When Ford Motor Company invited me to spend a couple of days exploring their hometown, I was excited. I’d never visited Detroit before and it was a destination I really wanted to see for myself. Initially though, that interest came from a place of voyeurism and curiosity. Hundreds of articles and TV segments have been created in recent years detailing the decline of the city, the abandoned neighborhoods and for a while it was that sad imagery which drove people to visit. By the time I planned my trip though I thankfully had realized that there’s a lot more to Detroit than its bankruptcy and made it a point during those couple of days to discover everything that’s great about the city. Writing about my time in Detroit though has been a challenge, I won’t lie. I don’t want to only concentrate on the blight found in some of its neighborhoods, but I don’t want to ignore it either. It is part of Detroit and shouldn’t be glossed over, but at the same time that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing things going on in the city transforming it into something new and different. It’s a tight rope and one that I hope I’ve managed to walk well, so it’s with all of that in mind that today I want to share those experiences which I enjoyed most and that also, I think, come together to paint a more accurate picture of Detroit than what has been shared by others in recent years.
Creative and Artistic Undercurrent
It seems that any time a city or even neighborhood anywhere in the world falls on hard times, it’s the creative types who come in to rescue it. That’s absolutely the case in Detroit and the results so far have been amazing. Whether it’s the art communities strewn about everywhere or businesses like Shinola, the effects are all the same. They’re lifting up not just the economic spirits of the city, but the emotional ones as well. This is nothing new though for the city and one of the best places to learn more about the artistic flair in Detroit is by visiting the 30-year old Heidelberg Project. Conceived by artist Tyree Guyton, his goal was to transform his childhood neighborhood back into a habitable area through art. Slowly evolving over time, the massive, neighborhood-wide urban art collection did indeed achieve the artist’s goals, turning a blighted community into one in which residents took pride and tourists even visited. Art and creativity though aren’t limited to just one neighborhood or part of town, it really is everywhere. I discovered it in the brightly colored murals of Eastern Market, but also on the menus of new restaurateurs and the beers of up and coming brewmasters. I also saw it in the city’s most famous store, Shinola. Creating bikes, watches and more, Shinola started a high-end luxury brand in the least likely place in the country and against all odds hasn’t just survived, they’ve thrived. That’s amazing if you think about it, which is why I have no doubt that Detroit is about to see its best days yet.
While I’m a luxury traveler at heart, when it comes to food I always seek out the more common eats. Local delicacies aren’t usually found in 3-star restaurants, they’re in food halls and on street corners. Delicious morsels that define any city or region are almost always comfort foods, affordable and loved by all. That was certainly the case in Detroit as I relied on advice from friends and locals familiar with the scene and it’s also why I left Detroit arguably a few pounds heavier. The food culture though ultimately is a mirror to the Detroit experience. Ethnic foods like Polish and German fare point towards the millions who immigrated there lured by Ford’s promise of a $5 workday. It’s this older wave of immigration that created one of Detroit’s best loved meals, the Coney. Simply hotdogs with mustard, chili and chopped onions, you can’t visit Detroit without trying one although locals are split on which purveyor offers the best version. Just as the Coneys were once introduced by new immigrants to the city, every successive generation brought new life into the city and with it their cuisine creating a melting pot in and around Detroit that is delicious to discover. It’s not all about the past though, Detroit’s economic issues have lured in new chefs with promises of low rents and a talented workforce. The result is a renaissance of cafes, bistros, breweries and restaurants throughout the city and its neighborhoods. It’s actually part of a larger, worldwide trend towards redeveloping central business districts back into cultural centers, but it was heartwarming to see that this trend hadn’t skipped by Detroit.
Car Culture and Ford
Intellectually I understood how important the car industry has been and continues to be in Detroit, but it’s not until you’re actually there when it really resonates. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, has a base understanding of cars that I’ll never possess. It’s in their blood because it had to be. That gear head mentality though is infectious, as I learned when I spent most of a day absorbing everything I could about Ford and the company’s contributions not only to Detroit, but of course the world. The first step in learning more about cars in Detroit is by spending some time at the very well executed Henry Ford Museum. Originally started by the man himself, today it’s a world class facility highlighting great moments of American ingenuity, social history and of course transportation. I immediately wished that I had more time to devote, because a full day if not more could be spent slowly perusing the exhibits. Everything from a very quirky Buckminster Fuller house to the limo in which Kennedy was assassinated, the museum reflects our country’s greatest as well as darkest moments with clarity and ease. Cars of course play an important role, and every day guests can help build a Model-T, which is then disassembled at night so that new guests can put it together again the next day. The highlight of my day though was a visit to the historic Rouge Factory. When it was originally built in 1928, it was the largest factory in the world and was the physical manifestation of Henry Ford’s amazing ingenuity and progressive ideas. Some of America’s most iconic cars were built here including the Model A, the Ford Thunderbird and then the Mustang. But the Rouge Factory of the 21st century isn’t a relic, not even close. Today a new factory complex calls the space home, producing thousands of Ford F-150 pickup trucks every year. While you may have visited other manufacturing sites before, I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like the Rouge.
I went into my Detroit experience without any expectations, which was probably for the best. That allowed me to be surprised by almost everything, but especially little moments of awe. One of the first happened in the old Guardian Building. Nicknamed the Cathedral of Finance, I understood the moniker instantly. Built in 1929, this 40-story skyscraper was originally the home of the Union Trust Company at a time when financial institutions believed that they needed to impress potential customers. Well they won that battle because visitors walking through the front doors in 2016 stop and just stare slack jawed; at least I did. The style is Art Deco but with significant Egyptian and Aztec influences. The result is a beautiful cacophony of color and design and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s the perfect metaphor for the city I think. Nothing is quite what it seems and you have to delve deeper to find the real treasures. It was just one of many such wonderful discoveries I made while investigating the city and I know there are many more I missed, waiting for me to return and find them.