Detroit was our last stateside stop before crossing back into Canada, and we couldn’t wait to experience it. We’d heard so many amazing things about the city from friends, mostly about the music scene but also about the vibe. Still, Detroit also has a reputation that comes off as somewhat sketchy. We really didn’t know what to expect.
We dove right in and drove straight through to Corktown. Corktown is Detroit’s oldest neighborhood and one of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods in the country. The streets are lined with a lot of Victorian houses, and the neighborhood is filling up with lots of trendy bars, breweries and restaurants. The name’s a nod to Ireland’s County Cork and its people who immigrated in Detroit after the potato famine. Michigan Central Station towers just on the outskirts, where it had been abandoned since 1988. Ford Motors, however, is footing the bill for a whole lot of renos that began in 2018, with plans to turn the space into part of a campus.
We had a delicious bbq lunch at Slows Bar BQ. Then we sauntered over to Batch Brewing, which serves up top-notch beer in a beautiful space. We were honestly sold when we walked by and saw their smoker outside. The staff was great to us, giving us all kinds of tips on places to go, and even assuring us that we’d be safe and unbothered by parking on the nearby streets for the night. (This set the tone for our experience of Detroit locals. Everyone we encountered was so welcoming and laid-back. It almost always felt like we were encountering old friends whenever we got to chatting.) We ended up parking on the side street by the brewery and passed a safe and quiet night there.
We headed downtown the next day and wandered up and down some streets. We eventually landed in front of The Guardian Building, one of Detroit’s big historic landmarks and a must-see, especially if you’re an Art Deco fan like we are. The building was erected in the Roaring Twenties, when Detroit was considered a world-class city and at the peak of its industrial glory. It was commissioned by a banking group, and has been dubbed “the Cathedral of Finance”. It’s this incredible spectacle of color, intricate detailing, and Native American and Aztec influences. It will take your breath away. Best of all, it’s free of charge to go inside to explore.
We continued down to the riverfront and checked out the sights. It was there that we came across “The Fist”, Detroit’s iconic monument to boxer Joe Lewis, who was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world during WWII. He fought and beat a German boxer and in the process showed up Hitler, who, clinging like he did to his theories about racial supremacy, was so sure that his guy would win. But no, Joe was the reigning champ and, as a result, became the first African American to become a national hero. Dedicated in 1986, the 24-foot-long, 6000-lb bronze piece was commissioned by Sports Illustrated from Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham. It definitely makes a statement, especially with its resemblance to a battering ram that’s aimed across the river towards Canada. It’s courted its share of controversy as much as it’s sparked conversations.
We took a stroll on the riverwalk from there, which makes for a scenic little walk and even offers up a small wetland park.
I got word that an old friend from my San Francisco days was going to be in town for the weekend. Her daughter was spinning at an event at the Leland City Club, so we arranged to meet them at the party. We parked in front of the hotel that the club was housed in and got our pre-party on. When it was time to go inside, we were a little taken aback at first at how decrepit the hotel was. We’re talking fallen rubble on the stairs and peeling walls. I mean, make no mistake, we kind of loved it at the same time. The place definitely was oozing character, that’s for sure. When we got to the club entrance, we found out that they were only keeping the smaller room open because the main ballroom was no longer deemed safe, lol. No matter, the smaller room was just perfect. Seeing old friends Dayna and her incredibly talented daughter Isis (aka AZA) was such a treat. Isis killed it with her set, and we had a great time. We realized that no one would be too fussed if we stayed street parked outside the hotel for the night, so we just stayed put and passed another comfy night.
We headed back to Corktown the next day because both a sprawling neighborhood yard sale and a weekend-long free techno festival were happening over there. We hit up the yard sale first, which was fun because we got to go to a lot of homes and talk to locals. I met this woman who told me how she and her husband bought up some property in Corktown at a steal during its slightly dodgier days and turned their Victorian into a gorgeous AirBnb: https://www.iklektikhouse.com/
She also makes wearable art, and I bought these incredible Detroit earrings with feathers made from a tire. I treasure them to this day.
Detroit birthed techno music, so we felt like we really lucked out to be able to have the Tec-Troit festival in our backyard. But honestly, music anywhere you go and of any kind tends to be amazing here. This city’s air of ease and musicality reminds us of New Orleans and the Blues Trail that way. Anyway, we glutted ourselves with Batch Brewing beer and bites (where they were also having a yard sale and live music), walked on over to the festival to listen to some of the best music we’d heard in a while, and we danced our asses off. The people and the vibes were so right-on, we left there that night completely nourished.
The Eastern Market that’s just north of downtown was another section of the city we loved. It’s a series of blocks and buildings with vendors selling every kind of good you could wish for, plus blocks upon blocks of vibrant murals.
Ferndale was another lovely locale we got to explore. It’s one of Detroit’s funkiest suburbs that sits just north of the infamous 8 Mile. It has an artsy, eclectic and LGTBQ-friendly ambiance, plus loads of boutiques, breweries, markets and restaurants.
We made a stop on our way back to the city to take a gander at Hamtramck Disneyland, the whimsical creation of Dmytro Szylak. Dmytro was born in Ukraine but immigrated to the States in the 50s to work for General Motors. Upon retiring in the 80s, he began building what would become the mother of all retirement hobbies. Inspired by both his cultural roots and the Americana of something as iconic as Disneyland, he began creating all of this folk art in his yard and on top of the garages on his properties. Think Ukrainian fairy tale meets Bizarro World Disney, with a dash of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Pinocchio. He was constantly tinkering with it, making modifications right up to his death in 2015 at the age of 92. It used to be filled with all of these amazing kinetic sculptures, some remnants of which you can still spot today. The Hatch Art collective now owns it and covers repairs. It’s considered on of Michigan’s most significant works of folk art.
But by far one of the most mind-blowing sights we saw was the exquisite Fisher Building, aka “Detroit’s largest art object”. The building is architect Albert Kahn’s Art Deco masterpiece. It’s carved out with limestone, granite, and 40 different types of marble in the lobby alone. And you can see up-close how every last detail is hand painted.
The original plan was for a complex of three buildings, with two 30-story structures flanking a 60-story tower. Then the Great Depression happened and we got just one 30-story tower. But still, the incredible craftmanship, detail and money that went into that tower alone is kind of astounding. And it really drives home what a cultural and economic powerhouse the city once was.
We’re so glad that we made the detour to visit this treasure, I don’t think that either of us has seen anything quite like it. It’s easily a not-to-be-missed stop when you’re in Detroit. Oh, and just like with the Guardian, it’s free of charge to explore.
Our last stop on our Detroit itinerary was Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park in the middle of the Detroit River. You can find beaches, a conservatory, and an aquarium there. It seems to be where lots of locals go to spend a quiet afternoon. And who knew that we’d be able to spot deer running around Detroit?
I don’t think that either of us expected to fall in love with Detroit as much as we did, but it’s now easy to see why.
Detroit was once the heartbeat of America. But what happens when you rip that heart right out?
While the news makes the city out to be some sort of American Beirut, what we’ve encountered is a city and a group of people who’ve toughed out a lot and yet, against all odds, willfully keep coming back strong while making life its own work of art. All while maintaining a sharp sense of humor, warmth, and a whole lot of grace. There’s just no bullshit with these folks, and all of our interactions had such an ease about them. People who’ve collectively been through it like they have tend not to sweat the small things. They’re crystal clear on where their priorities lie, and a lot more honest and direct.
It strikes us that Detroit folks have an almost fierce kind of pride in their city, and believe me, it’s well-warranted. For all the places we’ve been and the beauty we’ve found in each one, I don’t think we’ve ever before felt this level of profound respect, almost reverence, for a place and its people. We practically have secondhand pride, and throughout each and every day of our exploring we kept looking at one another and saying with wonder and awe, “This place is really something else!”
Yes, some of Detroit is still in ruins and decay (although that seems to be rapidly changing). But what we quickly caught onto is that its heart, for all its hard knocks, is far from decayed. Instead, it’s been vibrantly beating beneath the rubble all this time. Life and promise persists, and I’d bet the house on this city in any one of those heartbeats.
What a send-off back to Canada this has been, one that left us feeling completely nourished.
Thank you Detroit, we just love and adore you.