10 Things To Like About Detroit Now

Detroit is like an empty lot down the street that’s sat vacant for years. Some people in the neighborhood doubt it will ever be put to good use. Then one day, you notice that the rubble is being carted away, and there are actually some green shoots popping up from the newly cleared ground. Somebody, it seems, thinks they can make something of it.

That’s what’s happening with the Motor City these days. Despite wrenching financial problems (it’s this close to Chapter 9 bankruptcy), deteriorating city services and endless political wrangling over its future, the empty lot is seeing life.

Entrepreneurs, some civic minded, others out to make a buck, are snapping up long abandoned properties and sprucing them up. The ground swell of activity is attracting younger residents and empty nesters to the downtown neighborhood. National brand names are starting to appear next to local businesses, with more on the way.If you aren’t familiar with the city, you not might think it’s very full, and that’s because it isn’t. Detroit is sized for 2 million, and only about 670,000 live there now. You don’t find the critical mass of neighborhoods and pedestrians in New York or Chicago or parts of New Orleans.

Detroit has also big, wide avenues built for the kind of traffic that’s only seen after Tiger games let out, or there’s a festival downtown. Don’t let that daunt you: there’s plenty going on, it’s just that you’ll have lots of space around you as you’re exploring.

Here are 10 things to love about Detroit now.

1) and 2) Eat a crepe, munch a cookie. One of the most charming aspects of Detroit’s revival is that it has been led by crepes. You’ll find crepe places in main parts of the city, but the best known is Good Girls Go To Paris, a few steps from the Detroit Institute of Arts on East Kirby in Midtown. Get there early for a good seat and be prepared to share a table. The 50 varieties of crepes start at just $7, and can easily be shared. The “O” (feta, spinach, kalamata olives and Greek dressing) is ideal for salad lovers.

Skip a dessert crepe (although they’re delicious) and head nearby to Avalon International Breads. Avalon has grown from its original storefront in Detroit’s tough Cass Corridor to a thriving company whose breads and cookies are found in shops and restaurants all over the Detroit area. Its cafe is the centerpiece of an “agri-urban” movement it’s trying to foster, by focusing on local ingredients in a city environment. Try a Dequindre Cut trail mix cookie, chock full of cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, which has been known to double as a breakfast on early plane flights.

3) Cocktails in Corktown. The Corktown neighborhood, west of downtown, is the oldest in the city. It boasts cobblestone streets and some of the hippest renovated housing. There’s also been a flurry of new restaurants and bars, some of which have had various degrees of luck in staying open. One that’s enduring is The Sugar House, a 1920s-style craft cocktail bar on Michigan Avenue.

Detroit played a major role in prohibition. Stories tell of a legion of bootleggers running cases of whiskey across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, late at night, and landing on the city shores to be loaded into unmarked trucks. The Sugar House, like other bars here, brings that era back to mind. There’s punch service, for groups of three or four, and plenty of vividly named drinks. It’s not a big place, and when seats aren’t available, you’ll have to wait to get in, so time your visit.

4) Eye-catching colors. Southwest Detroit, home to the city’s growing Latino population, has undergone a metamorphosis in just a few years. Once, it was only a few streets, with tourist-focused Mexican restaurants. Now, Southwest Detroit, which some people call Mexicantown, sprawls along West Vernor Highway. There are shops, bakeries, taquerias and restaurants, and most notably, a series of murals.

The eyes of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera gaze out at passersby on the Bagley Street pedestrian bridge. Kahlo and Rivera lived in Detroit while he was painting his own murals inside the art institute, long a favorite tourist attraction. Nearby sits The Cornfield, on a wall at Ste. Anne and Bagley Streets, with its vivid imagery of Mexican farmers. There are enough murals to take an afternoon of art gazing. The murals are often being touched up, so feel free to chat with the painters while they are doing repairs.

5) Melting pot. Eastern Market, on Detroit’s near east side, is the oldest continuously operating public market in the United States. Every week, up to 40,000 people trek here for produce that is trucked in from Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. One of its biggest days of the year comes up May 19, when the annual flower market takes place. That’s when local gardeners lug home the flats they’ll plant for summer color.

Eastern Market underwent a renovation over the past few years, and its customers are a lively mix of Detroit residents – black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern. There’s a wholesale market that supplies many area restaurants and produce shops, and permanent stores and restaurants around the market’s perimeter. One favorite shop is the Rocky Peanut Company, which has been at the market for 110 years. You’ll find dried fruits, nuts, chocolate covered goodies and seasonal specialties.


6) Jump on a bike.
You might not think of the Motor City as a good cycling city. But those big wide (and often empty) streets are ideal for bicycling, and Wheelhouse Detroit has capitalized on that to offer two-wheeled tours of the city. From now until October, Wheelhouse offers trips every weekend and sometimes during the week. Its guides will take you to spots like Eastern Market, Belle Isle, the island park designed by the creator of Central Park in New York and to Hamtramck, the Polish enclave surrounded by the city.

There are architecture focused rides, a tour that looks at the city’s automotive heritage, visits to historic neighborhoods and more. Wheelhouse offers rentals of city style bikes, touring bikes, trek bikes, tandem bikes, and it rents child carriers as well. The company can create tours for groups and also can custom design a tour if your interests fall outside its regular categories.

7) Put a lid on it. There’s finally been some hustle and bustle in Detroit’s downtown retail district after a long spell in which stores stood empty. One place has stuck it out since 1893, however. Henry the Hatter is Detroit’s pre-eminent shop for men’s hats. Every man of distinction in the city has bought a hat at Henry’s. It has fedoras, caps, Borsalinos, straw hats, fishing hats. And given how many stylishly dressed men there are in the city, that’s a lot of hats.

Henry’s is a great place to hear conversations about everything that happens in the city, from the Detroit Tigers to Mayor Dave Bing (a hat wearer) to the latest place to eat. Given the vast selection, you’ll probably walk out with more than one chapeau. Because let’s face it, a man needs a hat.

8) Music and prayer. Detroit’s black churches have held the city together in its toughest times and one of the most important is the Greater Grace Temple on the city’s northwest side. Far from just a church, Greater Grace is the centerpiece of the $36 million City of David, a 19-acre complex that includes a conference center, media production facilities and a school. The church itself seats 4,000, serving a congregation of nearly 6,000.

There are two services each Sunday (one in the summer), providing an opportunity to meet Detroiters, listen to gospel music and hear a sermon by its eloquent senior pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis. Dress is business casual, but a number of women churchgoers use services as an opportunity to wear their newest hats. Many are purchased from local milliner Luke Song, the maker of Aretha Franklin’s inaugural chapeau.

9) The past and future. Detroiters are super sensitive about ruin porn. That’s the practice of photographing crumbling buildings, which some artists have turned into a livelihood. To be honest, Detroit offers plenty of opportunities to see the remains of its past, and it won’t overcome that hurdle until more renovation has taken place. But there’s one building in town where everyone wants to pose. It’s Michigan Central, the empty shell of the railroad station and office tower that was the line’s headquarters. Michigan Central, once the tallest railroad station building in the world, closed in 1988.

For years, the building (just off Michigan Avenue west of downtown) sat as a hulking reminder of Detroit’s past, its windows broken, its interior trashed. Threatened with demolition, the building was finally cleaned up in 2011. Now, there is active discussion about how it could be reused and a preservation society is seeking ideas. In the meantime, the building has become the city’s most famous backdrop and Roosevelt Park out front is a popular meeting spot. Realtors have even begun advertising apartments with a view of Michigan Central.

10) Batter up. Unless you hate baseball, there’s no excuse to visit Detroit and fail to see a baseball game. Given that Detroit made it to the World Series last year, you might think tickets would command steep prices. But deals abound, especially until the weather reliably warms up this summer. The Tigers are offering upper level box seats in May for $13, half the normal price.

Those cheap seats provide an opportunity to get the most out of a visit to Comerica Park. Arrive before game time, and stroll the concourse, which has a carousel and a Ferris wheel. Visit the statue of Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcaster. There’s also a booth behind Section 134 on the third base side where the Tigers sell authentic souvenirs, such as uniform jerseys, autographed balls and even bases.

[Photo credits: Austin Stowe and Micheline Maynard]

A Cast-Iron Church In Istanbul

Istanbul, cast iron church
This church on the shoreline of Istanbul looks ornate yet pretty normal – that is until you go up and take a closer look. The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church isn’t made of stone but rather of cast iron. It’s a rare survival of a 19th-century craze in prefab cast-iron churches.

Also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, its parts were cast in Vienna in 1871 and shipped down the Danube in a hundred barges to be assembled in Istanbul. This building marks an important time in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Bulgaria and Greece were both ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian Christians were under the domain of the Greek Patriarch, but the Bulgarians complained that he favored Greeks over Bulgarians. So the Sultan granted the Bulgarians their own Exarch, giving them a religious independence that they have to this day.

If you’re in Istanbul, head on over to this church, pull a coin out of your pocket and tap it against the wall. You’ll hear a loud ding ding ding that proves it’s really metal! Needless to say, iron buildings need love and care. Currently the building is undergoing restoration work so that it can amaze visitors and churchgoers for generations to come.

Liverpool can boast two cast-iron churches, St. Michael’s and St. George’s, although they are only partially iron. For the full prefab effect, you need to go to Istanbul.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Ani, The Ghost City


Ask someone to name tourist draws in Turkey and you’ll get the obvious: Istanbul, Cappadocia, Galipoli, maybe the beaches of Antalya. Some more familiar with the country might offer up the bizarre calcium cascades of Pamukkale, or the monstrous gods’ heads sculptures on Mount Nemrut. Nobody ever mentions Ani, a city that for a brief period 1,000 years ago was one of the cultural and commercial centers of the world.

The ruins of Ani, the erstwhile capital of an ancient Armenian kingdom, stand overlooked in the far east of Turkey, weathered by the elements and neglect. In 2010 the ruins were ignominiously singled out with 11 other sites by the Global Heritage Fund as places that were in danger of disappearing due to neglect and mismanagement. This is a travesty. Greek, Incan, Roman, Siamese, Mayan, Khmer – you name the civilization, the ruins of Ani are on par with all of them. They are the most astounding ruins you have never seen.

Part of the reason is distance. At over 900 miles from tourist central, Istanbul, Ani is actually closer to Baghdad and Tehran. It’s still 30 miles away from Kars, the nearest city of any note, and there is no public transportation to the site. In 2011, Turkey welcomed 31 millions visitors. Ani saw around 23,000. As you can see in this video, they traveled a while to get there:

A friend and I arrived on a dark day in mid-November. The fields, which in the spring are green and speckled with wildflowers, had shed their color and taken on sepia tones. The grasses were gold and yellow, and fallen bricks covered in green and rust-colored lichen littered the ground. An occasional flurry of snow would burst from the slate-grey sky and then vanish before it had time to settle on the ground. We slipped by the sleeping guard at the entrance and through one of Ani’s famed “40 gates,” a feature of the city’s rapid growth that rendered redundant much of its original fortifications. We had the entire ancient city to ourselves.

Ani is set on a triangular plateau that is naturally protected by a river on one side and a steep valley on another. On the other side of the river is modern-day Armenia. We heard low-frequency sounds from tractors and drills in a quarry across the border. Armenia developed this quarry to build the Yervan cathedral, wanting to use building material as close as possible to the original Ani stone. Unfortunately, blasts from the Armenian quarry have damaged the ruins.

The wind ushered these mechanical sounds through the valley and canyon, where they wrinkled and amplified into eerie moans. Swirling over the plateau in a swooping howl, these distorted noises were punctuated by piercing cries from low-flying eagles. It was more than a little spooky.

Ani’s “1,001 churches” now number only a handful. Some, like the Cathedral of Ani shown in the lead photo, look like they could have been designed recently. That they’re over 1,000 years old and not only structurally sound but architecturally fresh is remarkable. Others, though, in their cloaks of grasses, lichens and overgrowth, seem to slip into the background. All are in a woeful state. A lightning strike in the 1950s caused half of the Church of the Redeemer to collapse. Some of the rubble was collected and pushed against the side of the building in a half-hearted effort to prevent further ruin.

Archaeologically, the site is a shambles. The Church of the Apostles suffered damage when untrained landscapers went at the overgrowth with pickaxes. In the Church of St. Gregory, we found a worker had made a fireplace against one wall to keep warm, and the fire had scorched and blackened the entire apse. The Merchant’s Palace was rebuilt in 1999 using bricks of a different color, material, size and finish than the originals. Only a small section near the doorway in the bottom left of this photo is pre-1999.

Howard Carter is rolling in his grave.

Sometimes a good balance between decay and preservation can make for a more genuine encounter with history. I prefer to see a bit of nature crawling into old, dead buildings. It’s the way of things, and when you take it away entirely you end up with Wayne Newton ruins, frozen artificially in and inorganically buttressed against time. Few people would argue that Ta Prohm, the famous tree-entangled Angkor temple should be recovered from the jungle.

The restoration of Ani has gotten it wrong in both directions. The very few sections that have been recovered have been turned into ersatz monstrosities like the example above. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings are crumbling and falling down by the day.

In a way, Ani’s perverse treatment in death reflects the sad historical trajectory of the city. In its heyday during Armenian (Bagratid) rule, as the guidebooks like to say, it was a city on par with other world capitals: Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad. In reality, Ani’s population, and by extension its importance, was only about a fifth of these other cities’. It was, however, highly regarded as a center of commerce and culture. The unique architectural artistry of the churches was widely renowned.

When it was made the capital of Ashot III’s Bagratid Kingdom in 971, it grew into a major hub on the Silk Road, connecting Syria and Byzantium with Persia and Central Asia. The seat of Armenian Catholicism moved there in 992, and churches and dioceses sprouted up like dandelions. At its peak, the city had 12 bishops.

Then, on a fateful day in 1064, her citizens yielded to a 25-day siege by Sedjuk Turks. They were subsequently massacred. After the sacking, the city never really recovered. It changed hands countless times, passing from the Armenians to the Turks to the Kurds to the Georgians to the Persians. Even the Mongols sacked the city. After a drawn-out twilight, the city was abandoned completely in the 1700s.

Ani’s current decline is the result of icy diplomatic relations between Ankara and Yerevan. Armenia often claims Turkey is purposefully letting their cultural touchstone descend into decrepitude. Past actions don’t help matters. After retaking Ani in post-WWI border skirmishes, the Turkish government ordered Ani’s monuments “wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Modern Turkish diktats aren’t nearly so explicit. While Turkey deflects accusations of willful destruction, other Turkish activities are at best antagonistic. In 2010, majority-Christian Armenia was enraged when a Turkish politician uttered a Muslim prayer in the Cathedral of Ani. Later that year, Elle Turkey shot a fashion spread amid the ruins, which Armenians say disrespected the site. Armenians also complain about local cowherds encouraging their cows to graze on Ani’s pastures. And not without reason: when we entered one of the 1,000-year-old churches, we found cows had taken shelter there and defecated in the building.

After walking around the ruins for almost five hours, the sky began to darken noticeably and we made our way back to the car. The sleeping guard had disappeared by the time we returned, and had locked the gate on the way out. For a brief moment, we were trapped in time in a dead city. We had to scale one of Ani’s 1,000-year-old walls to get out. A sudden snow flurry pursued us like a ghostly whisper at our back as we drove away from the city walls.

Things are changing for the ghosts of Ani, though. From 2011 to 2012, the number of visitors doubled. Turkey is gradually coming around to the view that Ani is a potential tourism gold mine and is starting to change its tune. A quick glance at The Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s leading English-language paper, illuminates the shift. From 2006 until late 2010, there were no mentions of Ani in the headlines. In September of 2010, the aforementioned politician came a-praying in Ani’s cathedral, an act that the paper called a response to an Armenian prayer gathering earlier that month. In 2011, a travelogue’s first mention of Ani is in reference to the greatness of Turkey. In August 2012, it was a “historic site in Kars province”; in October, “the capital of an ancient Armenian Kingdom”; and in March 2013, “the center of a powerful Armenian empire.”

More visitors potentially means more damage, but it also means that Ani finally has a shot, if only in death, at being restored to its former renown. If all goes well, Ani could be set for the pilgrimage it has been waiting for for almost 1,000 years.

[Photo credit: Flick user sly06 for the spring photos, all others Adam Hodge]

Crypts Discovered Under Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral
Workers at Coventry Cathedral in England have discovered several well-preserved crypts underneath the ruins, the Daily Mail reports.

A maintenance team has been working to repair a crack in the ruins of the 14th century St. Michael’s church, which became a cathedral in 1918 and was mostly destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II. When the workers investigated the floor of the cathedral, they discovered nine hidden crypts dating back to the 1350s. They also discovered some bones, thought to be of Coventry’s nobility. Coventry was a wealthy and important city in medieval England and the crypts reflect that in their fine workmanship.

Despite being in ruins, the cathedral is still holy ground as well as a historic monument. The World Monuments Fund has put it on its Watch List to highlight its deteriorating condition. The current cathedral is located right next to it. Cathedral officials announced that they hope to open the crypts to the public to augment what is already the most popular tourist site in Coventry.

The BBC has released a short video of the crypts.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Walker]

Photo Of The Day: A Plus Cathedral

Photo of the day: Rio de Janeiro cathedral
Today is March 14, also known as Pi Day (in case it’s been awhile since you took math, pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, 3.14), a day to celebrate mathematics, or just eat some pie. If you are in Cambridge, Massachusetts, today and can remember a good portion of the many digits of pi, you might get to eat some free pie. Today’s Photo of the Day by Flickr user autisticglobetrotting2010 is a bit math-inspired: the cross at the ceiling of Rio de Janeiro‘s San Sebastian Cathedral hints at a plus sign. The modernist cone-shaped church is highlighted by four enormous stained glass windows that form at the top with a cross. Designed to echo the Mayan pyramids, the distinctive structure is hard to miss in the Rio skyline.

Share your travel photos in the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day, and happy pie-eating!

[Photo credit: Flickr user autisticglobetrotting2010]