I am not a native Detroiter. In fact, I wasn't thrilled about moving there when I took a job with WDET in 2001. I'd heard all the same things you have, about the crime, the poverty, the burnt out buildings and abandoned homes ... and all of my friends and family were horrified to know that I was taking my 3-year-old cherub to the "Murder Capital."
But we moved into an apartment in the heart of downtown Detroit and decided to check into what kind of activities were going on around us. What a surprise! For a girl that grew up near Los Angeles, I was stunned to discover the incredible number of concerts, plays, gallery exhibits, lectures, fairs, and festivals that went on within a 20 minute drive of my building. We couldn't make time to get to everything. I immediately purchased a membership to the Detroit Zoo, the Detroit Science Center, and Greenfield Village... and every weekend was filled with strolls through the DIA, concerts at the Symphony Hall, craft projects at the Historical Museum, biking at Belle Isle or picnicking at the Metro Park.
Detroit is also impossibly rich in history. This city has been important since the days of the French; it has never been insignificant. And all of that history is still here: the forts from pre-Revolutionary days, the Indian burial mounds, the remains of cobblestone streets, the wooden homes of Irish immigrants in Corktown, the burnt skeletons of houses that fell during the riots. You see the opulent mansions of auto executives and the fantastic architecture of the wealthy '20's, right next to a ramshackle apartment house. There's the gleaming dome of a mosque, near the wall that was built to physically separate a white neighborhood from the nearby black families.
For a fairly long period of time, Detroit was the wealthiest city in the country and among the wealthiest in the world. Detroiters surrounded themselves with gorgeous architecture and fabulous landscapes like the sculpture gardens at Cranbrook. They endowed the art museum so that it now has one of the finest collections on the planet. Greenfield Village is amazing, but we also have the first Arab-American historical museum and the Lionel train site. You can skip over to Battle Creek and see how they make Kellogg's cereal (that guy was an interesting character), and then travel north and sled down the sand dunes in Sleeping Bear Park. Everything here is unique, with lots of residents anxious to wax rhapsodical about its history. And I haven't even mentioned the music. Holy moly! Such music ...
However, it's not the activities or art or music or the history that make me love Detroit. It is the people. When the Motor City hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, sports reporters from all over the world commented on how beautiful the downtown area was, how surprised they were to see clean sidewalks, lively restaurants and bustling shops. But do you know what the most common comment was? "The people are so nice!" That's right. After pouring millions into the downtown area, the city's most valuable asset was its residents. Those kind, honest Midwesterners who look you in the eye and give you directions with a smile.
That's what truly sets this city apart. Until I moved to Detroit, I had never known such a place existed: where people didn't just offer help, but actually helped. In the D, both my son and I were embraced, surrounded with welcome and warmth and completely unpretentious interest. As a single mother on my own with a toddler, you can't imagine how it felt to be encircled by complete strangers who would babysit, move boxes, cook dinner, and help change tires. On elevators, at concerts, in the library, and outside the elementary school, there they were: the wonderful people of metro Detroit. I loved them instantly and, by extension, their city.
When you come to Detroit with an open mind, ready to see beyond the empty storefronts and the urban poverty, you see a vibrant city that is bursting at the seams with life and culture and passion. Eventually, you don't just understand the fierce love that Detroiters have for their city: You share it.
I've included a list of things to do in Detroit, and I'll try to give you a mini-tour of my favorite city. These are suggestions for the visitor, not the native Detroiter who knows the area and is willing to find the nooks and crannies in the D.
Detroit's Fisher Building (flickr user pverdonk
Fisher Building - Just one example of the fabulous art deco buildings in Detroit, built by Albert Kahn. When Kahn got the job, the Fisher Brothers told him to create the most beautiful building in the world. Originally, the tower was gilded with gold, but that was replaced with terra cotta during World War II. It has a tower that was meant to be Detroit's Eiffel, and inside is a high, vaulted ceiling covered with bronze, gold leaf, and marble from Africa, Italy and the United States.
Eastern Market, on Flower Day(flickr user Dig Downtown Detroit
Eastern Market on Saturday morning - Bring cash and a big bag, and you definitely don't want to miss flower day if you're there in May. Get there early because about 150,000 people go there annually to buy pansies and daisies and celebrate the advent of Spring.
Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts (flickr user dfb
The Rivera Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts - Actually, just spend a few hours marvelling at the amazing collection at the DIA. One of the most spectacular collections of American Art in the world. It's the second-largest public museum in the country, with a collection valued at well over a billion dollars: Whistlers' Falling Rockets, a Van Gogh self-portrait, Degas' dancers, Breugel's Wedding Dance... it's absolutely impossible to give you an idea of the kind of works this museum keeps in its climate-controlled rooms. You simply have to go see them.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Greenfield Village (flickr user bnhsu
Greenfield Village - So, here's the story of Greenfield Village. Henry Ford was a history buff, and he was also quite wealthy. So, he traveled around the country buying historic buildings and then moving them to Michigan to display in his 240-acre "village." Here's what Ford had to say about his museum: "I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used... When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition."
In this park you'll find Noah Webster's Connecticut home, the Wright brothers' bicycle shop, Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory, Henry Ford's birthplace and the Logan County, Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law... not pictures or recreations: the actual buildings.
Dinner and Dessert at Lafayette Coney Island (flickr user Rex Roof
Lafayette Coney Island - Detroit is divided into two kinds of people: those who eat Lafayette Coneys and those who swear by American. ("Coneys," by the way, is the local term for others call "hot dogs.") Both restaurants are close to each other, so you can decide for yourself. Detroit's coneys are unique and totally unlike anything you'll get in New York or Chicago. While you're there, pick up some chili cheese fries, then hop on the People Mover, get off at the Renaissance Center, and enjoy your coneys sitting on a bench at the River Walk, gazing across the Detroit River to Canada. Interesting fact: Detroit is the only major US city that is actually north of Canada.
Bakers Keyboard Lounge (flickr user MacQ
Baker's Keyboard lounge - At 76 years old, it is the world's oldest jazz club. Fats Waller played here, and so did Meade Lux, Errol Garner, Art Tatum, and Tommy Flanagan. And that wasn't even the heyday for this club. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, they hosted everyone who was anyone in jazz: Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Krupa, Corea, Calloway and Carter. Even Liberace couldn't resist getting a look at the keyboard-shaped club.
Dr. Ossian Sweet's house (flickr user StSaling
Dr. Ossian Sweet's House - The house at 2905 Garland was the home of a young, successful doctor in the 1920's who bought this bungalow for his family and then had to defend it with guns against a white mob. The succeeding trial became one of the pivotal cases in America's troubled civil rights history, and the one that Clarence Darrow pointed to as his best-argued.
Pewabic Pottery tiles (flickr user Maia C
Pewabic pottery - Detroit was a center for the Arts and Crafts movement in the U.S., and one of its stars was ceramic artist and teacher Mary Chase Perry Stratton. Her 1903 pottery still stands and still creates ceramic tiles in her kiln, with that distinctive, iridescent glaze that made Stratton famous.
A puppet from Detroit's PuppetART theater (flickr user Rex Roof
PuppetART theater - There are an incredible number of performance venues in downtown Detroit, and all worthwhile. I am highlighting the PuppetArt Theatre simply because you could walk past it otherwise and not even know that it's there. A group of master puppeteers from the Soviet Union founded this tiny theatre in 1998 and the shows are tiny, perfectly crafted gems. Well worth the trip.
the Ford River Rouge Complex (flickr user jshyun
Ford Rouge Factory Tour - You can't come to Detroit without learning something about cars. The first factory on this site, though, was used to build warships to hunt down German subs during World War I. At one time, the Rouge was a "city without residents," with more than 100 miles of railroad track, a modern police department, a hospital and a large fire department.
Detroit's Motown Museum (flickr user shaung
Motown Museum - There's not much to say about this, other than you must see it if you go to Detroit.
Flaming Cheese in Greektown (flickr user ehisforadam
Flaming Cheese in Greektown - Saganaki in the place that was a haven for immigrants in Detroit. First, Germans and then Greeks. Grab a pastry at the Astoria Bakery and then walk over to the Second Baptist Church of Detroit. It was the home of Michigan's first African-American congregation and was often the last stop on the Underground Railroad before escaping slaves made it across the river to Canada.
Detroit's 8-mile wall (flickr user Molly Des Jardin
The wall near Eight Mile and Wyoming - This is a sad landmark, but an important one. It is a concrete wall, about a foot thick and more than five feet tall. It is the only physical remnant of America's apartheid system. Here's an excerpt from the great website of historian Ren Farley: "Some Detroit blacks sought to escape their confinement to the Hastings Streets neighborhoods and moved into this area where they built small homes. With the coming of World War II, a developer sought to build homes for middle-class whites in this neighborhood. He began his development but was dismayed to find out that the Federal Housing Administration would not back up any mortgages since the Home Owners Loan Corporation coded the area in red. To overcome this challenge, he built a concrete wall, 6 feet in height and one-half mile long to indicate very clearly that whites and blacks would not be living in the same neighborhood. The Federal Housing Administration then approved loans for whites." At some point, someone spray painted the following phrase onto the wall: Only on 8 Mile.