A city plagued by problems; Detroit is on the up-swing. Being a huge car buff, Detroit is kind of like Mecca to me. I write a weekly car review column and it seems that the cars I tend to most enjoy are the ones that I have the lowest expectations for.
After seeing daily national news stories about Detroit you would have thought that it was a zombie-infested nuclear wasteland. This is of course extremely far from the truth and I had a wonderful time in Detroit getting to experience not only the auto culture, but their vast arts and culture.
I was immediately blown away by the incredible architecture of the city. Detroit was where the money was at the end of the 19th century, and they built some wonderful structures. Detroit has been called 'The Paris of the West' although San Francisco claims the title as well. Our group stayed in the Book-Cadillac building which was the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in the early 1920s. It's doors were shut in the 1980s, but a $176 million renovation finished in 2008 bringing the hotel back to it's former glory. The 1100+ rooms were reduced to a 455 room Westin hotel and 67 high-end condiminiums. The rooms as well as the views of downtown were wonderful. Rates can typically be had for under $200 which is a wonderful rate for arguably the nicest hotel in the city.
Our first stop was the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate in Grosse Pointe Shores on the shore of Lake St. Clair. Edsel Ford was the son of Henry Ford and was the president of Ford for 24 years until he died at age 49 (Yes he did take control of the company at age 25. The idea scares this 25-year-old car nut). He was Henry Ford's only son, so it was more or less his destiny. His estate was a large 87 acre plot right on the lake with extensive gardens and a 20,000 sq. ft house. The house shows as a museum with all of the incredible art and antiques and even includes sterling silver countertops in the kitchen (we should all be as lucky!). Admission to the entire property is $10 and is definitely worth it to see this Detroit landmark.
For dinner that evening, we went to one of Detroit's newer downtown features, the Motor City Casino and Hotel. The hotel expansion opened in 2007 and features Iridescence, a AAA Four-Diamond restaurant. We were treated to a concert in Motor City Casino's music venue called 'Sound Board'. It is a small and intimate 2400 person venue and features large name music and comedy acts year round. The food was wonderful, and if you enjoy gambling then the Motor City Casino should definitel be a stop on your itinerary.
My first automotice themed stop was at the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex aka the Ford Piqette Avenue Plant. 12,000 Model T's were manufactured here with several being on display. It was a very neat experience knowing that this is where the automobile was really starting to take off. Tours are only offered between April and November. Check www.tplex.org for specific tour times and and for group reservations.
Next, I got the priviledge to travel to the Hedielberg Project, which is an outdoor art installation in a more run-down part of town. The artist, Tyree Guyton started the project by painting several of the houses on the street by painting them with bright colored polka dots and attaching different items to the walls. These homes were abandoned, and he was transforming them into works of art. Over the last 26 years, he has continued to create more art, much to the chagrin of some of the mayor's offices. Unfortunately, several of the homes have been destroyed by the city although many still remain. Tyree has lectured around the world about art and urban sprawl and his project attracts more than 250,000 visitors a year.
Our next stop was the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The museum holds the worlds largest permanent exhibit on African American culture and features a wonderful walk-through interactive exhibit. It features live performers and was easily one of the best museum exhibits I've ever experienced. Find more information at www.maah-detroit.org
The next day I awoke extremely excited because I would be touring the Ford Rouge Plant complex in Dearborn, MI. The actual plant is but a small portion of the entire Rouge complex. The complex features 93 different buildings that produced every different part for the Ford vehicles assembled at the plant. Ford purchased all of this land along the Route river to make it easy to get raw materials in to the different manufacturing buildings. The last vehicle assembled at the historic building was a Ford Mustang in 2004. Near the site in Dearborn is the Henry Ford Museum and I was absolutely blown away by this museum. I unfortunately only had 3 hours to tour the facility and you could easily spend a week there. Henry Ford was a collector of historical objects, and there is now a 12 acre building that is full of everything that he collected. If he made cars well, then he was an incredible collector. They aren't necessarily car-related either. He had everything from airplanes, to desks of famous authors to a sealed tube containing Thomas Edison's last breath. I even got to sit in the seat that Rosa Parks decided was good enough for her that fateful day. For objects too large to put in a museum, there is Greenfield Village next door. Henry Ford brought almost 100 different historical buildings from all over the United States and had them moved here. You can spend time in Thomas Edison's labratory, the Wright borthers' bicycle shop and even Henry Ford's childhood home. My mind was on complete overload from everything I had taken in. The museum is the largest of it's kind in the country and is super family friendly. God forbid you have a history obsesses spouse as you might as well leave them for a few days for they will never want to leave.
Another interesting stop was in Hamtramck, MI. Hamtrack is a city just outside of Detroit that has a mostly Polish immigrant population. It is home to a GM plant (that was recently given the Chevy Volt manufacturing job) and has stayed true to it's roots. The main street is lined with Polish bakeries, Polish grocery stores, a Polish butcher and lots of Polish people. These people are proud of their Polish heritage and this is a wonderful way to experience a different culture without having to travel to Europe.
One of my final stops was at the place that most people know Detroit best for, and that's Motown. Motown Record Corporation was founded in 1960 by Berry Gord, Jr. and signed such famous musicians as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Jackson 5. Dozens of hits came out of the these offices and you can visit some of the original buildings still today. We even got to sing in the original sound booth used to record many of their hits. Traveling to see Motown's offices is obviously a must do if you make it to Detroit. For our farewall dinner, we ate at Seldom Blues which is located at the ground level of the Renaissance Center (GM's worldwide headquarters). Seldom Blues offers wonderful jazz which paired with great food and a beautiful view of the Detroit River. A perfect place to end your history filled trip to Detroit.
Detroit is definitely undergoing struggles right now, but this has all happened before. Detroit and it's people have spirit, and I have no doubt that they are going to pull themselves out of their current conundrum. The major chains have left downtown (out of 180 restaurants in downtown Detroit, there is one national chain, a Hard Rock Cafe), but it's forcing people to support each other. There is a fluorishing farmers market right near downtown and there are 179 small business restaurants and bars operating in downtown alone. Detroit is an American city with more history and battle scars than anyone, but cities like that always have the best stories to tell.