Detroit – such an iconic American city and a unique case study of the effects of our changing economy. We were told to be safe, we knew about the crime, we had heard that the street lights were out and the police force was spread thin. Yet there were also rumblings about a revival, about blossoming neighborhoods of once abandoned homes, about the downtown business center and about Dan Gilbert’s vision for the city. And so we made our way into the belly of the beast.
We contemplated staying with a host (a local non-profit worker) in a part of town which he had described as, “depressed, but full of hard working people”. We went to check it out then asked a local police officer about the neighborhood – the officer did not recommend we stay there. So we canceled and took safe harbor in a Marriott. While this was the right decision, we all felt a sense of loss about what the experience could have entailed had we been a little more courageous.
The hotel was outside Detroit in the city of Dearborn – which is home to the largest per capita population of Arab Americans in the United States and specifically the largest Lebanese population. We enjoyed a great Lebanese dinner before retiring to our safe, starched, Marriott bed sheets.
We awoke well rested and ready to take on the city. We began our exploration at the Detroit river walk which runs along the Detroit River with the city of Windsor, Ontario lying on the other side. Will and I banked right while Matt and Malc took the high road up the hill. Our very first interview was with a couple in their late 20’s who, upon our explanation of our trip asked, “Why would you come to Detroit?”. We explained ourselves and they continued to tell us about the problems facing the city. They clearly hailed from a rougher part of town as they talked about 14 year old kids wielding guns and lacking any sort of moral virtue. While they were excited about the new mayor (Mike Duggan), they were only cautiously optimistic about a turn around and expected “30 years of blood sweat and tears” before the city was back on its feet. While most other people acknowledged the persistent problems – the lack of functioning street lights, the city cutting off water in poor neighborhoods – they didn’t seem to be as in touch with life in the peripheral neighborhoods. I’m glad we got to talk with them and hear their perspective.
The Riverfront area is undergoing some major investments and the area was teeming with an eclectic mix of people – which really epitomizes our entire Detroit experience; the American melting pot on full display. While certain neighborhoods bordering the downtown may have been more segregated by ethnic and socio-economic boundaries, everyone congregates in the downtown and the diversity is refreshing.
We walked through GM headquarters which lies on the water front, through their showroom, and out towards the downtown area by way of Woodward Avenue. Where Woodward hits the waterfront is the home of the city’s most iconic monuments – The Spirit of Detroit and the Monument to Joe Louis. As you continue north along Woodward, past One Detroit Center and the Guardian Building, you come upon Campus Martius Park where people gather to enjoy their lunch. One this particular day, there was a soul band laying it down for the hungry, over-worked masses. Just on the other side of the square we came across a more amateur musical busking operation and asked to interview them. They agreed, but only after the lunch rush. Phill and Milo were awesome and members of a band named, “The Vonneguts”.
We continued up Woodward towards Comerica Park and past slews of abandoned buildings. We were surprised to find out that there is actually a housing shortage in Detroit’s downtown area. The renovations are clearly underway and Dan Gilmore’s Opportunity Detroit propaganda is everywhere. I imagine if we ever return to the city, the Woodward Avenue that we saw will be full of posh apartments and office spaces. Comerica park sits at ground level next to a large, semi-circle open space. The area is also home to the Detroit’s Fox theater and is one of the hubs for the city’s burgeoning tech scene – it’s hard not to sense the potential of the area. After an interview with some start-up employees, we met back up with Malc and Matt for lunch at Lafayette Coney Island where we enjoyed a plates that entailed varying combinations of hot dogs, “loose” ground beef, fries, buns, and melted cheeses. The restaurant is famous for it’s proximity to another American Coney Island. The original business was opened by two brothers but following a business dispute, they split the shop and it’s been that way ever since.
After lunch, we headed up to the Midtown area – home of Wayne State University. We stopped for coffee at Great Lakes Coffee – a hip, WI-FI hotspot coffee shop, bar, and liquor store surrounded by dilapidated brick buildings. I enjoyed an arabica bean infused spin off of Mexican hot chocolate – dubbed the “Sexy Mexican” which was probably the best hot beverage I’ve had in recent memory. We strolled around a bit, taking in some of the impressive medical school architecture and old cathedrals before heading back towards the water front. Matt and Malc had been promised an interview by Katie after she got off work.
We rendezvoused at Atwater Brewing Company for some happy hour libations. Malc and Matt conducted the interview outside as planned and we all sat down to enjoy some of the local craft brew – my personal favorite, the Vanilla Java Bean Porter. Katie was a great local to befriend as she told us about some of the different neighborhoods and local politics. She also told us about Detroit’s Purple Gang – the Jewish mafia of the prohibition era that would smuggle Canadian whiskey over the border. You may recognize the line, “The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang! Let’s rock, everybody let’s rock.”
We returned to the hotel, made gruel, and cleaned up for a night on the town. We started the night at an art exposition – which was probably the most Detroit thing we could have done. Art adorned every wall of the empty brick warehouse while DJ’s entertained dance floors and local artists pressed t-shirts. Downstairs was another open art display with a live band and a brick cellar. Several bars scattered around the premises were stocked by Red Bull (albiet not sufficiently for the crowd) and we enjoyed another extremely diverse crowd – pre-post-hip hipsters mingled alongside dads in “Life is Good” tees and the rest of the spectrum filled out in between. The event was over by 10:30 and the Red Bull hyped masses poured into the street.
Our next destination landed us at an awesome bar named D’Mongos. There was a three piece band stuffed into the corner of the hectic little room playing everything from Marvyn Gaye to John Denver. We grabbed a small table in the back and enjoyed the band who shared duty with a juke box loaded up with only the finest Motown. Several Detroit Browns – whisky, ginger ale, and bitters – were enjoyed before we decided to get to bed.
The next day we went to the Eastern Market – one of the oldest open air markets in the the country. You walk past a live glass blowing exhibit followed by BBQ and a OMB (One man band). The market consists of three large solid-frame tents that are filled mostly to capacity with produce, flowers, and your other farmer’s market standbys (you’ve got your home made candles, honey, small batch sweets, etc.). We sat down for lunch at Gus’s BBQ and enjoyed a pleasant conversation with our server before heading out of town.
Before leaving the city for Cleveland, we made a quick stop at the Belle Island Aquarium. In this tiny museum, you get what you pay for, and admission is free. The museum focuses on the proletariat of the marine kingdom – the brown swamp dwellers, catfish, etc. While slightly anti-climactic, our stay in Detroit was eye-opening and if anything like the boundless energy and optimism of the people we met persists, there is no doubt the city will make a recovery.