Friday, April 20, 2012

"Don't Forget the Motor City" -- Detroit Offers Surprisingly Abundant Tourist Appeal (and not just in the suburbs)

All photos by Seth Arkin except where noted;
please do not use without attribution
It isn't hard for me to imagine the following conversation, with a man saying to his wife (let's assume they have kids and live in the Chicago area, but he could just as soon be saying this to any significant other or friend, anywhere):

"I think we should plan a weekend road trip, with maybe 3 or 4 days of sightseeing." 

"Alright, where are you thinking?"

"Somewhere with big city entertainment and restaurants, but also world-class museums, including a completely unique one about American history and ingenuity, as well as an outstanding art museum that does a tremendous job in making its art understandable.

It also has a museum dedicated to some of the best, most important pop music ever created, a highly acclaimed Holocaust museum, a number of historic homes open for tours and a zoo AAA calls one of the country's most modern.

"We could also tour a working truckmaking factory and/or see one of the very first auto plants ever created. Of course, I'm going to want to go to a ballgame, as they have a great team in a great stadium. It might also be fun to check out--or even stay in--one of their sparkling new casino hotels, right in the downtown area. And if we want, we can cross the border into Canada in just minutes."

"It certainly sounds like there'd be plenty to do and see; where is this place?"


(After a roll of the eyes) "Yeah, right. I don't think so."

If there is a more maligned city in the United States than Detroit, I don't know what it is. Although Wikipedia says that Metropolitan Detroit attracts nearly 16 million visitors annually, other than myself, area natives and people heading there for a specific sporting event, I can't recall ever hearing of someone saying that they were going to Detroit for a leisure trip.

It seems to me that any mention of going to Detroit, even for business, is usually met with laughter and/or a look of pity.

But having just gone there last week for a Bruce Springsteen concert--it was held at the Palace of Auburn Hills, way up in the suburbs, but I spent considerable time in the downtown area--I can honestly say, without being facetious, that I really like Detroit.

Certainly, the Motor City has been hard hit economically, largely a consequence of changes and downturns in the automotive industry. Though on this visit, things looked a little healthier along Woodward Ave. in the heart of downtown, there is still a distressing amount of empty, rundown storefronts. And like many places ravaged by economic struggles, the crime rate in Detroit remains higher than anyone would want it to be.

Yet there are many highly enticing reasons for tourists to visit greater Detroit--including the heart of the city, though several attractions are in the leafier suburbs--and having been there now on several occasions, I have never felt the slightest concern for my personal safety, or no more so than in many other cities with better P.R. (Which isn't to suggest one shouldn't be wary of their surroundings, but that's true anywhere, and going to the places I cite below shouldn't bring any problems.)

So although I have been planning to write a post highlighting several of the great reasons to visit Chicago--my hometown--I am compelled to spread a few good words about Detroit. Despite poignant city pride commercials by Chrysler during the last two Super Bowls (2011, 2012), Kid Rock's tireless efforts to support & champion his hometown (with songs like "Times Like These") and sure signs that things are improving, Detroit still seems to be a national punchline or synonym for "urban blight."

But it doesn't deserve to be and I encourage anyone with the time to check it out. What could be a more apt road trip destination than Motown...and a few more tourism dollars certainly couldn't hurt.

Similar to how I structured travel pieces on London and Washington, DC, the attractions below are listed in recommendation order. However, especially as I'm including some places I haven't personally visited, and others not too recently, take the rankings with a grain of salt.

Although downtown Detroit features an above ground People Mover, and the area has an extensive bus system covering both the city and suburbs, given the extent to which prime attractions are spread throughout the metro area--even all the way to Ann Arbor about 45 miles west--Detroit is, fittingly, best explored with the benefit of an automobile.

1. The Henry Ford (and Greenfield Village), Dearborn - This is my favorite non-art museum in the world--I ranked it as such here--and certainly among the most unique. The attraction consists of indoor and outdoor components; each can toured separately but a combo ticket is the best value.

The indoor museum--whose entrance replicates Philadelphia's Independence Hall--features collected treasures of American history and ingenuity such as the chair in which Lincoln was shot, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move to the back, several presidential limousines and a Dymaxion "house of the future" designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. Through September 30, 2012, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition is a special exhibit requiring extra admission.

The outdoor grounds--known as Greenfield Village--have numerous notable (mostly invention related) structures imported from across the country and beyond, including the Wright Bros. bicycle shop where the first airplane was created, Thomas Edison's laboratory and Henry Ford's birthplace (the museum is near Ford's current headquarters in Dearborn).  The Henry Ford website

(Note that the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, which I recommend, departs from the Henry Ford, but I list it as a separate attraction below. The Automotive Hall of Fame is next door but not part of the Henry Ford attraction.)

2. Detroit Institute of Arts - I say this as someone who has visited well over 100 art museums around the world: I have never been to a museum that does a better job of making its art accessible. This isn't to say that the DIA collection is the very best, although it is superlative in several genres and includes one of the best Van Goghs I've ever seen. But along with wall cards offering concise yet informative text about each painting, the museum accompanies a number of works with highly enlightening displays, such as the one at right that helps one better understand the abstract painting by Kandinsky.

The roomful of Diego Riviera murals (largely depicting the auto industry) is sublime, as is the beautiful Kresge Court snack area. Especially as the museum recently underwent a major renovation, the $8 admission is a real bargain. (Art Institute of Chicago members--at certain levels--enjoy reciprocal entry privileges.) DIA website

3. Comerica Park / Detroit Tigers - Opened in 2000, the home of the Tigers--who appear to be quite good in 2012--is an entirely comfortable place to watch a game and is, I believe, the only ballpark to feature both a carousel and Ferris wheel on its concourse. There is also a new scoreboard with an even bigger video display than the old one.
Detroit Tigers website

3a. Red Wings, Lions and Pistons
The NHL's Red Wings are hugely popular in Detroit and often even better than they were this season (they just got knocked out of the playoffs); they play at the Joe Louis Arena downtown. The NFL's Lions made the playoffs last season for the first time in years and play at the domed Ford Field next to Comerica Park. The NBA's Pistons, who have struggled in recent years after enjoying glorious success, play at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

4. Motown Museum - Shown at top, Hitsville USA was the original headquarters and recording studio for Motown Records (and affiliated labels), started in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Jr. Just a few of the legends that recorded here include Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Marvin Gaye, though one should also value learning about the Funk Brothers, who played on more hit singles than anyone in pop music history. Exhibits rotate at the museum, but tours are informative and the original studio is still intact (though not presently used for recording). Museum website

5. Ford Rouge Factory Tour - A rare chance to see an operating auto plant in action, including assembly of Ford F-150 pickup trucks. Tours depart from The Henry Ford (see #1 above) but admission is separate. Tour website

6. Riverfront / Renaissance Center / Joe Louis Fist Sculpture - Detroit is on the north side of the Detroit River--a strait between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair--and Windsor, Ontario is on the south side. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel connects the two countries, but even if you don't choose to drive across the border, the riverfront is worth a look, including a stroll along the Riverwalk.

The Renaissance Center, the second photo above, is Detroit's most gleaming building and the headquarters of GM. It features a hotel, dining, shopping and free tours. Nearby, "The Fist" (officially the Monument to Joe Louis) is just one of several sculptures worth noticing. Riverfront Wikipedia |
GM Renaissance Center Website

7. Holocaust Memorial Center, Farmington Hills - Opened in 1984, this was "America's First Freestanding Holocaust Memorial Center." Having read stellar recommendations, I tried to visit on my recent trip, but found it closed due to Passover. I believe the memorial center also serves as a museum about the Holocaust, and there are two additional museums within the property (which is designed to resemble a concentration camp): the Museum of European Jewish Heritage and the International Institute of the Righteous. Holocaust Memorial website

8. Casinos - I hope they do more to bring tourist dollars into the city than they deplete the cash flow of local residents, but Detroit has three gleaming casino hotels in or around the downtown area, plus a fourth just across the river in Windsor. I have not visited any of the new Detroit hotels since they opened in 2007 but they look nice from the outside, and all offer dining and entertainment in addition to gambling. MGM Grand Detroit | Greektown Casino Hotel | MotorCity Casino Hotel | Caesars Windsor

Photo from Wikipedia
9. Greektown - A vibrant district full of Greek restaurants, shopping and the Greektown Casino Hotel. Greektown website | Wikipedia

10. Belle Isle Park - Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River, between Detroit and Windsor, will again host Grand Prix auto racing from June 1-3. Year-round highlights include the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum (a historic maritime museum), a variety of buildings and sculptures plus plenty of parkland. Belle Isle Park Wikipedia

11. Windsor - Apart from the novelty of crossing into Canada in just minutes--for which a passport is now required--the highlight of Windsor used to be the casino. With three now in Detroit--which I also didn't go into on my recent trip--I didn't feel much need to head across the border. But there is supposedly a decent nightlife scene, including numerous strip clubs. Also of note is Odette Sculpture Park.
Windsor WikiTravel | Caesars Windsor
12. Fox Theatre / Entertainment - Opened in 1928, the Fox is a highly ornate theater that holds a rather robust slate of concerts in various musical modes. The nearby Fillmore hosts many concerts, as do other venues around town and the suburbs. Broadway in Detroit, a slate of touring musicals, is held at the Fisher Theater. Although its new run at the City Theatre (next to the Fox) hasn't opened yet, I took note of Ernie, a play about legendary Tigers announcer  Ernie Harwell, written by Mitch Albom. Those with more classical tastes may be drawn to the Detroit Opera House and Orchestra Hall. Fox Theatre website | Broadway in Detroit | Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House | Detroit Symphony | Concert Listings on Pollstar |

13. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History - Named after a physician who founded the museum in 1965, it holds the world's largest permanent exhibit on African American culture. A special exhibit on Nigerian musician Fela Kuti runs through mid-June and an art exhibition on Barack Obama begins in July. Museum website 

14. Historic Homes - The auto barons and other industrialists left behind several lavish mansions, some now open for tours, although the most famous--Fair Lane, the Henry Ford Estate--no longer is. But you can visit Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester, the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores and Cranbrook House and Gardens in Bloomfield Hills. The Whitney, the lavish Detroit home of a lumber baron, is now a restaurant.

15. Detroit Zoo, Royal Oak - AAA cites it as a "Gem" attraction and calls it "one of the most modern zoos in the country." Zoo website

Photo from
16. Model T Automotive Heritage Complex - Ford's Piquette Avenue plant is the birthplace of the Model T and largely unchanged from its 1904 appearance. Various Model T's and other historic cars are on display. Open from April through late-October. Website

17. Downtown Architecture - Downtown Detroit has a number of classic buildings, plus some more recent examples of interesting architecture. With links to their Wikipedia pages, these include the Fisher Building, Guardian Building, Cadillac Place, Cadillac Tower, Renaissance Center, One Detroit Center, Dime Building and Penobscot Building. There are also a number of noteworthy churches, mansions, the Cranbrook complex (listed below), the new casino hotels and a few Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area. Tiger Stadium, home to the baseball team from 1912-1999 was demolished in 2009, but the actual playing field remains at Michigan Ave. & Trumball St. Architecture of metropolitan Detroit Wikipedia

18. Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills - Cranbrook is an educational community whose Academy of Art was designed by famed architect Eliel Saarinen. The Saarinen House is part of the Cranbrook Art Museum; the Institute of Science is a natural history museum also open to the public. There is also the tourable Cranbrook House, a lavish manor home surrounded by gardens including many sculptures and fountains. Main Cranbrook website

19. Ann Arbor - 45 miles west of Detroit, Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan. The famed Ann Arbor Art Fairs will be held July 18-21, 2012, but year-round one may wish to see the Michigan campus, football stadium, art museum and the historic Michigan Theater. I made a point of stopping at Zingerman's Deli, a local institution since 1982, and am quite glad I did.

20. Walter P. Chrysler Museum, Auburn Hills - Walter P. Chrysler founded the automaker that bears his name in 1925, although origins date back to 1904 with Maxwell Motor Company. This museum on the headquarters campus includes more than 65 antique, custom and concept vehicles interspersed with interactive displays and historical exhibits. Museum website

21. Detroit Public Library - The main branch has stood at 5201 Woodward Avenue--across from the Detroit Institute of Arts--since 1921. The interior features murals, mosaics and painted glass windows, while notable collections include the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection, donated by the longtime (now late) Tigers' announcer. Library website

22. Tourist Restaurants - Those with a passion for hockey, or just sports in general, might want to check out Hockeytown Cafe--on Woodward across from Comerica Park--and/or Cheli's Chili Bar, owned by longtime Red Wing and Blackhawk Chris Chelios in a neat looking building nearby (there's also a location in Dearborn). Given Detroit's rich musical legacy, from Motown to Bob Seger to Eminem and Kid Rock, the Hard Rock Cafe may be well worth a look.

A Local's BBQ Recommendation - A friendly security guard at the art museum, who like many Detroit residents and natives I've met was quite proud of his hometown, spoke very highly of Slows Barbeque on Michigan Avenue a bit west of downtown, saying the BBQ was as good as some he'd had in Texas. I didn't get there, but hopefully next time.

With even its own Thinker, in front of the art museum, Detroit is a lot nicer place to visit than many might imagine. My mom and aunt recently went to Hawaii and I swear I'm much more exuberant about my two days in Detroit than they were about their week in Honolulu.

Not that I would turn down the chance to visit Hawaii, if just for the weather and scenery. But with two of the best museums in the world and several other worthwhile activities, if you've never considered Detroit an appealing place to visit...think again.

(Referencing back to the headline of this post, it seems apt to close with the Motown classic from which it comes, "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas)

No comments: