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City travel: In Detroit culture hums under the hood

Detroit's old nickname, the "Paris of the Midwest," does not roll off the tongue as smoothly as it might have in 1928. The city's last few decades of Detroit's 300 years have been rocky; thousands of its buildings burned, over half of its population moved away and its industrial strength weakened. But this once-gorgeous, battered city is a place of extraordinary Art Deco skyscrapers, palatial industrialists' mansions and a vibrant arts community.

In Pictures: The rebirth of Motor City

A burgeoning green economy is being embraced, replacing cars with bikes and establishing a strong local food movement. And because of its tax breaks and a uniquely spectacular urban backdrop of beauty and wreckage, the city is becoming one of Hollywood's favourite film sets. Despite the high unemployment, many of the city's educated and creative people are now choosing to stay.

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The Midtown neighbourhood illustrates the potential in a post-motor city, with an emerging cultural economy spurred by people who live in Detroit by choice. Centred on Canfield Street between Woodward and Cass Avenues, Midtown borders the downtown core, Wayne State University and the Cultural Center, with the Detroit Institute of Arts and theatre district close by. And while the city's crime rate is still high, downtown and Midtown have become the safest neighbourhoods in Detroit. This place in transition is beautiful and strange, a smart assembly of artist collectives, galleries, shops and restaurants sitting cheek by jowl with crumbling ruins, vacant lots and restored Victorian mansions.


Start your day with a bolstering espresso and a chocolate croissant. Avalon International Breads is the spot where culturatti and decadent baked goods meet. The flavours of locally grown fresh ingredients are evident in lush concoctions such as the leek-and-Swiss-chard quiche, and sea salt and dark chocolate chip cookies. Lounge outside on the terrace with the paper, caffeinated and happily munching, and then walk up the street to the corner of 2nd Avenue to see the local neighbourhood urban farm.


As arts and culture take on a major role in the city's reinvention, there is a poetic appropriateness to The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit sitting in a former auto dealership. Entrance is free and programming ranges from art exhibitions to music to round-table discussions on the direction of this city. It is reopening Sept. 9 with an exhibition from France called Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism, and a musical tribute to the influential 1970s group Neu! on Sept. 10.


City Bird has great jewellery, housewares and tote bags featuring vintage Detroit graphics, and maps, made by born and bred local siblings Emily and Andy Linn who love the place. The votive candles are perfect to pop in your suitcase.

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Take home a book on Detroit social history from Source Booksellers. I found one on the Lafayette Park neighbourhood designed by Mies van der Rohe, and then enjoyed a conversation with store owner Janet Jones, who has lived in that modernist masterpiece since the late 1960s. Sharing the space with the Dell Pryor Gallery and two other shops, it's run as a collective and has been a force of positive change in supporting and promoting African-American artists and Detroit's cultural history.


Ironically, Motor City is an ideal place to pedal. The Hub of Detroit is a Midtown non-profit bike shop with a mission to foster urban biking. It offers maps and great tips on biking in Detroit's unique conditions, and profits are directed toward local youth programs. Wheelhouse, another bike shop on the waterfront, offers rentals and tours through Midtown and other parts of the city, encompassing Detroit's majestic architecture, urban farms and local food movement, social events and its abandoned mansions - a great, safe way to experience the uniqueness of Detroit.


Atlas Global Bistro opened seven years ago when Brush Park was still partially in ruins. Now the surrounding upscale renovated lofts and new houses are full of regulars who love to come here for the inventive food. Chef Christian Borden (a Torontonian) takes pains to use fresh, local, organic ingredients - his delicious Indiana Duck Confit and Braised Angus Beef Daube are must-try dishes. Close to the theatre district, stadium and clubs, this is a fine location to start an evening.

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At the south end of Midtown, bordering on the downtown core, you'll find a miniature club district. One of the greatest Detroit experiences is here at Cliff Bell's, a Prohibition-era Art Deco jazz club. Its lush and moody mahogany, lacquer and gilded interior was closed for many years, but was restored and reopened a few years ago. The live jazz performed here will leave you in awe. This combination of architecture, stylish crowd and music could only be found in Detroit.

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