Okay, stop. I saw your eye roll. Never in my life did I think I would tell anyone they should go visit Detroit either. Michigan–yes; Detroit–no. I grew up in suburban Detroit and probably only visited the city a handful of times in my 20-plus years of living there. I’m a child of the 80s and back then Detroit was known as Murder City, U.S.A. In July, I had the pleasure of spending a week in Michigan and I spent more time than I ever have before exploring the city of Detroit. Motor City, comeback city is right — Detroit is turning into a 21st century vision of an ideal modern American city.
As a teenager with a driver’s license, when my friends and I dared to drive to the city (usually on the down-low and usually to find our way into a club), our parents’ warnings to lock your doors and roll up your windows loomed large in our minds. You wouldn’t want to walk around the city for fear of what was lurking in the dark. Stories of muggings and carjackings ran rampant in the news. When you went downtown, you went directly to your destination, trusting only the valet with your car. At the end of the evening you scurried back to your car and immediately locked the doors, breathing easy once you reached the relative safety of the suburbs. Detroit was dangerous. The suburbs were safe havens. It all seemed very normal at the time.
Detroit made national headlines in the oughts, for being the largest municipal bankruptcy in our nation’s history. From a personal perspective, futures were lost: retirement pensions and benefits were wiped away and the city’s woes widely impacted the wealthier communities surrounding the city. While the bankruptcy was personally destructive for many it also was the catalyst for the change in the city we are seeing today. Today’s Detroit is different. In many ways it is hardly recognizable to me. The city alway had a rich history in music (duh, that’s why it’s called Motown music) and diverse cultural representation (the largest Mosque in North America is located here), and (obviously) automotive manufacturing but it was not the progressive city it is building toward today.
Go See: The Murals + Art Installations
I would have characterized Detroit as a place where the practicalities of creating a culture of traveling by automobile prevailed over aesthetics. It was alway a gritty urban city. For me, that is the most noticeable differences. Don’t get me wrong, Detroit is still a concrete jungle but there is a huge movement toward creating art out of the urban blight. Colorful murals dot the city landscape. Art installations pop-up everywhere.
Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, however. I’m not the biggest fan of some of the art installations, I think some of them are downright scary looking, like these houses from the Heidelberg Project — an urban art project in one of the worst areas of the city (be forewarned: some of this is the stuff of nightmares). But generally the mission is noble.
Go Do: Take Advantage of the Eco-Friendly Bike Lanes Taking Over The City
Detroit is a city that the automobile built and it was never before high on eco-friendly modes of transportation. That is changing now. Bike lanes have popped up throughout the city. The Dequindre Cut Greenway, formerly a below street-level railroad line that serviced the industrial machine in its heyday, has been transformed into an urban recreational path for walkers and bikers that connects the Detroit riverfront, Eastern Market, and the neighborhoods in between. Now you can rent a bike or take a stroll through the city.
Go See and Do: The Spirit of Detroit is Alive With Fashion and Food With A Conscious
Fashion. Detroit is ground zero for fashion vendors with a social conscious. Many of them employ people in need and seek to repurpose long-ago abandoned automobile parts. Detroit has some great outdoor summer markets that feature these clothing vendors. Check out Capitol Park and Cadillac Square.
A personal favorite is the stall by York. It is socially conscious streetwear designed and printed in Detroit. York adopted a 1 for 1 model to donate an essentials kit to the homeless for every product that is sold. Rebel Nell is a jewelry maker that takes chips of graffiti from the city and repurposes it into jewelry. The company employs women in need in the production of their unique jewelry items. Another notable business is Pingree Manufacturing, a company that hires veterans to create boots, shoes, and leather goods from reclaimed premium leather from the auto industry.
Food and Drink. Lady of the House was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in Detroit in recent years. the share-plates are sourced from local farmers. Leftover waste is returned to farms for composting. I’ve been told not to miss, but sadly I did this trip, Bars in the Belt. The Belt is an alley lined with murals and art to give artists a public space to engage with the residents of the city. It’s also home to some of the hottest bars in the city.
Go Do: Take In A sporting Event
Detroit is the only city in the U.S. where four major sports stadiums are located within the confines of the city. The Pistons, Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings all play in sports stadiums located within a four block radius in Detroit’s core.
Go See: Visit the Historic Architecture In Various Stages of Renewal
Stemming from it’s days as the pinnacle of our nation’s manufacturing industry, Detroit is home to many architectural relics in the Beaux-Arts architectural style, most notably Michigan Central Station. The formerly vibrant train station is viewed as the spiritual twin to Grand Central Station in New York. but it long ago fell into disrepair and became a symbol of the city’s of decline. For a long time there were no windows, leaving it exposed to weather and vandals had free reign. Hundreds of antiques were stolen from it including the clock tower which was interestingly recently recovered when an anonymous tipster identified its location and asked that it be returned to the train station. In May, Ford Motor Company purchased the property and announced plans for renovation. I guess even the city’s thieves are jumping on the bandwagon and developing a conscious and desire to bring back glory to the city of Detroit.
Before I leave you, I want to set your expectations correctly. Detroit is a city in renewal. As you can see from this picture, abandoned buildings still dot the city’s landscape. Pockets of the city are renewing faster than others and they are not all connected (yet). But, the transformation is remarkable and there is much to see and do.
Photography by Janine Delacourt
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