Celeste Headlee Introduces You to Detroit

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 - 12:00 AM

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.

flickr user pverdonk
Detroit's "Fisher Building"
flickr user dfb
Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts
flickr user bnhsu
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Greenfield Village
flickr user Rex Roof
Dinner and Dessert at Lafayette Coney Island
flickr user MacQ
Bakers Keyboard Lounge
flickr user StSaling
Dr. Ossian Sweet's house
flickr user Maia C
Pewabic Pottery tiles
flickr user ehisforadam
Flaming Cheese in Greektown
flickr user Molly Des Jardin
Detroit's 8-mile wall
flickr user Rex Roof
A puppet from Detroit's PuppetART theater

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Comments [14]

Jim Kastely

As a life long Metro Detroit resident I loved Celeste's article. Detroit has lots problems however what Detroit has is great people. People who care. People who will reach out to other to help. I am proud to be a Detroiter.

Sep. 28 2011 07:11 PM
Eric from Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

I am so happy to see this piece!
I first visited Detroit about three years ago and truly fell in love with the city. You can just feel the energy downtown...if you stop and just let it envelope you.
Being a Southerner I'd always heard all the negatives about Detroit, but was always anxious to experience the city for myself. (I rarely take the word of others on such matters.) And I'm so glad I did.
Since my first visit I've been back four times and have a fifth trip on my schedule.
Sure, Detroit has its problems. But the city seems to finally be in good hands with Mayor Bing and a clutch of others who truly care about building Detroit back to its former glory. But be not mistaken...there's plenty of glory still to be enjoyed.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

May. 03 2010 11:58 AM
Ron Fudge from New York

I have many fond memories of Detroit circa 1980.A complete meal with flaming cheese, spinach pie, Moussaka at Hellas's in 'Greek town' and then next door for fresh 'Baklava'. Living in Palmer Park in an art deco apartment in what I later found out to be a historical district, two blocks from the Palmer Park tennis courts, 5 blocks from Bakers Keyboard lounge and 15 minutes from downtown. Bakers where I heard Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Richard Groove Holmes, and a multitude of Jazz luminaries. Where Earl Kluge was a regular performer and listener along with other local but internationally known musicians. Not to forget Dummy George's on McNichols, or Watts Club Mozambique, and the international Jazz café. Days spent riding my bike around through historic neighborhoods each with its unique architecture. The Roma café near the Eastern Market, weekly shopping on Saturday morning at the Eastern Market where a friend was shocked on seeing a fresh butchered hog for the first time. The Spice shop in the market, talking about new asparagus with a Michigan farmer's wife from Belize, Strolling through Lafayette park during lunch time, playing 'sick' from work to stroll through the plaza during the Montreux in Detroit jazz festival. The tiny beach on Belle Isle, fund raisers at the Rooster tail on belle Isle, Hudson's warehouse sale, an old historical theatre in Grosse Point, wandering through the auto museum, Blues at the Soup Kitchen, drinks and meeting new people at the Rhinoceros, Bob-o-Lo boat rides, just sitting and talking at the Belle Isle fountain. I could do all of this in just one weekend. Knowing the people of Detroit I'm betting that this will all be back.

Apr. 30 2010 10:57 AM
dfb from Los Angeles

Thank you for pointing out that Detroit does have some positive points and is not all bad. The DIA is so much better than pictures can show. The museum really does stack up well against the biggest and baddest museums in the world. It is in the same class as the British Museum and Louvre, and it isn't known for looted treasures. The Diego Rivera mural is my favorite piece of art. Even better than Coney Island is the Polish food. I suggest a trip to Hamtramck (bordered on all sides by Detroit) to either the Polish Village Cafe (http://www.flickr.com/photos/geodanny/512983661/in/photostream/) or its more famous counterpart Under the Eagle. And let's not forget Paczki Day! ;-)

This article underscores the sentiment by most that Detroit = Metro Detroit. Thus, the inclusion of the River Rouge plant, Greenfield Village (the attached Henry Ford Museum is just as excellent an attraction), and Cranbrook. All are outside the City of Detroit. In that regard folks like Jerry Fields are wrong and mischaracterize the people. This is about Metro Detroit, not just Detroit. There are people in most cities, including the city and suburban Detroit, but not everyone, who fit his description. I've lived in L.A. and the S.F. Bay Area and run into people like that. The problems that plague the City of Detroit are numerous, complex, and run the gamut from poverty to corrupt officials. Trying to boil it down and paint a broad brush is wrong. It is encouraging to see real and practical approaches to Detroit's problems in the past couple of years such as ending city services to the rural parts of the city, but that's another story. Too often, media only touch on the negatives of Detroit. As Celeste chose to write about, let's focus on the positives for once. :-)

I see a bright future for the city, especially if the city government gets its act together. The most precious natural resource in the world is water. Ironically, water is in short supply elsewhere in the country (like out West, where I live, and even down South). The city and state should play up their excellent access to water, cheap housing, cheap labor costs, and plentiful electrical power (Fermi II nuclear plant), and excellent university educated workforce. They might be surprised how well they'd attract companies looking to break ties with Asia/China to produce more closer to their marketplace.

Apr. 30 2010 01:50 AM
Linda Johnson from Detroit, MI

This morning there were at least 60 comments here. What happened to them?

Apr. 29 2010 07:22 PM
Gabe from Metro Detroit

I could not agree more with Celeste; it is the people that make me love Detroit. I have had the good fortune of traveling and living abroad, yet I chose to settle down and raise a family in this area primarily because of the people. There is a genuineness about Detroiters that I truly admire and cherish.

Last year, Neal Rubin of The Detroit News wrote a story that underscores the type of person we have here, where a Detroit stranger helped out a couple of honeymooners from South Dakota who were stranded at Metro Airport. I encourage you to read this heartwarming story at http://detnews.com/article/20090820/OPINION03/908200370/A-Detroit-stranger-befriends-stranded-honeymooners.

I recognize that many of us, no matter where we come from, would probably do the same for these honeymooners. But when you come from a city that has been battered by a barrage of negative media coverage, stories like this one are necessary to counterbalance the negativity.

Apr. 29 2010 11:06 AM
Ray from Detroit

You are a shinning diamond in detroit we need more people like yourself to see the big picture of a City Like Detroit. Detroit is like a great civilization that fell i.e., Rome, Egypt. but there is great potential in restoring it's hostorical contributions to civilization as we know it. My part in helping restore the Motorcity is through formulating LIteracy Plans for those less fortunate. I look forward to having a welcoming to the Motorcity lunch with you someday Celeste you are a person that recognizes quality keep up the hope.

Apr. 29 2010 10:05 AM

I have lived in Detroit on and off for many years. Each time I leave, I move to another state where people ask me if I really lived “in” Detroit. And the answer is yes. Each time I leave, I am inevitably drawn back to Detroit. It took me a long time to figure out what it was that I missed each time I moved away.

It's easy to draw broad generalizations about the city and its surrounding areas. It's easy to create a distinction between "us" versus "them" and claim "they" don't share the same values. But what draws me back to Detroit, and what is rarely recognized by people who are busy drawing lines in the sand, is the sense of community in this city. It is unlike any place I have lived and I've lived in 9 states and more than 30 different places. It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from; if you need help, Detroiters will help you. But be forewarned - it may not always take the form you thought it would.

But that sums up Detroit - it may not always take the form you think it should. But it's there. It survives because its residents are survivors. But you'll never see that if you fall prey to the us/them dichotomy. And you’ll never understand the complexity of this city and its people by looking at it as though it is an artifact to be studied. Come to Detroit. Sit in a local bar or restaurant and talk to people. Explore our stories and our histories. Join our struggles rather than pointing fingers. And soon enough, like Celeste, you will find that Detroit is more than you expected.

Apr. 29 2010 09:44 AM
Carol Schoch from Detroit

Celeste -

I am also a transplant to Detroit and very much agree with you about the kindness of its people.

After reading some of the other posts made so far, I would like to suggest that perhaps the way to build community in this culturally rich city is to focus on the arts, which have CONSISTENTLY been a strong, positive ingredient of which Detroiters could feel proud. While industry, education, city politics, commerce, sports and the overall economy have had their ups and downs, Detroit’s output of creativity in all art forms has continually been of the highest standard.

As a person who has grown up in a musical home, I thought you might be interested in a program aimed at bringing together Detroit area children through the power and discipline of choral singing in a way that strengthens team building, creativity, social interaction, understanding and connection - the Detroit Children’s Choir (DCC).

DCC had its annual Spring concert last Saturday. Among the many high points of the concert, over 150 young people led the audience in singing, ‘I Need You to Survive’. As you know, when times get tough (think 9-11 and the legislators singing on the steps of the Nation’s Capitol!), we turn to music to soothe the soul and inspire the spirit.

The toughest part of growing this choir program, which has the potential of equipping our children to succeed in very real ways, is proving its worth to those who are looking for measurable results.

We would love it if you could champion this program by speaking out about what choral singing can do for the individual and the community!

Detroit Children’s Choir has the motto, ‘Singing for a better Detroit.’ We believe that if we get the children of Detroit singing together, THEY will make the difference, bringing the area’s divided populations together through their music.

Apr. 29 2010 09:22 AM
Jason X Gilmore from Detroit, USA

The one trait that I can say I love the most about Detroit is the people. I have never met people like Detroiters. I was born, raised, and educated in Detroit. No other city or country that I have ever visited have the indominable spirit that Detroiters have. In the face of overwhelming advesity, despair, and taunting, Detroiters always seem to have something to smile about and a smile to offer. Never underestimate the power of attitude.

Apr. 29 2010 09:07 AM
Jerry Fields from New York


I grew up in Southfield. My father's business was in Detroit. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and as an adult have spent some time studying the demise of the city. What is missing from the discussions I have heard is the fact that something close to a majority of Detroiters, like generational poor everywhere, embrace a self-destructive value system.

They don't value education. Look at the drop out rates. And that's High School drop outs, not PhD drop outs. Hence, businesses do not locate there because there is little educated workforce to employ.

They don't value a family structure where both parents live together and share in raising their children. Look at the figures. The numbers of children born out of wedlock, and raised by one parent, often a grandparent, are insane they're so high.

And they don't value community. The churches organize people, to some degree, but the community does not organize itself, helping to found businesses, police its streets, take care of each other. To the contrary, it actively tears itself apart. Look at the drug abuse, murder and assault figures. (Actually, the reality is much worse than the figures suggest. Many of these crimes are not kept track of by the Detroit Police Department. I know this from first hand experience, and connections my family once had with the Detroit Police Department. This is a scandal for another conversation, but worthy of investigation if you want to talk about something meaningful and not merely lipstick over the city as you've been doing so far, from what I've heard of your broadcasts.)

Look at how the Irish, unwelcome in the extreme when they came over during the famine, and at the turn of the 20th century, pulled together as a group. Look how poor Jews did the same fleeing the Pogroms of Russia, also unwelcomed. And again, helped each other as an unwelcomed community when they emigrated here after WWII.

Look at how the Mormons, shot at in Illinois back when their settlement was Navoo on the Mississippi, picked up, moved to Utah, and have, as a community helped each other and prospered mightily.

The people who currently call themselves Detroiters don't do that.

The list goes on of unwelcome ethnic and religious groups who valued education, family, community and hard work and as a result lifted themselves up.

If you want to do more than a ditsy puff piece, investigate what values healthy communities embrace, then compare those to the self destructive values of generational poor across the nation. Then you'll have justified your time on the radio, and understand the story of Detroit.

Apr. 29 2010 08:15 AM
Mike and Carmen Kelly

The most important element and the most often missed by national and sadly most local media is the incredible vitality and creativity of the people of Detroit who have long been engaged in positive work to give birth to a new society. Perhaps the fact that this is being done without seeking permission or approbation from the old discredited power centers is why. To get a sense of some of this emerging energy check out the frollowing: www.boggscenter.org www.boggsblog.org YouTube Boggscenter
Detroit City of Hope - www.dcoh.org

Apr. 29 2010 08:14 AM
Dennis Archambault from Detroit

The struggle of Detroit to resolve its postindustrial transition, its historic racial divide, and regional polarization has been well-documented locally and nationally. Arguably, it has been, and continues to be a great American city -- in its cultural significance. For that reason, the extremity of its struggle should be of concern to all Americans. Whether you look at manufacturing, crime, education, urban design, health care -- these are all problems faced throughout America.

What is important for journalists and those truly interested in Detroit's struggle is that it is complex. It is not a story of the demise of the "old" Detroit -- the 1960s image of the bustling urban city and its symbols of commerce -- but of a region that is trying to find itself in a dramatically changed world.

Detroit has a gradually evolving new economy, just as it has a slowly reviving old economy -- it's just that both have been battered by the recession. And despite the overhwelming despair, the people of this city/region remain hopeful. It seems insufficient to point to anything one loves about this city, or a trend that would indicate that it is emerging from its struggle -- except that its will to continue the struggle hasn't been diminished. That, I think, is where the story of the "new" Detroit begins.

Apr. 29 2010 06:49 AM
Amyre Loomis from Brooklyn, ny

Thank you - finally an advocate, an angel to promote a positivite perspective of the Detroit Metropolitan area. Also, let's remember the endless opportunities provided to people of color in Detroit - including longtime Michiganders like my father's family, as well as those folks that migrated from the south, and many who came earlier through the Underground Railroad. And, the D is the first big city with Black people in powerful professional positions; a large African American middle class / intellectual class of colored folks has been in place going back almost 150 years (at least in my family). The D is my favorite city too, and you're reporting has made me shed a happy tear.

Apr. 28 2010 10:07 PM

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