DETROIT - I arrived in a power outage, got a $45 parking ticket and drove past dozens of abandoned homes. But as a tourist on my first trip to Detroit, I also sang in the Motown studio, saw the paintings that were nearly sold to pay the city’s bills, and bumped fists with the sculpture of boxer Joe Louis’ powerful arm.
By the end of my four-day visit, I was glad I’d gotten to know one of America’s most interesting cities at a challenging time in its history. I won’t sugarcoat it: The blight is real, with blocks of dilapidated houses that look like Hollywood horror sets. Vacant lots sprout grass so tall they look like an urban prairie. At popular restaurants such as Green Dot Stables or Slows Bar B Q, you’ll wait a half-hour for a table, but around the corner, streets are dark and empty. And the Heidelberg Project is an effort to turn abandoned buildings into urban art, but some of the sites have been destroyed by arson.
That said, downtown is clean and safe, with abundant private security. A local tour company called Show Me Detroit offers two-hour van tours of the city that owner Pat Haller describes as presenting both “the pretty and the gritty,” and that’s a good description of what I saw as Detroit was emerging from bankruptcy and taking baby steps toward recovery. Here are some highlights from my visit.
The Motown Museum, also known as Hitsville USA, at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., is located in the house where record company founder Berry Gordy launched a cultural and commercial music empire. Artifacts include an old orange sofa where stars napped, the candy machine that Stevie Wonder got his snacks from, and lots of gold records. You’ll stand in the studio where Diana Ross and the Supremes and others recorded hits that made them superstars, and you’ll even get to sing “My Girl” while learning the rock-and-turn steps of the Temptations’ classic move.
Take a selfie fist-bumping the Joe Louis monument. Then spend a few hours seeing other nearby attractions: the bronze monument called “Spirit of Detroit”; Campus Martius park and skating rink; the Riverwalk along the Detroit River with a view of Canada across the water; the GM Renaissance Center (lots of shiny cars on display); the People Mover, an elevated light rail on a 5-km loop that costs 75 cents per ride; and the Guardian Building, a historic landmark and Art Deco masterpiece with a lobby that feels like a cathedral.
The Westin Book Cadillac was the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in the 1920s, and it hosted everyone from presidents to movie stars. It closed in the 1980s and was abandoned for 20 years before reopening in 2008 after a $200 million renovation. I scored a room at the four-star property for under $200.
On West Lafayette Boulevard, check out two side-by-side eateries with a legendary rivalry: American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. Coneys are hot dogs with mustard, onions and chili. Wash it all down with Vernors ginger ale (the brand originated in Detroit).
A short drive from downtown is Belle Isle, an island and state park in the Detroit River that houses a beautifully maintained greenhouse and botanical garden.
Visit the treasures now saved for posterity at the Detroit Institute for Arts: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals, a tribute to workers and manufacturing; the first van Gogh and Matisse to be acquired by any U.S. museum; “The Wedding Dance” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; and “The Art of Dining,” a mesmerizing video that simulates a three-course feast for 18th-century aristocrats.
At the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, a chillingly realistic exhibit depicts slave ships and other horrors of the slave trade. Stand in the lobby beneath the beautiful domed ceiling and whisper to hear the extraordinary acoustics, designed to recall the echoes of those fleeing slave catchers.
The Shinola store, 441 W. Canfield St., sells luxury watches, bicycles and other high-end lifestyle products. The company based the brand in Detroit to identify with the city’s manufacturing heritage. Nearby is Source Booksellers, 4240 Cass Ave., an indie nonfiction bookstore owned by longtime Detroiter Janet Jones.
For Midtown food and drink, start with a beer at Honest John’s, get a burger at The Bronx and try the pie from Dangerously Delicious Pies, located inside the Third Street Bar. End the evening around a bonfire in the backyard of Old Miami, and spend the night at The Inn on Ferry Street, a charming bed-and-breakfast located in several restored Victorian homes in a Midtown historic district.
The Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn is devoted to the history of American innovation, from manufacturing to social change. The eclectic collection includes the bus that civil rights activist Rosa Parks rode in when she refused to give her seat up to a white rider; the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963; George Washington’s camping supplies; and a Model T that is taken apart and reassembled daily to demonstrate its simplicity.