This Summer, We Vacationed in Detroit

Now please, dear Detroit, let me say at the outset that I totally fell in love with you. I wish only good things for you. My love is pure, but like a mother's love, it comes with some critical feedback.
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I'm a life long New Yorker, born and bred in Brooklyn. My precious vacation time is usually spent relaxing on a Cape Cod beach, or exploring foreign destinations.

But this year, I responded to a different siren song: I went to Detroit.

Yes. Detroit, Michigan, USA. That Detroit.

I have followed news of Detroit and its trials and tribulations for decades, with the same horrified fascination of many Americans.

With this summers' declaration of bankruptcy, Detroit was once again in the headlines. The city had descended into bankruptcy and an Emergency Manager had been appointed. The mayor of Boston actually suggested blowing up the place. Christie's Auction House was called in to appraise the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) as courts decided if the art could be sold. Commentators said that only billionaires, Russian oligarchs or maybe princes from the United Arab Emirates, could afford these treasures.

If I wanted to see these art works before they were dispersed, I had to visit right away. I wanted to go for other reasons as well. I was searching for the mythical Detroit as much as anything else: the Motor City to the soundtrack of Motown.

I had been raised in the tough and gritty Brooklyn of years back. I had seen the decaying streets my youth restored to sparkling splendor, blue-collar areas transformed into playgrounds for the rich. Years of decay and danger had been no fun but gentrification meant that the poor were driven out of parts of Brooklyn. Detroit's problem was just the opposite: most of the people left there are the poor. The population has gone from a mid-20th century high of nearly two million, to about 700,000 with a median household income of about $25,000 -- half the national average.

While Brooklyn was experiencing rebirth, Detroit was being returned to nature. Detroit's mayor has been trying to demolish some 70,000 abandoned buildings, spread over the 138 square miles. Detroit has been shrinking, replaced by some experiments in urban farming. That also interested me -- I've been involved with urban gardening for years.

So last month, a friend who lives in Ohio picked me up at the Cleveland airport and we headed to Detroit, about a 2.5-hour drive.

We'd been warned that actually staying in the city was dangerous, except for the upscale downtown hotels. I must admit I was tempted by the "tallest hotel in the western hemisphere" -- the 73-story Detroit Marriott. But we are $80 a-night-kind of travelers (two friends traveling together with a need for two beds, a clean room and plenty of towels) and the Marriott would have been over $200. So we stayed in a chain motel with good online reviews in a suburb chosen because it was an easy 15-minute drive from the DIA.

Now please, dear Detroit, let me say at the outset that I totally fell in love with you. I wish only good things for you. My love is pure, but like a mother's love, it comes with some critical feedback. For your own good. You've been knocked around and pushed around. You've been duped by your own elected officials. Now you've lost fundamental political rights to an Emergency Manager. So what's a little critical feedback from a doting tourist?

I spent just under three full days there (it was a mini-vacation) so in no way do I claim to be an expert. I didn't see the whole city. But I am a veteran of travel to many cities, and I live in a tourist Mecca myself, and since my visit a month ago, Detroit, you've been on my mind.

I went online to plan our trip. I googled tourism Detroit and reviewed the first hit --, the official tourism site. There was almost nothing at that site that was helpful. Visit Detroit seems to have more information about things that are in adjoining suburban counties than in the city itself. Eventually I found my way online to Jerry Paffendorf's "One Day in Detroit" driving tours and Becks Davis' "40 Things to Do in Detroit Before You're Dead" (and the follow-up tours) on the Detroit Moxie site. Both are excellent and helped to guide our visit. First bit of unsolicited advice: Detroit, go online right now and check your brand. See for yourself how the city is being marketed to the non-casino/convention/athletic event going tourist considering a visit.

Day One: We arrived in the city on a Saturday morning and went straight to Eastern Market. It was packed on a lovely August morning. The sheds were brimming with produce and people, shopping and strolling, out for a good time. We were hungry, and immediately came across The People's Pierogi Collective. What a fabulous idea for market food! We could only find one table and the two people already sitting there seemed reluctant to share it -- which did not stop us. Basking in the Detroit sunshine and enjoying spinach and artichoke pierogi, life was good. Across from Shed 2 we found great coffee at Germack. We wanted to enjoy our coffee, study the map and plan our day. But it turned out, neither of us had a map.

Wouldn't Eastern Market be a good place for a tourist office? I read somewhere that 40,000 people visit the market on Saturdays. It seems to me that a tourist office -- maybe a mobile office in an old pick-up truck -- would be a good idea. It could help promote the city and its many wonders. It could be driven around to other locations as needed. An old Ford pick-up would be perfectly in keeping with the Motor City theme (more on that later).

From the market, we could see in the near distance the high-rise Brewster-Douglass Housing Project. It's deserted now and stands in creepy contrast to the vibrancy of the market: four 14-story reminders of failed policy. Brewster-Douglass has an interesting history: the first Federally funded housing project (1935) built exclusively for African-Americans. It's where, among others, Diana Ross and the Supremes grew up. What remains now is fascinating in an eerie way, the windows dark glassless holes looking down over the city. I was kind of sad to read, just after I left, that it was finally coming down. We had gotten to Detroit just in time.

Pulled by the lure of dystopia (wasn't that at least part of why we were there? To see epic urban ruin?) we drove next to the long-abandoned Michigan Central train station. A smiling bride and groom were having formal wedding portraits taken out front. The station was designed by the same architect as New York's beloved Grand Central but was abandoned in 1988 and it's now a zombie building, surrounded by a razor wire fence. As though to soften the visual, a rose garden has been planted behind the razor wire. Out in front, there are neat rows of high prairie grass. It's like a well-tended grave.

One day, the city of Detroit will re-invent itself--maybe this transformation has already begun. Perhaps this train station should be left as it is now, as a reminder and a warning about what has happened there. Like the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm church in the center of Berlin, left there after the war as a memorial to the aerial bombardment. Like the Roman Coliseum.

We drove on to the DIA, silenced by what we had seen. There's not much going on along the way. It's not like poverty in New York, over crowed streets teeming with too much life. Here in Detroit, along what would seem like commercial by-ways, the stores are shuttered. In many cases the buildings themselves are gone, replaced by empty lots, most of them remarkably clean. Block after block, mile after mile, the avenues were deserted, although it was mid-day on a Saturday. Occasionally we saw corn growing in tended plots but we hardly saw any people. It felt like the city had packed up and gone. A lot of the abandoned buildings have declined beyond the moment for their comeback. The Michigan cold and rain and the bands of people known as "scrappers" who pick clean the unoccupied houses have utterly ruined them.

I was hoping there would be a political presence outside the museum, activists informing visitors about the issues involved with the bankruptcy. I wanted to be asked to sign a petition insisting that the collection stay put and not be sold to pay-off creditors. And then something way cooler happened: in the middle of the night last week a fire breathing dragon made of steel and discarded objects, 64 feet long + 26 feet high and mounted on a truck chassis appeared in front of the DIA -the dragon's fire breathe ignited a sign in burning letters that read: SAVE THE ART. This was the creation of Detroit sculptor Ryan C. Doyle. If Detroit is saved, it will most likely be the artists who will save it.

The collection at the DIA is amazing. It is a heavenly collection, bestowed by the great archangels of art and commerce upon the city of Detroit. It is a blessing for local citizens and a lure for tourists. I think that in years to come, if Detroit is marketed correctly, even more will come. Art-loving tourists--not necessarily the same people attracted by casinos or sports arenas. Tourists, like myself, who spend an hour or two at the museum without getting any further than the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry murals. I was so overwhelmed by the intensity of this enormous work that I have to sit down with a coffee before I can take in anything else. Luckily there is a café there in a gorgeous medieval courtyard. Revived, I am able to see more of the collection. And then head for Slows Bar BQ in Corktown (named years ago after County Cork in Ireland).

It was five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and we waited an hour for a table-- in a dying town! On the same block as Slows, there is Astros Coffee and Sugar House cocktail lounge, both very cool and hipster. And across the street, Mercury Burger and Bar. Corktown seems alive and flourishing in a Brooklyn sort of way. With visitors outside milling about, waiting for their turn to be seated at Slows, maybe the mobile tourist office in the old pick-up should park there when the crowds thin out at Eastern Market?

So, how good was the brisket at Slows? Paired with the creamy macaroni and cheese and the vinegary coleslaw it was damn good. If you are reading this and have never been to Detroit, go just for the brisket.

After dinner, we headed for the Heidelberg Project, a sprawling outdoor art project created by Tyree Guyton and a fine statement about inspiration in the ruins. Guyton has used abandoned buildings as canvas for the work, festooned with discarded objects. Tim Burke, an artist who lives within the project, was outside painting a sign declaring "Torture is not a family value." We stopped and chatted with him--he's a talker and a great spokesman for the redemptive power of art. Even though it was getting dark, there was a steady stream of people driving and walking by to see the project. Burke told us that it's always like that, and yet there is no place in or near the project to buy a cold drink or an ice cream on a warm summer day. Could a food-truck be parked nearby? Later on, we saw Burke's work (robot-like creatures fashioned from industrial parts) in Lafayette Greens, a thriving community garden in the heart of downtown. Sponsored by Compuware, the garden stands where the Lafayette Building, a pre-Depression era skyscraper, once stood. I was saddened to read that the Lafayette Building (destroyed in 2010) was modeled on New York's beloved Flatiron Building.

More unsolicited advice: Stop tearing stuff down. Do everything you can to preserve what you've got, especially the beautiful old brick and stone buildings. Treasures like the Wurlitzer Building and the beaux-arts Wayne County Building, certainly the train station, even more mundane vernacular architecture like the brick homes we saw abandoned on the edges of Boston-Edison. Board them up, preserve them as best you can and wait. When the hipsters and the artists and the entrepreneurs come rolling in, they will be looking for gritty charm and authenticity, not newly built townhomes. They are fleeing the boring sameness of their suburban youth and are in search of history. And no town outside of Las Vegas needs more than 3 casinos. You probably didn't need 3. And although there are already 2 stadiums in downtown nearly simultaneously with bankruptcy being declared plans for a new hockey arena were announced. To be subsidized by the taxpayers to the tune of over 300 million dollars. Don't build it.

Day two: We went out to the Cranbrook Art Museum, 20 miles from the city, on a 315-acre campus of fountains and splendor. Cranbrook, designed by Eliel Saarinen, was associated with many of the great 20th century modernist designers. One of the shows there, Cranbrook and the Car, shows the influence of modernist design on the heyday of the auto industry. It's interesting but what was even more interesting was the wealth we found out in the suburbs.

Cranbrook's located in the town of Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County, one of the counties that ring Detroit and the 4th richest in America. The town of Bloomfield Hills has a median household income of about $120,000 and on our way back to the highway we see mansions surrounded by luxurious landscaping. We passed a shopping mall with, among other things, a Neiman Marcus. The divide between suburbs and the city is so shocking that I couldn't help but think of wealth re-distribution, or reforming a system that allows corporations to escape taxes in satellite communities.

It's 22 miles on the highway back to the DIA. The traffic thinned out as we approached the city. Detroit is criss-crossed (eviscerated) by thick bands of highways--a sad reminder of the days when many busy people were rushing here and there. Now, unemployment stands at about 20% and many Detroiters can't even afford to own a car. If the mayor wants to demolish more things, maybe he can rip out a highway or two. When they were built, these highways helped to destroy the fabric of many of these now shrinking neighborhoods. Maybe it's time for them to go.

Back at the DIA we ate lunch, and saw more of the collection: Rubens, Brueghel, Durer. Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne. There's also a work by Tyree Guyton, creator of the Heidelberg Project. It's a discarded Detroit street sign --"Rosa Parks Blvd" - and Guyton's painted a bus next to her name, where "Blvd" would be.

The next part of our visit didn't go as well we had hoped. We wanted to see the urban farms and gardens but we had trouble locating them. I guess we didn't do enough research but we couldn't find a driving tour to the urban farms online. We assumed that we'd simply see them as we drove around town, but that was not really the case. Luckily, we had an address for the Capuchin Monks Earthworks--it led to a greenhouse behind a locked gate. It was a Sunday and no one was there and the neighborhood was devoid of people. We parked at the greenhouse and walked around. Nearby, we came across a lovely farm, with neat rows of vegetables, about half a city block long, abutted by some commercial buildings. A chicken darted about. There were elderberry bushes. It was quiet and peaceful there. It felt holy.

We next went to see the historic residential district, Boston-Edison. It's filled with handsome early 20th century houses. We saw the house that Henry Ford had built for his family in 1908, the same year the Model T went into production just 2 miles away. There are ruins at the edges of this beautiful neighborhood, but most of it is beautifully maintained. You can buy a 4-bedroom home there for $30,000. There's a lot of Detroit real estate available for less.

We planned to have dinner at the Green Dot Stables (reviews said the truffle herb fries were so good you might want to lick the paper they came in) but my phone died along the way and with it, our GPS. We got off the highway and happened across Bronx Bar. A happy coincidence: a great bar and an excellent meal of grilled cheese and fried Portobello mushrooms. I cannot tell you why the grilled cheese was as good as it was (was it the beer? the friendly atmosphere?) but it was. No one could tell us why the bar was named the Bronx.

Day Three: We saved downtown for our last day. We went first to Lafayette Park, the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings in the world. It's a beautiful community, the area around the low-rise houses dense with vegetation and mid-century design. The area used to be called Black Bottom and at the Cranbrook Museum, we'd seen a painting of African-Americans forced out when "slum clearance" and freeway construction dislocated them in the 1950's. Many of these former Black Bottom residents were relocated to the Brewster-Douglass housing project that was itself abandoned 20 years ago and is now about to be being razed. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan came in for the start of demolition on September 4th --just a few days after my visit. The Feds have kicked in $6.5 million.

Next, we drove to downtown proper and parked near the Y. When we discovered that the pay station was broken we worried about being ticketed. But we figured that with the police force being much reduced we'd take our chances. We left note on the dashboard just in case, pleading our case as out-of-state tourists. We didn't see many tourists wondering around, cameras in hand. In fact, we didn't see any. Actually, although it was a Monday morning, the downtown streets were pretty empty. Nearby we saw demolition in progress -- a building with a large sign in Chinese was just coming down. No one else was watching as the bulldozer did its job -- this must be a common sight. The sign was engulfed and disappeared in no time.

We walked over to the Art Deco treasure, the Guardian Building for breakfast at the café in the cathedral-like lobby, with its 3-story high ceiling. The latte was excellent, the barista charming, the music, at long last, Motown. We were happy. Sugar-Pie-Honey Bunch. There was even a store there, Pure Detroit, that sells Detroit-based souvenirs. I'd been looking for some badass Detroit merchandise that would make me feel edgy just for having visited. Something with skulls+Detroit. We'd come across tee shirts with mitten graphics a couple of times (the Michigan thing had to be explained to me) but they weren't what we were after.

After downtown, we drove to the derelict 40-acre Packard plant complex. Graffiti covered, partially collapsed, the sheer size of this ruin makes it feel biblically forsaken. I lived near the 16-acre World Trade site and I watched as the local, state and federal governments poured billions of dollars into re-building lower Manhattan. It's probably a cliché to state that if Al-Qaeda had destroyed Detroit instead of insert a reason the city would be bathing in recovery dollars.

And it's now been about a month since I left and Detroit, you've been on my mind. Here is what I've been thinking about:

We were tourists searching for the dual mythical city: the Motor City + Motown. These signature industries have largely abandoned you Detroit, but the well of love and nostalgia for them runs deep, especially in boomers like myself.

I was expecting to find -- to be deluged with -- both Motown and Motor City tschotchkes: mugs, key chains, tee shirts, decorative plates and so on. I wanted to take home the young Diana Ross and the Supremes on a tote bag. I wanted to buy a box of chocolates shaped like vintage cars to share with my friends. I wanted a photo of me and my friend sitting in a 1958 Eldorado Biarritz convertible smiling in the Detroit sunshine: Greetings from the Motor City.

Where was the marketing? I didn't see any vintage cars at all. I wanted to see a street filled with them, those crazily flamboyant beauties, the dream and promise of 20th century America. I know Detroit has a car parade, the Woodward Dream Cruise, but it's only once a year for 1 day. And 1.5 million people show up. Isn't that saying something? Why not have something going on in the streets all summer long, at least on weekends? I wanted Detroit to thrill me with a sweet taste of automotive nostalgia, for the days when gas was cheap and we didn't worry about where it was coming from or what fossil fuel was doing to the planet. We've lost our innocence since then but I wanted to touch base with that Golden Age, there in the place most identified with the excesses of the American auto industry.

When the car plants folded was nothing left behind but debt and super-fund sites and a bad taste in your mouth? No actual vintage cars? Even a beat-up old fleet of Packards or Studebakers as taxis downtown, parked in front of the hotels? Even a giant pyramid of crushed cars from a junkyard, cars compressed into squares and piled up to the sky? You've got plenty of open space.

What about an auto-pub? There used to be one in the GM building in New York. Wouldn't that be perfect? What about something for the kids, a carousel based on classic cars or Motown stars or both, somewhere along the RiverWalk?

In my best Fantasy Detroit, there would be a giant Ferris wheel like the one now being built in Las Vegas (the Big Roller) or the London Eye -- only instead of traditional capsules these would be modeled on iconic American cars. I imagine being 50 stories high over Detroit in a '68 Chevy Camaro or a '56 Thunderbird, with Motown blasting and the post-industrial city spread out below. Across the river, I'd see Canada, and I'd be able to look down on the suburbs. And it would make me think about the great wheel of fortune and how it can take you all the way up to the top, and then eventually, bring you down.

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