Last week’s bankruptcy filing is only the latest in an assembly line of bad news that Detroit’s been steadily pumping out since the 1950s, when its population started to decline from a high of just less than two million to its current 700,000. Detroiters are used to it. So if you visit, don’t expect to find a lot of moping. And, really, you should visit.
Detroit is a great city clouded by headlines about financial impropriety, pension funding woes, industrial decline, racial tension and, more recently, its stupendous ruins. Yes, decay and poverty are plentiful here, but cities are the products of their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and the result in Detroit is a rare glimpse of what American pride looks like when it’s uncoupled from the overweening self-confidence that can make it so unpleasant. The result is an upbeat small town with skyscrapers – and a counter-intuitively friendly one at that.
“In some cities, you go to a bar and talk to the people you came with and the people you want to go home with and that is it,” says Jeanette Pierce, a third-generation Detroiter and long-time city booster who leads free walking tours (dhivedetroit.org). “In Detroit, we talk to everyone, including the owner, because he’s bartending.”
I visited for a weekend recently but could have spent a week. Below are my 10 favourite Detroit sights and experiences. It’d be a fine time to spend some of your tourist cash there. I hear they could use it.
The Westin Book Cadillac
The history of this 31-storey neoclassical hotel mirrors the city itself. Built in 1924, it has stumbled almost from the beginning and was vacant for 20 years before it reopened in 2008. From the west-facing windows, you can see the bus station named after Detroit native Rosa Parks, and rumour has it that it was in this lobby that Lou Gehrig collapsed while climbing the stairs on May 2, 1939, prompting him to miss that day’s game against the Tigers and ending his 2,130 consecutive game run. When it was announced at Briggs Stadium that day, in a thoroughly Detroit move, Tiger fans gave the Yankee a standing ovation. 1114 Washington Blvd., bookcadillacwestin.com
Detroit Institute of Arts
One of the first stories that came out after the bankruptcy announcement bruited the idea of selling off the museum’s multi-billion-dollar collection, which includes work by Titian, van Gogh, Rubens, Rembrandt and the original Howdy Doody marionette. It’s a magnificent collection, one of the best in the world, and its centrepiece, commissioned by the Ford family back in its glory days, is an atrium-sized, four-wall work by Diego Rivera that both celebrates and excoriates the auto industry that paid for it. It’s the Mexican polemicist’s masterpiece, and in itself, worth the trip. 5200 Woodward Ave., dia.org
Detroit is full of examples of the unexpected benefits of failed capital – the best is this place. If located in Chicago or London, 2648 West Grand Blvd. would now be an enormous glass interpretive centre designed by Frank Gehry with a Ken Burns IMAX show and an audio guide narrated by James Earl Jones. But this is Detroit, so the little tract house that Berry Gordy named Hitsville, U.S.A., and turned into the heart and soul of Motown is still just that. The gift shop’s in the front room and the famous Studio A – where legends such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Wilson Pickett and the Temptations recorded – is just as it was in the basement. 2648 W. Grand Blvd., motownmuseum.org
Vienna’s got some impressive cafés, but frankly none of them compare to the Rowland, which gets to occupy nearly the entire promenade level of the Guardian Building, one of the world’s best art deco towers, completed in 1929. It’s the sort of space that couldn’t exist anywhere that real estate had value. 500 Griswold St., therowlandcafe.com
Detroit loves its Tigers and the feeling is infectious. I went early in the season, a statistically insignificant game against the Red Sox, and the place was packed. It looked like the whole city had turned out to cheer. I find baseball to be a boring spectator sport, but this place was electric. 2100 Woodward Ave., detroit.tigers.mlb.com
The Heidelberg Project
In 1986, Tyree Guyton painted some polka dots on the side of his house at 3651 Heidelberg St. Now, that property is the centre of the world’s largest outsider art project, a city block of discarded shoes in discarded ovens, waterlogged stuffed animals piled onto a small boat in a vacant lot and dozens of other things a good deal less describable. Heidelberg Street and Mt. Elliott Street, heidelberg.org
Earthworks Urban Farms
As the population shrank and houses collapsed, a good deal of once arable land started to reveal itself. Groups such as Earthworks (run by Capuchin monks) realized they could both grow food for the often underemployed residents who stayed, and maybe teach them a few skills. The result is tons of produce and a new generation of urban farmers. Call ahead and ask for Shane Bernardo. He’ll give you a tour and a glimpse of the best possible use of a downsized city. 1264 Meldrum St., 313-579-2100 ext. 204, cskdetroit.org/EWG
This 17-hectare market has been going since 1891, and though it runs every day, Saturday’s the big one. Stop by Russell Street Deli (everyone else does), then step into this mixture of farmer’s market, artisanal depot and community hub. When I was there, Lawrence Zienert was selling eggs, as he had been since Calvin Coolidge was president. And say hello to David DeVries at DeVries & Co., the cheese and dry goods store his grandfather founded in 1887. As you’ll have come to expect in this city, he’s happy to chat. Rivard Street and Napoleon Street, detroiteasternmarket.com
In 2005, when Slows Bar-B-Q opened in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighbourhood, it started a renewal that’s still going, with later additions such as Astro Coffee and the Sugar House Bar and the two-bedroom hotel Honor & Folly, upstairs from Slows. Get your food to go and have an only-in-Detroit picnic on the grass in front of Michigan Central Station, built in 1913 and abandoned when Amtrak stopped service in 1988. Once the world’s tallest train station, it’s now the city’s most famous ruin. Slows: 2138 Michigan Ave., slowsbarbq.com
The Anchor Bar
This is the bar where you want your nights to end. The Anchor (not to be confused with the Buffalo institution of the same name) is Detroit at its local finest. Once a journalists’ hangout, it still holds monthly Beer & Politics discussions in the back room, though it’s become mostly a Red Wings joint. Get a seat at the bar and say hi to whomever sidles up next. The stories won’t disappoint. 450 W. Fort St. anchorbardetroit.com