What’s going on in… Detroit! Are you wondering “why in the world would anyone want to go to Detroit?” Some of my coworkers asked me that very same question – because it’s no secret the stories of crime, urban decay and even the recent bankruptcy of the city itself have created many negative impressions. For those living under a rock, Detroit has been frequently featured in national news as being the largest U.S. municipality to ever file for bankruptcy. But as a native of the area (and one who returns fairly often) I can tell you that there are still a great many positive attributes the city has, and on top of those there’s been an influx in entrepreneurialism and considerable growth as of late – one that I haven’t seen the likes of at any point in my memory.
Our work at the 2014 North American International Auto Show brought the team and myself back to the Motor City – some of my colleagues have been coming here annually, for over 20 years! During our most recent stay, we were pleased to hear (and witness) that many startup businesses are headquartering in Detroit, buildings are being renovated and people, especially the young, are moving back into the city from the suburbs. Lots of good things are happening; this article brings them to your attention and describes some of the cool, unusual and newer highlights the city has to offer, as well as a few of the more established must-see spots. We’ve left out many of the more popular attractions – there are too many things to list, actually. We want to show you things you may not find on your own.
Let’s start out with a place to stay. If you visit Detroit, you’ll find there are lots of good options for accommodation – ranging from affordable to luxurious – seeing as a flurry of renovations over the last six years resurrected several once-grand hotels from dilapidation. The most upscale among them is the Westin Book Cadillac, once the tallest hotels in the world, when it opened in 1924 and still quite imposing today. Yet, if you’re seeking a more eclectic and unique experience, you might try the Inn on Ferry Street. This establishment consists of four meticulously-restored Victorian mansions and two carriage houses offering a total of 40 guestrooms (each unique in furnishings, layout, artwork and more). Located within walking distance of the now truly-bustling Midtown district and Wayne State University, this hotel offers travelers a definite change of pace from what is the ‘norm’ in lodgings while still providing all of the modern amenities we’ve come to expect as seasoned travelers.
Detroit has always been a great city for museums – the Detroit Institute of Arts, Motown History Museum and outlying The Henry Ford are just a few of the many great attractions in the area. But there’s also a little-known gem that has been in the process of restoration over the last several years and is now almost complete. In my humble opinion, it celebrates Detroit’s rich automotive heritage like no one I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot as an automotive enthusiast). The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, at the intersection of Piquette and Beaubien not far from Midtown, was Henry Ford’s first large-scale factory, and it was here that the famous Model T was designed and first produced, over a hundred years ago. After years of renovation, the building is close to being complete and gives visitors a realistic glimpse into the past. A must-see location for a history or car buff.
Detroit has seen a recent and welcome arrival of new bars, restaurants and the like; among them, Green Dot Stables, Astro Coffee and Hudson Café have proven especially popular. We visited Green Dot Stables and found the slider and beer selection to be terrific. Equally notable is the recently-opened Two James Distillery – it’s Detroit’s first distillery since Prohibition. They produce bourbon, whiskey, vodka and gin on site, utilizing locally-sourced agricultural products (another interesting movement here in the city is urban farming, making good use of previously-abandoned land). Two James Distillery states that their goal is to revitalize the community and reinforce the craft product movement while being environmentally friendly. I didn’t dig too deeply into the reasons behind their social objectives, but I did take a seat in their busy tasting room and sampled their bourbon. Highly recommended.
Perhaps the best example of a recent success story in Detroit (and a business worth visiting) is the company Shinola. For starters, their classy Midtown boutique sells fine watches, bicycles, leather/paper goods and more, and demand for their products is quite high. But their operation is much more meaningful to the city than just a store. The team behind Shinola resurrected a storied American brand, set up shop in part of what was the first General Motors design studio and started assembling their wares. Employing local craftsmen and women – trained by specialist consultants from different parts of the world – Shinola’s team fashions leather goods and watches in their 30,000 square-foot space (their bicycles are put together at the nearby showroom). Detroit may seem like an odd place for a watch factory but according to CEO Jacques Panis it’s the ideal location. It’s also a cool thing to see in person – they offer factory tours which are worth the trip. And their momentum shows no sign of subsiding: Shinola currently builds 45,000 watches per year and plans to double production. The company will also expand to include a denim line.
Ponyride isn’t exactly what you’d consider a typical tourist destination, but it’s more evidence of the new entrepreneurial spirit that abounds in Detroit and it is an ideal model of urban cooperation which gives back to the community. Located in the historic neighborhood of Corktown, Ponyride is a collective of over 20 companies and projects which joined to form a shared creative work studio inside a renovated warehouse. Space in the facility can be rented very cheaply but tenants must provide community services such as education and other resources. Ponyride is proving successful; during our visit, we saw groups of people from out-of-state touring the complex (presumably, to gain knowledge of their business model to transfer it to other locales). If for no other reason, it’s worth visiting some of their tenants who will sell you quality apparel, jewelry and other goods direct from the production floor.
The rebirth of the Russell Industrial Center gives you a feeling that Detroit is a comeback city. This massive factory complex, once on the brink of abandonment, is now home to stores, studios, galleries, antique shops, performing arts venues and a myriad of other small businesses. Over 100 tenants lease space in the former auto plant, among them artists, craftsmen and designers. The story of the Russell Industrial brings Detroiters hope that an even bigger factory complex can be saved and turned into something useful – the recent purchase and plan for renovation of the long-abandoned Packard Car Factory by a foreign investor sounds promisingly similar. But optimism aside, the Russell Industrial is a great place to go for modern art aficionados. In addition to the shops and studios, you can visit a monthly indoor marketplace where tenants and other local merchants hawk their wares. Large-scale events also take place here (the People’s Art Festival and Dirty Show are two standouts) and more recently, the facility has seen a wave of activity such as car launches, trade shows and movie shoots.
Detroit’s resurgence may seem like it’s just now only taking place, but the positive energy that is felt now has ebbed and flowed for years – the re-opening of the famed Cliff Bell’s almost 10 years, ago was a sign that people weren’t quite ready to give up on the city. This bar is an alternative to the more famous Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (located on the outskirts of Detroit) and is much more eye-catching – the mahogany and brass interior of this jazz club has been restored to its Art Deco splendor. Conveniently located downtown near Grand Circus Park, this bar opened in 1935 as a legitimate business by a former speakeasy owner. This spot features live jazz acts, storytelling competitions, top-shelf cocktails and a unique food selection (some of the ideas for the dishes are taken from an old menu that was found in the basement during the bar’s 2005 restoration). Cliff Bell’s proximity to several other popular watering holes makes this a fun area to frequent, especially during local sporting events or at weekends.
The cleanup activity I witnessed at Belle Isle Park while there in January was heartwarming! Admittedly, the 1,000-acre green space situated between the U.S. and Canada on the Detroit River doesn’t have the same draw in the winter as in the summer. But this oasis in the middle of an industrial metropolis is undergoing a transformation from a neglected city park (partly designed by the creator of New York City’s Central Park) into a state-managed recreation area with much promise. Once one of Detroit’s primary leisure spots for thousands of residents, it suffered a downturn with the decline of the city but still hosts an operating aquarium, Great Lakes museum, greenhouse with botanical garden, golf course and rowing club in addition to picnic and swimming areas. It’s also the site of the annual Detroit Grand Prix auto races in late May (the park should be looking pretty good by then). The state of Michigan has already begun renovations to the park with plans to bring it back to a proper semblance of its former self with a $10 million-plus infusion. Private investment plans to turn the dilapidated Detroit Boat Club into a boutique hotel are also being considered.
A symbol of Detroit’s determination, the Heidelberg Project’s existence may be even more meaningful now than ever before in its history. This art statement is fairly well-known but it’s not something that you will just stumble upon strolling through the city. And honestly, we don’t recommend strolling through this part of Detroit – it’s in a fairly downtrodden area (so take a car). The neighborhood’s decline, however, was actually the inspiration behind this artistic work. Started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, it began as a political protest in response to the area’s deterioration after the 1967 riots. Guyton started out by painting multicolored dots onto abandoned houses and expanded to hanging salvage items onto not just houses but trees, fences or anything that would support the items he saved. Now the project consists of several blocks of seemingly random artistic expression that continues to evolve. Some parts of the project have been torn down – Guyton faced opposition from the city on several occasions – and most recently, there were instances of apparent arson. But the Heidelberg Project has prevailed for over 25 years, continuing to win international acclaim, drawing many visitors to the area and standing as a tribute to the city’s resilience.
Detroiters have long been proud of Eastern Market, and for good reason. More than just a weekend market offering the freshest selection of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, flowers and other products, its name also refers to the neighborhood the marketplace is situated in – which is a jewel of the city in itself. The numerous restaurants and galleries in the area contribute to an urban atmosphere like no other (including the requisite loft residences occupied by creative types). The mood is further enhanced by live music at places like Bert’s Marketplace – which holds jam sessions in the evenings – and other events held at galleries and warehouses with increasing regularity. Adding to the area’s appeal was a recent renovation of the nearby Dequindre Cut, an old railway bed which was transformed into a bike path/jogging trail/all-around cool green space complete with some very impressive graffiti left over from the area’s seedier days.
This is just a small fraction of the great things Detroit has going for it, whether they’ve been around for years or just a few months in many cases. For years, there have been fits and starts of investment and effort being put into the city, but never to the levels that are apparent today. As mentioned before, it’s encouraging to see the construction and renovation that abounds; the entrepreneurial spirit is even more promising. So while we may not know if the best is really yet to come for Detroit, it seems the worst is over – and we all know the saying “there’s nowhere to go but up.” So while it might be cold right now (and we don’t blame you if the weather keeps you away; this winter has been terrible), do come visit when it warms up – you might be pleasantly surprised. Even I’m not sure what to expect when I go back this spring… and it’s not that far off!