By Carla Marie Rupp
While Detroit’s well-publicized financial turmoil has tarnished its image, there is a bright side to its story as well.
While the city has always been one of America’s great urban centers, offering travelers plenty of things to see and do, today’s tumult has brought Detroiters together and they’re making the city better than ever. Several well-known businesses have relocated into the downtown area, where residential occupancy now stands at an unbelievable 98%.
The message is that visitors don’t have to wait for a full comeback to enjoy all the city has to offer. In fact, it may be better to visit today than wait until the crowds come.
Detroit, Safer Than People Think
I visited Detroit two weeks ago, arriving not knowing what to expect. But Bill Vreeland, an old friend from New York City, who arrived here 30 years ago to be a white soul singer, and then stayed because of the art and culture, was one of many who put my mind to rest. “It’s a lot safer than people think,” he told me.
Phyllis Tatro-Fleming, a childhood friend from Kansas, who lives with her husband in the suburbs, loves coming into the city for all the sports. And with the Tigers (baseball), Lions (football) Red Wings (hockey) and Pistons (basketball), professional sports are here galore. “But there’s even so much more to do than sports,” Phyllis said, something I soon found out for myself.
Detroit, I discovered, is a terrific, affordable destination. In the renaissance now underway in the Motor City Detroiters appear to have bonded together to rebuild their city and help one another. Amid the lobby-sculpture and wall art of the Westin Book Cadillac hotel, for example, hotel execs have also prominently placed a bicycle made by Shinola, a local company. It typified the “I believe” philosophy I encountered all over the city.
In Heaven in Motown
In addition to hearing much about Detroit’s future from enthused believers, I also saw and enjoyed much about its past.
A music lover, early on in my week I took a narrated Motown Historical Tour of the home of Motown Records, founded by entrepreneur Berry Gordy, Jr. There I stood in the now-famous Studio A where such idols as the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and others recorded.
The home of Motown Records from 1959 to 1972, the tour of this small museum reveals the remarkable story of Motown’s impact on 20th-century popular culture and musical styles. Lively guide Peggy Adams got us all singing and clapping to songs like “My Girl” and “Baby Love” and I felt I was in heaven singing those songs in the actual place they were recorded.
Today the city continues to offer great music, typified by such events as the Detroit Jazz Festival on the Labor Day weekend. Yo Yo Ma performed the week before my visit with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Detroit Is a Cornucopia of Americana
As much as Detroit is associated with music, one can’t visit without also becoming immersed in its automobile history. At the Ford Rouge factory tour, I enjoyed chatting with a guide, a retired Ford assembly plant worker, while watching Ford F-150 pick-ups being assembled.
At Greenfield Village, a short ride from downtown, I rode in a Model T around the celebrated village that contains many famous homes and buildings transported there by Henry Ford. It’s a wonderful slice of Americana that you’ll find nowhere else.
I was even more mesmerized by the adjacent Henry Ford Museum, a mini-Smithsonian, of sorts. It contains exhibits about cars, of course, but also an exceptional wealth of displays of other Americana.
You can see everything from the chair in which Lincoln was shot to an old East-coast diner (still serving lunch), as well as the bus in which Rosa Parks made her memorable stand for civil rights (I had a friend take a picture of me sitting in her seat), displays of aircraft, pop culture and much more. You can even see up-close the limousines of several U.S. Presidents, including the one in which JFK was assassinated.
History and Art Galore
I discovered other bits of art and Americana all over the city from the art deco of the Guardian building downtown to the well-preserved Ford Piquette Plant. The plant remains largely unchanged from its original 1904 appearance, and it was thrilling to visit the secret Experimental Room on the third floor where Ford developed the Model T. In the Detroit Historical Museum I enjoyed walking on the renovated Streets of Old Detroit, recreating scenes from the 1840’s, 1870’s and early 1900’s.
In the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in the downtown cultural district I found much more. The fifth-largest art museum in the country with over 100 galleries containing art from ancient to modern it’s a cornucopia of beauty. One of its most famous possessions is Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco.
Detroit’s renaissance is driven by people who don’t want to replace the city but rather take its history, culture and beautiful architecture and update it, building upon the best for a new generation. And they are making a difference.
Just as innovators like Gordy and Ford made a difference, today’s Detroiters – both individuals and community groups – are making a difference, as well. And despite the financial guillotine that hangs over their heads, they continue to push on to develop a more vibrant, culturally infused city.
“You want to believe they’re coming back,” Roderick Eime, a visitor from Sydney, Australia told me. “You bet I do. They’re like the battered boxer that just won’t lie down or throw in the
If you go:
Detroit Historical Museum
5401 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI 48202
Motown Historical Museum
2648 West Grand Blvd.
Detroit, MI 48208
Admission: Prior to May 1, 2014, $10 adults ($8 over 62), $8, children (12 and under)
May 1, 2014 $15 adults ($10 over 62), $8 for children