Detroit is a narrative of devastating collapse and inspiring reinvention. The mix of the haunting old and the beginnings of new progress is enthralling. The city landscape is constantly evolving and radiates an infectious spirit of growth.
A knowledge of Detroit’s history is fundamental in understanding the city and its culture today. Detroit grew rapidly following mass immigration into the city of promised prosperity, often referred to as the ‘Motor City’ for its car industry. Jobs were available in abundance and many migrant communities prospered and grew. The city became one of the wealthiest in the world. However, with this expansion also came a growth in racial tensions and inequalities as well as increased demonstrations against the Vietnam War and conscription. On July 23rd, starting at 3am, Detroit erupted into the largest riot the country had seen since the New York draft riots in more than 100 years before. The spark that ignited the flame was a raid on an after-hours nightclub. Members of the Detroit Police Department raided the nightclub, the “blind pig”, in a black area of the city and arrested many punters, including two black veterans recently returned from the Vietnam War. A crowd gathered in anger and from there the scene erupted and the city grew into rioting and looting. After five days of unrest, 43 people were dead, hundreds injured and more than 7,000 arrested. More than this, 2509 buildings were completely destroyed. After the riots, the city’s population decreased at an alarming rate particularly through the growth of the ‘white flight.’ The years after were increasingly unstable and financial problems continued and culminated in the 2013 filing for bankruptcy by Detroit. The city fell from a great height, once holding place as one of the world’s wealthiest city’s to a devastating state of bankruptcy. The newly released blockbuster ‘Detroit’ explores this era and is worth watching before you visit the city.
Knowing this history of turmoil and downfall, you may be thinking: Why is Detroit your suggested destination? The inspirational story of Detroit’s rebirth following these hard times is unique and exudes throughout the city from its landscape and people. The revitalisation of urban space is outstanding as artists, entrepreneurs and investors move in an work with the old city. Vacant lots are turned into urban farms, abandoned buildings are renovated into art studios, cafes and museums. This raw urban character is completely unique. Upmarket restaurants, shops, museums and new architecture are all increasing at a rapid rate.
The city’s gem is certainly the Detroit Institute of Arts. Opened in 1927, during the post WW1 auto-industry boom, the museums is massive and full of stunning collections. The museum covers 658,000 square feet and houses 100 galleries, a 1,150-seat auditorium, a 380-seat lecture hall, an art reference library and a conservation services laboratory. With around 66,000 works, the DIA’s collection is among the top 6 in the USA. The collections diversity is excellent, holding American, European, Modern, Graphic as well as significant works from African, Asian, Native American and ancient art. In 2000, the General Motors Centre for African American Art was created as a curatorial department in order to establish a significant and broad collection of African American Art. The current primary exhibition running until October 22nd, is ‘Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement.’ The exhibition is thought-provoking and stunning, exploring powerful artworks by African American artists who formed collectives during the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Another fascinating delve into the history of African-Americans in the city is the The Museum of African-American History. Their story in Detroit and wider Michigan is told through a range of exhibits including the underground railway that gave slaves a means of escape from Michigan to Canada.
For a real understanding of the ‘Motor City’s’ past, take a trip to the Henry Ford Museum. The museum walks through the technological and industrial inventions of the US and exhibits the very first steam locomotive and the first ever Ford car. A short bus drive from the museum takes you to the Ford Rouge Factory tour. The auto industry remains central to the identity of Detroit and the Ford Factory tour journeys through this culture and economy. Two short films are shown regularly about the plant’s history as well as a guided tour of the assembly lines and some classic like the 1965 Ford Mustang. The Ford Rouge Factor is located in Dearborn, about 20 minutes away from the city centre and Dearborn is an exciting place to explore with a strong Middle Eastern culture running through it.
Often overlooked as an important aspect of Detroit’s culture is its Motown legacy- hometown of Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Madonna. The Motown Historical Museum is home to Motown’s first recording studio and one of Michal Jackson’s hats. The studios are where Berry Gordy Jr. built Motown’s huge roster, which included hits from Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.
A tour of the architecture of Detroit is captivating in itself, as each building represents a different stage in the development of the city. The Michigan Cental Station, built in 1913, was intended to be a gateway to the Midwest. However, it soon began to fall by the late 70’s and no trains have left the station now since the 80’s. Graffitied and falling apart, the train station often serves as a symbol of the city’s collapse. In saying this, you might recognise the building as its starred in many Hollywood films like Transformers. Recent talk of renovation inspires hope for the station and eventually it could become a symbol of the city’s rebirth. The Art Deco Fisher building is also a reminder of the city’s past. It’s an architectural gem, designed by Albert Kahn and it was supposed to have a second tower but the great Depression prevented this being completed. The tower has restaurants, cafes and shops as well as the Fisher Theatre set to be showing ‘Love Never Dies’ soon. A promising reminder of Detroit’s growth is one of the many huge skyscrapers lining the river. The Renaissance Centre has 7 impressive towers, housing a Mariott Hotel, theatres, restaurants and good shopping.
For fellow bookworms, the Detroit Public Library is a little slice of heaven. First opening its doors in 1865, the collection consisted of only 5,000 books. The library has certainly moved on now, proudly a popular tourist attraction and listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places. Take a library tour, or an architectural tour as the building is magnificent.
Summer strolling cannot be beaten along the scenic paths of Belle Isle. Measuring only 3 miles in length, the Belle Isle lies in the Detroit River between the USA and Canada. Detroit bought the island in the late 1800s and the landscape is serene. The parkland is a great place for hiking or jogging and other outdoor fun. The island also has the zoo and popular aquarium to explore if the weather isn’t so kind. Reach the island by crossing the MacArthur Bridge, east of Downtown.
Situated in the Detroit River, Belle Isle is a relatively small island measuring about 3 miles in length and only a mile wide, there is however plenty to keep visitors to the island entertained. The parkland on the island is stunning and is a great pace for hikers to enjoy a long walk, the island also has facilities for a number of other sports. Another park to hangout in is the New Centre Park, open until dusk and bustling with people catching free film screenings or live music during the summer. For a mid-day snack, visit any Coney Island restaurant, for the iconic hotdog of Detroit. American Coney Island is known to be the first restaurant in the city to serve the mighty Coney Dog.
Finally, throw yourself in to the Detroit spirit by cheering on the Detroit Tigers baseball team at Comerica Park. The Park is unique in that it contains diehard fans glued to their seats, but also other attractions to admire for those swept along for the fun of the crowd spirit. The park has a carousel, a 50-foot Ferris wheel, a beer hall, a food court and a centre field water feature that’s synchronized to music. Get your Tiger foam finger on and learn some baseball lingo.
Detroit certainly isn’t the usual holiday choice, but its a city that completely rewards those who do visit. Why do you love Detroit? Let us know in the comments below.