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]