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Wild Wild Midwest

The architecture, the agriculture, the art, the archaeology — there's nowhere in America quite like Detroit right now.

Michigan Central Station; Heidelberg Project; Belle Isle Zoo; The Penobscot (back) and David Stott buildings; Abandoned mansion in Woodbridge neighborhood; Packard Plant

Robert Monaghan (Woodridge, Packard, Michigan Central); David Schalliol (Heidelberg); Dane Vanslembrouck (Zoo) Carey Primeau (Penobscot)

May 14, 2009

Even in a city that’s used to things being pretty tough—remember the good old days of 2006, when everybody was talking about a “one-state recession”?—the last few years have been really bad. Detroit’s politics are in turmoil following the scandal surrounding Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick; the school system’s been taken over by the state; and in case you just returned from Mars, the auto industry—the fulcrum on which the fate of the entire region teeters—is not doing so well.

Detroit’s been called an American Acropolis and a ghost town. The population, around 2 million at its peak in the 50s, hovers at less than half that. (Even Jack White has hightailed it to Nashville, dumping his Rock City mansion for well under the initial asking price.) The amount of empty land has been said to be equal to the area of San Francisco, and the city is pocked with thousands of vacant residential and commercial structures, many of them architecturally notable. Brush Park, just north of downtown, was at one time filled with Victorian mansions; though the city razed many of the most dilapidated under Mayor Kilpatrick, many still stand, engulfed in flora, trees growing from rooftops and out of windows. A few hours’ drive with no particular destination will take a visitor past not just overgrown mansions but abandoned skyscrapers, forgotten factories, burned-out bungalows, and swaths of wildflower-dappled urban prairie so large that you can forget you’re in a major urban center. On the east side, whole neighborhoods already cleared by demolition and arson have been reclaimed by nature.

Odd as it may sound, this is why you should visit Detroit now. If and when money ever comes in, you can be sure much of its eerie beauty will be lost forever. If revitalization doesn’t happen, it’s Beyond Thunderdome.

Starting in the late 90s Detroit had a burst of development in and around the central downtown business district. Michigan voters permitted three casinos to set up shop, bringing new revenue streams and a bump in regional tourism. Two new stadiums—Comerica Park for the Tigers and Ford Field for the Lions—were raised, and they would host a Super Bowl, a Major League Baseball all-star game, and an NCAA Final Four all within the next ten years. These high-profile events gave the city firm deadlines by which to sweep an incredible amount of dust under the rug.

Dozens of downtown warehouses and loft spaces were converted to condos. Several vacant buildings too far gone to repair were taken down, including the one that housed Hudson’s, at one time the tallest department store in the world. Others, such as the historic Book-Cadillac Hotel—the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in 1924—have undergone substantial and expensive renovations. Summerlong, mostly suburban baseball crowds linger after the games and patronize new restaurants and bars, each visit chipping away at the notion that you need to be a bulletproof half-robot cop to get out of the car downtown. A river walk grants access to about five miles of shoreline that Detroiters had been denied access to for decades. Streetscapes and facades have been spruced up, including Campus Martius Park, at the hub of Detroit’s radial city plan. An embryonic version of a clean, safe, walkable business district has appeared where before there were only apparitions of good times gone.

They say when the country catches a cold, Michigan gets the flu. Projects that started before the subprime crisis and ensuing global economic collapse have been either quietly completed or left to wait. New projects have shelved while the region watches the auto industry.

Yet even as GM closes plants and Chrysler faces Chapter 11, things are sprouting in Detroit. The city made the New York Times in March not for news about the Big Three but for the purchase by a Chicago couple of a house for $100, on a block being taken over by artists with plans for solar-powered art center and a vegetable garden. The city has a booming urban agriculture movement, and in April financier John Hantz, working with Michigan State University and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, proposed building the “world’s largest urban farm” on vacant and abandoned properties, starting with a 70-acre fruit and veggie patch on the east side. Also last month, a group of local businesses began printing their own currency, the Detroit Cheer, in an effort to encourage local spending.

“Detroit is the most democratic city in America,” writes Mitch Cope, one of the catalysts of the aforementioned artists’ block, on the blog at “Not in the political sense or government, but because the neighborhoods are ruled and run and controlled and developed by local citizens. It’s a city where you can do things, both bad and good as you choose without much oversight, enforcement of law, or rules imposed from above. It is up to the residents to decide what it is they want to do, how they govern their particular block or street, and therefore what they want their city to be. Democracy in Detroit has ironically come out of the lack of a functional government/political democracy.”

“Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished,” wrote novelist Toby Barlow, who paid $100,000 for a Mies van der Rohe townhouse in Detroit’s Lafayette Park, in the Times piece. “In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline.”

If that sounds like something you’ve just got to see that for yourself, here’s a guide.


Michigan Central Station If Detroit is the Acropolis, the train station (as locals simply call it) is the Parthenon. The 96-year-old structure, designed by Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Sterns—the firms behind Grand Central Terminal in New York—is one of the first sights you’ll see driving into Detroit on either I-75 or I-96. Hulking and windowless, this Beaux Arts husk once welcomed nearly every new arrival to the area. It’s been empty since 1988, and time, weather, vandals, and graffiti writers have had their way with it—yet it’s probably still the most photographed building in Detroit. It’s relatively easy (though illegal) to enter, and still-sturdy staircases will get you to the roof, where the view of Detroit to the north and east, factories downriver to the southwest and Ontario, Canada across the river to the south are spectacular. Detroiters who love the building are now fighting to save it: Kilpatrick’s successor, Kenneth Cockrel, put its demolition in a request for stimulus funds, and last month the Detroit city council passed a resolution calling for an expedited teardown. Arrow 2405 W. Vernor.

Packard Plant The Packard Motor Car Co. ended production in 1956, leaving behind a 3.5-million-square-foot behemoth of a factory complex that’s been falling apart ever since. Designed by Albert Kahn, sometimes called the architect of Detroit, it’s now home to squatters, feral dogs and cats, and rats. It sheltered rave parties in the 80s and a paintball course called Splatball City in the 90s; and remains a popular (though also illegal to enter) location for photographers and other explorers. Be amazed at the ephemera that has found its way in—boats, toys, and increasing amounts of illegally dumped garbage from surprising places. Arrow 1538 E. Grand.

Belle Isle Belle Isle, a 985-acre island in the Detroit River, is the city’s largest park, designed in the 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted. It encompasses a number of still-going concerns, including the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the Detroit Yacht Club, the Detroit Boat Club, a conservatory, a golf course, and Detroit’s only public beach. While still a wonder, the island’s seen better days: much of Olmsted’s work is showing the tarnish of age, and some of the attractions, like the 105-year-old Albert Kahn-designed aquarium, have closed (though a citizen group is working to reopen it). The Belle Isle Zoo, not to be confused with the still-operating Belle Isle Nature Zoo, closed in 2002, but fences on the nature-trail side are easy (and yes, illegal) to scale. Inside, an African-looking elevated boardwalk, visitor areas, animal enclosures, and backstage areas are overgrown but more or less intact. Note: wild dogs are known to roam here too. Here's Detroit blogger Sweet Juniper on his visit to the Belle Isle Zoo (with lots of photos). Arrow Via MacArthur Bridge, Jefferson and Grand, 313-628-2081,


Holcomb between Mack and Charlevoix Just a place to start: Drive around the east side and you’ll encounter whole city blocks of green interrupted by the occasional house—not to mention many a house interrupted by green. For as rural as it feels, it can be a bit menacing. Packs of wild dogs have been reported; staying in or near your car is probably best, but if you decide to explore, pepper spray or a baseball bat are recommended.


Greening of Detroit According to Ashley Atkinson, director of urban agriculture for the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit focused on reforestation, education, advocacy, and gardening in the city, most of the urban gardening going on in Detroit is by private citizens on private plots smaller than three acres. This makes a traditional tour kind of hard, but the organization does offer a large, organized public look-see every August and will accommodate larger groups for a custom bike or car tour. She says agriculture in Detroit has been expanding exponentially, with nearly 50 percent growth per year for the last five years. Arrow 313-237-8736,

Urban Farming While downtown and the areas immediately surrounding it are as well served as anywhere, most of Detroit is a food desert—a 2007 study found that more than half the population is twice as far from the nearest grocery store as the nearest gas station, liquor store, or other “fringe food” location. Urban Farming, an international nonprofit, was founded in Detroit in 2005 by musician Taja Sevelle to eradicate hunger by growing food on vacant lots, on rooftops, and in backyards, schoolyards, and parks for distribution to the needy; some 60 such locations now pepper Detroit alone, and the company is the official charity of Sevelle’s label, Atlantic. Arrow 248-388-4749,

Farnsworth Neighborhood One inspiring example of the greening movement is this east-side neighborhood, where an unofficial collective of artists, musicians, activists and other fringe types has turned a once-dilapidated area into a utopian oasis of urban gardens and craftily restored houses. Keep in mind that this is where people live and work, but don’t be surprised if you’re greeted warmly and shown around. For a slightly more formal introduction to the area, check out the Yes Farm art space ( at the corner of Farnsworth and Moran. Arrow Farnsworth loosely between St. Aubin and Moran.

Eastern Market Saturday’s the day to hit Detroit’s open-air farmers market, which claims to be the largest historic public market in the country. Some 150 farmers from Michigan, Ohio, and Canada—including some of the urban farmers in the city—back up their trucks and hawk incredibly fresh produce at incredibly cheap prices. The surrounding neighborhood is a mosaic of restaurants, bars, stores, warehouses, and meatpacking plants. Vivio’s (2460 Market, serves probably the best Bloody Mary in town; Russell Street Deli (2465 Russell, makes a fine stop for lunch. Arrow Russell and Winder, 313-833-9300,


Heidelberg Project Artist Tyree Guyton grew up on Heidelberg Street on the east side and at age 12 watched his neighborhood decimated by riots and white flight. In 1986, with the help of family members and neighborhood kids, he began cleaning up some of the vacant houses on the block—and using found materials turned them, and nearby fences, trees, yards, cars, and boats—into giant junk sculptures. Over the years it’s evolved into a blocks-long project. Guyton’s bright colors evoke a childlike wonderment, but there’s a sharp underlying commentary on blight, racism, and disposable culture. Though he’s been internationally recognized for the project, the city has twice demolished part of it. You can book a group tour (for $300, limit 75 people) led by Guyton and Jenenne Whitfield, the project’s executive director, via the Web site. But you can also just park on the north side of Heidelberg and walk around. Arrow Start on the 3600 block of Heidelberg, 313-267-1622,

Detroit Institute of Arts Chicagoans are spoiled by the museums here, but thanks to mountains of early- and mid-20th century auto money, the DIA is the fifth-largest art museum in the country and has one of the most impressive permanent collections in the world. Among its holdings are Diego Rivera’s frescoes of Detroit industry, which he considered his most important work in the U.S., and Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait. The General Motors Center for African American Art is one of the first such curatorial departments at a major museum. Thanks to a recent $158 million expansion (designed by Michael Graves) and a user-friendly rethinking of how a museum should interact with its audience in the technological age, the DIA is as relevant now as it is has ever been. Arrow 5200 Woodward, 313-833-7900,

Chicago Reader: These Parts issue

Benton Harbor Wild Wild Midwest The architecture, the agriculture, the art, the archaeology—there's nowhere in America quite like Detroit right now.
By Jonathan Mahalak

Willi Lehner There Will Be Wind Some Wisconsin residents say wind turbines are making them sick—but it's hard to get much sympathy when you object to something as squeaky clean as renewable energy
By Michael Miner

Gary, Indiana Men In Suits A new documentary explores the cult of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger.
By Ed M. Koziarski

Gary, Indiana Cheese Makers for a Day Some of Chicagoland's best chefs head for Coopersville, Michigan to get their hands curdy.
By Mike Sula

Gary, Indiana Summer Guide Fairs, festivals, and other events in Chicago and across the region

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit MOCAD opened in 2006, in a former car dealership. The space is intentionally sparse and spacious, so as not to distract from the ever-changing installations, performances, panel discussions, and other events. For a time Martin Creed’s white neon sign Everything Is Going to be Alright, installed across the building’s facade, became something of a mantra for the city, but then it was replaced by Sislej Xhafa’s white neon Nothing Will Be Alright. Arrow 4454 Woodward, 313-832-6622,

Russell Industrial Center This 2.2 million-square-foot complex, a former auto body plant and yet more of Albert Kahn’s handiwork, is home today to hundreds of artists, musicians, and creative businesspeople who keep studio space here thanks to low rents, 24-hour security and a sense of community. The spaces are host to exhibitions, plays, classes, and other events (like “art battles”); the third annual People’s Arts Festival will be held 8/29-8/30. Arrow 1600 Clay, Detroit, 313-872-4000,

Dequindre Cut Greenway The Dequindre Cut, a newly completed rails-to-trails project, is a bizzaro version of Manhattan’s High Line. The below-grade, concrete-walled cut, neglected for years, had become a canvas for taggers, a hideout for vagrants, and generally a place of mischief and misery. But on May 14, following a $3.75 million paving and landscaping job, the Cut is having its formal grand opening as a clean-cut downtown attraction. Why is this listed under art? Because most of the fantastic graffiti has wisely been preserved. Architecture fans will also appreciate a unique view of the Mies-designed Lafayette Towers, which from this perspective seem to shoot out of the treetops like two great glass-and-steel beacons. The path hooks up with the new RiverWalk, from which you can head downtown or to Belle Isle. The only bike shop downtown that offers rentals is Wheelhouse Detroit (1340 E. Atwater, 313-656-2453,; it also runs guided bike tours with themes like Detroit architecture or Henry Ford’s birthday. Arrow Eastern Market district to east riverfront,

Motown Historical Museum Located in the very house and recording studio where Berry Gordy Jr. lived and started the label in 1959, Hitsville, U.S.A, features a limited amount of pictures and memorabilia, but what’s worth the price of admission ($10) is seeing Gordy’s ingenious echo chamber—a hole cut in the ceiling that created the reverb effects many of the label’s biggest hits relied on. Arrow 2648 W. Grand, 313-875-2264,


Preservation Wayne Walking Tours A terrific crash course for first timers is the nonprofit Preservation Wayne guided downtown tour, which steps off every Saturday at 10 AM May-September and includes both key older buildings and newer development. Art deco fans should keep an eye out for the Guardian Building, with its local Pewabic pottery tiles and lavish mix of Aztec, Native American, and arts-and-crafts influences; and the Penobscot Building, with its crowning red neon globe; both were designed by native Michigander Wirt C. Rowland. More advanced buffs may opt for a skyscraper-specific route or tours focused on the downtown works of Albert Kahn or Louis Kamper (who designed the Book-Cadillac, the Book Tower, and the Water Board Building); most are $10. Arrow 313-577-3559,

Lafayette Park This 78-acre early-60s urban renewal project was a collaboration between Mies van der Rohe, planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, and developer Herbert Greenwald. A mix of low- and high-rise apartments and co-ops surround a 19-acre park; especially breathtaking are Mies’s townhouses on Nicolet and Joliet off Rivard Street, where glass and metal settle effortlessly into a shady, lushly landscaped setting. Lafayette Park is the largest single-site collection of Mies buildings in the world and, to many modernism fans, heaven. These days a three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,300-square-foot townhouse can be had for about $120,000. ArrowBounded approximately by Antietam, Orleans, Lafayette and Rivard.

GM Tech Center Campus Not in Detroit proper, but an absolute must-see. Designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1955, this 1.1-square-mile campus is an incredible mix of landscape design and architecture, complete with a 22-acre lake, fountains, and sculptures. Public tours of the interiors are rarely allowed, but a drive around the grounds is enough to make you forget about the auto giant’s troubles and start prepping a resume. Arrow30001 Van Dyke, Warren, 313-556-5000,

Cranbrook Educational Community Also not technically in Detroit, but key to Detroit’s role in the advent of modernism. Founded by newspaper magnate George Booth, who brought in Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to design the campus and run the art school. His son Eero grew up there and, as a student, met the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and Florence Knoll. In addition to visiting the art museum at Cranbrook, you can tour both Saarinen’s house and Booth’s, which was designed by Albert Kahn. Arrow 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills, 248-645-3000.


Lafayette Coney Island No visit to Detroit would be complete without a lunchtime sodium injection at Lafayette Coney Island, where they’ve perfected the Detroit-style dog: a beef and pork dog in natural casing, slathered in beef chili and mustard and sprinkled with chopped onions. The restaurant next door, American Coney Island, is run by a different branch of the same family; some Detroiters will swear it’s better. Arrow 118 W. Lafayette, 313-964-8198.

Slows Bar BQ If you’re only going to eat there once, go for the aptly named The Reason—thick-cut Texas toast piled a few inches high with Niman Ranch pulled pork and topped with house-made slaw and dill pickle strips. The wait will be long, so tell the host you’ll be two doors down at LJ’s Lounge—they’ll send someone to get you when your table’s ready. Arrow 2138 Michigan, 313-962-9828,

Roma Cafe Detroit’s oldest restaurant features above-average Italian-American standards—but the service and ambience make the experience. The waiters are old-guard, tuxedo-wearing pros (and the only unionized waitstaff in the city), and they never stop moving. Don’t make a reservation—wait for a table at the intimate bar, where when you order a Manhattan, you get a Manhattan. Arrow 3401 Riopelle, 313-831-5940,

The Park Bar/Bucharest Grill A round bar in the middle of a high-ceilinged, glass-walled room that somehow doesn’t make you feel like you’re drinking in a fishbowl. Concerts, open mikes, comedy, and plays take place upstairs and in the basement, and Bucharest Grill (313-965-3111), which shares the space, serves Romanian food and pub fare. Arrow 2040 Park, 313-962-2933,

Cliff Bell’s The Park Bar’s neighbor, a beautifully restored art deco jazz spot with a kitchen featuring “French-inspired classic Americana.” Arrow 2030 Park, 313-961-2543,

The Bronx Bar In the Cass Corridor, Detroit’s historic skid row, which has been wishfully rebranded by the city as Midtown. This very dark, cheap drinking bar attracts a fashionable crowd at night; the dueling jukeboxes are widely considered the best in town. Arrow 4476 Second, 313-832-8464.

Honest John’s A Detroit institution, though it’s only been in this Cass Corridor location for a few years. It’s open at 7 AM every day but Christmas and has decent food and a decenter juke box; if you go alone, there’s always someone at the bar with a story to tell you. Arrow 488 Selden, 313-832-5646.

Motor City Brewing Works Detroit’s first microbrewery and the Corridor’s intellectual center, owned by John Linardos, one of the founders of Detroit’s Ghetto Recorders studio and a backer of the Detroit Cheers currency. There’s a rooftop deck on which to enjoy beers like Ghettoblaster Mild English Ale or Motown Lager or selections from a nice wine list (no mixed drinks) with some brick-oven pizza. Arrow 470 W. Canfield, 313-832-2700,

Foran’s Irish Pub The widest selection of Michigan-brewed beers in town—plus Faygo pop in glass bottles—in a former jewelry store and railway ticket office with 25-foot vaulted ceilings and loads of vintage charm. The kitchen serves standard-issue pub grub. Arrow 612 Woodward, 313-961-3043,

Tom’s Tavern This dilapidated shack is Detroit’s oldest continually operating saloon. The jukebox is well-stocked with jazz, soul, and classic rock, the regulars are friendly, and the barstools are cut to keep you level on the slanted floors. Hours are irregular—you might want to call first. Arrow 10093 W. Seven Mile, 313-862-9768.


Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit This nonprofit pushes for deconstruction—an alternative to demolition and landfilling that preserves up to 85 percent of reusable or recyclable materials—and promotes preservation, conservation, and environmental sustainability. It also has huge stock of one-of-a-kind materials for your vintage rehab needs. Arrow 4885 15th, 313-896-8333,

Xavier’s 20th Century Furniture Like any resale shop, Xavier’s can be hit or miss, but on the right day aficionados of the midcentury innovation that came out of Cranbrook (or Michigan companies like Herman Miller and Steelcase) can find themselves face to face with a once-in-a-lifetime deal—or at the very least a proprietor who’s willing to haggle. Arrow 2546 Michigan, 313-964-1222,

People’s Records After an early-2008 fire tore through its former location, it looked like this terrific secondhand vinyl boutique—specializing in soul, R & B, jazz, and especially music made in Detroit—might be a goner, but it has since reopened in a spacious former millinery shop. Arrow 3161 Woodward, Detroit, 313-831-0864,


Westin Book-Cadillac A $200 million renovation/restoration of the historic downtown hotel, which closed in 1984 and was subsequently ravaged by scrappers, the elements, and time, was completed in 2008. Arrow 1114 Washington, 313-442-1600,

Inn on Ferry Street This 40-room B & B comprises four restored Victorian homes and two carriage houses; it offers free shuttles to major cultural attractions and restaurants and is a favorite for both weddings and touring bands. Arrow 84 E. Ferry, 313-871-6000,

Inn at 97 Winder Huge restored 1870s Victorian mansion at the southern edge of Brush Park, just north of downtown and the stadiums. Arrow 97 Winder, 800-925-1538,


People Mover The People Mover, a monorail that travels in a clockwise circle around an easily walkable area of downtown Detroit, serves the public best as the butt of jokes—though it does provide some good views. Arrow

D-Dot Bus The buses have gotten better but remain unreliable.

Cabs A concierge or bartender can call one for you and it will arrive in a timely manner. But the best option for the Motor City, not surprisingly, is a car with a GPS.   

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