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In Motor City, historic auto industry gives way to new life

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More than Motor City

Detroit has been home to about 100 automobile manufacturers over the past 120 years.

Detroit is a must-see destination for car lovers, but a visit reveals a revival reaching far beyond the city's historic auto industry

Looking to discover the history of the automobile? There's no better place to start than here in the Motor City. But – spoiler alert – you'll come for the cars, and find much more.

First stop: Dearborn, midway between the Metropolitan Airport and Detroit, where you'll find both the headquarters of Ford Motor Company and The Henry Ford museum: 12 acres of cars, planes, trains, tractors and more under one roof.

Travel back in time to learn about the history of Detroit’s auto industry at the Henry Ford museum.

That's just the beginning. Walk next door to the 90-acre Greenfield Village to visit the workshop where Thomas Edison developed the incandescent light bulb, the Wright Brothers conceived their first airplane and, for a fiver, be chauffeured in a Model T. On weekends, catch a gloves-optional, 1867-style baseball game, then hop on a bus to tour F-150 production at the Ford River Rouge Complex.

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But it's not all just for show: the nearby Ford Research and Innovation Center is developing the latest in high-tech, including 3-D printing of auto parts and an impressive visualization studio where virtual reality meets high-quality visual design. Unfortunately, it's open only to customers who own a new-generation GT (a modern interpretation of the 1966 Le Mans winner) as they visit the formerly secret GT design studio to customize their car.

Onward to Detroit, where Henry Ford's Piquette Avenue Plant, birthplace of the Model T, offers tours and a large display of vintage auto-mobilia. Lest you think Ford is the only auto maker here, the city has been home to about 100 automobile manufacturers over the past 120 years. One of those, the former home of Packard, is seeing new life as developers break ground on a mixed-use restoration project on its 3.5 million square feet of abandoned space (it was used as the apocalyptic set for a soon-to-be-released Transformers franchise flick).

Head south on Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main thoroughfare, and you're on the first street in the world to be paved and the first to have a traffic light. At the end, towering over the Detroit River, is the modern glass Renaissance Center. The headquarters of General Motors, it stands in stark contrast to the historic downtown buildings, which are seeing a renaissance of their own.

The Guardian Building in Detroit.

Don't miss the three-storey mosaic-filled lobby of the Guardian Building, complete with a Tiffany clock, and decorated with Pewabic and Rookwood tiles. En route, you'll pass Cadillac Square, where John F. Kennedy delivered his first official campaign speech in 1960. To the north, in the shadow of the new home of hockey's Red Wings – Little Caesars Arena – is the Detroit Masonic Temple, the largest in the world, which claimed Henry Ford among its members. Everywhere are signs of rebirth.

"People say Detroit is coming back, and the people who have always been here say, 'Hey, we never went away,'" says the guide introducing the Heidelberg Project where, in 1986, artist Tyree Guyton began transforming his childhood neighbourhood. With a curated blocks-long evolving exhibit on Heidelberg Street, found objects are grouped to convey ideas – primarily the resiliency of Detroit.

Among the many displays, a decaying Saab is dotted with plastic Canada geese, a pink Hummer is submerged in the earth and flanked by a bicycle, and a row of rusted-out car hoods stand in front of the lot where singer Wilson Pickett's house once stood. All are references to Detroit's history and ongoing relationship with the auto industry. Guyton, who drives around town in an F-150 to gather objects, felt an urgency to create a statement through art, because he thought many residents were waiting for something or someone to save them. "You have to create your own reality in this world today," he says. Detroit is doing just that.

Musician Jack White recently opened a vinyl pressing plant in what was originally the sales office for Willys Overland Jeep.

Musician Jack White, a native son, recently opened a vinyl pressing plant, located in the rear of his Third Man Records label store (in what was originally the sales office for Willys Overland Jeep in 1912). Along with the Detroit Denim Co. and block-partner Shinola – maker of hipster bicycles, watches, notebooks and soon, a downtown hotel – Third Man Pressing aims to create meaningful, well-compensated manufacturing jobs. Even foodies will be happy; midtown is breeding hot restaurants such as Selden Standard, Avalon International Breads and the Peterboro.

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Detroit's history and its revival have not gone unnoticed: in 2015, it became the first U.S. city to be named a UNESCO City of Design. This distinction reflects what it was, what it is and what it is becoming – all of it built on the automobile industry, and its many highs and lows.

As Guyton says: "You've got to go through something to tap into your greatness."

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