spread of ribs, reds beans, rice and collard greens. Save room for the sweet potato pie, which might displace pumpkin pie on your list of beloved desserts.   

"It’s important that young professionals moving to Detroit--and everyone--make sure the revitalization of Midtown, Downtown and the Riverfront makes a difference for the other 650,000 people who live here," says Bradford Frost, a Fellow who moved to Detroit after finishing law school at Tuft's University and is now working with the Detroit Institute of Arts and University of Michigan business school on strategies for boosting inner city development through the arts. 

Go Southwest, young men & women

A car, taxi, bus, heavy-duty bike or some combination of the four is advised for seeing the rest of town. Detroit, like Los Angeles, was one of the first cities in the world designed at the scale of the automobile, making for a sometimes long stroll to see the outlying neighborhoods. 

Stirrings of revitalization can also be felt in Southwest Detroit--an immigrant haven that registers the lowest family income of any area in Detroit but nonetheless shows many signs of a thriving community. Roughly 40 percent African-American, 40 percent Latino and 20 percent white, it’s home to active community organizations, small businesses, ethnic restaurants, intact historic neighborhoods and a walkable commercial district along Vernor Highway that would please Jane Jacobs. Rachel Perschetz, a tourism strategist who moved here from D.C. to work with Southwest Housing Inc. on a new arts-oriented commercial development in Mexicantown, notes that many young people head Southwest when they’re ready to buy a house.

Corktown, wedged between Southwest and Midtown, also draws young people with its plentiful loft apartments and hipsterati hot spots like Slow’s Bar BQ (worth the inevitable wait for a table), the Sugar House ("masters of the art of mixology," according to one Fellow), PJ’s Lager House (a top rock venue)  and Green Dot Stables (home of gourmet sliders). Literati-leaning Fellows recommend John K. King books, a four-floor warehouse of used books--the most complete bookstore I’ve ever had the pleasure of browsing apart from New York’s Strand and Portland’s Powell's. 

Hamtramck, an independent city once a bastion of Polish immigrants is now a racially diverse community favored by Bangladeshis, Arabs, Bosnians, Albanians and young people of all backgrounds, according to Fellow Tom Habitz, who bought a bungalow there. You’ll find great Bangladeshi food at Aladdin, exquisite crafts and imports (plus a treasure trove of polka recordings) at the Polish Art Center and live indy rock at clubs scattered throughout town.

What about the ruins?

You wouldn’t go to Athens or Rome without seeing the ruins, and neither would many visitors to Detroit. The city’s industrial freefall and corresponding plummet in population (from 1,850,000 in 1950 to 700,000 today) has resulted in some spectacular scenes of devastation--painstakingly documented by photographers in a new genre dubbed "ruin porn."  

The two best examples are: 1) Michigan Central Railroad Depot, an imposing 18-story train station on the edge of Corktown where every single pane of glass is busted out; and 2) the Packard Plant, a 3,5000,000 square-foot auto factory by eminent architect Albert Kahn on East Grand Boulevard, which was abandoned in 1958 and later made musical history as the site of raves where techno music first gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  

The Motown Sound

Less than four miles west on Grand Boulevard is an even more world-renown musical shrine--a modest frame house where Berry Gordy lived on the second floor and superstars like Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Four Tops recorded a mountain of hits downstairs. It feels like a religious experience to enter the small Motown Records studio with the original Steinway piano, Hammond B-3 organ and furnishings. You can see the dining room table that served as the company’s shipping department, the couch where Marvin Gaye sometimes slept after all-night recording sessions, and the desk where a receptionist named Martha Reeves greeted visitors. The same Martha Reeves who later sang one of the most memorable odes extolling the sheer exuberance of city life:

Summer's here and the time is right
For dancin' in the streets

They're dancin' in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
Up in New York City…
Philadelphia, PA
Baltimore and DC now
Yeah, don't forget the Motor City
(Can't forget the Motor City)

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas got it right back in 1964: anyone who truly savors urban life can’t forget the Motor City. 

Jay Walljasper, a former travel editor at Better Homes & Gardens and contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler, chronicles urban life around the world. Check out his website.
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