Wild Wild Midwest
The architecture, the agriculture, the art, the archaeology — there's nowhere in America quite like Detroit right now.
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
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 powerhouseproject.com. “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. 2405 W.
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. 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). Via MacArthur Bridge, Jefferson and Grand, 313-628-2081, fobi.org.
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. 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. 248-388-4749, urbanfarming.org.
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 (theyesfarm.blogspot.com) at the corner of Farnsworth and Moran. 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, viviosbloodymary.com) serves probably the best Bloody Mary in town; Russell Street Deli
(2465 Russell, russellstreetdeli.com) makes a
fine stop for lunch. Russell and Winder, 313-833-9300, detroiteasternmarket.com.
ART & MUSEUMS
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. Start on the 3600 block of Heidelberg, 313-267-1622, heidelberg.org.
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. 5200 Woodward, 313-833-7900, dia.org.
Wild Wild Midwest The architecture, the agriculture, the art, the archaeology—there's nowhere in America quite like Detroit right now.
By Jonathan Mahalak
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
Men In Suits A new documentary explores the cult of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger.
By Ed M. Koziarski
Cheese Makers for a Day Some of Chicagoland's best chefs head for Coopersville, Michigan to get their hands curdy.
By Mike Sula
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. 4454 Woodward, 313-832-6622, mocadetroit.org.
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. 1600 Clay,
Detroit, 313-872-4000, ricdetroit.org.
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, wheelhousedetroit.com); it also runs guided bike tours with themes like
Detroit architecture or Henry Ford’s
Eastern Market district to east riverfront, detroitriverfront.org.
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. 2648 W. Grand, 313-875-2264, motownmuseum.com.
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. 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. Bounded 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. 30001 Van Dyke, Warren, 313-556-5000, gm.com.
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. 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills, 248-645-3000.
FOOD & DRINK
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. 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. 2138 Michigan, 313-962-9828, slowsbarbq.com.
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. 3401 Riopelle, 313-831-5940, romacafe.com.
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.
Park, 313-962-2933, myspace.com/theparkbar.
Cliff Bell’s The Park Bar’s neighbor, a beautifully restored art deco
jazz spot with a kitchen featuring “French-inspired classic Americana.” 2030 Park,
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. 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. 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. 470 W. Canfield, 313-832-2700, motorcitybeer.com.
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. 612 Woodward, 313-961-3043, foransirishpub.com.
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. 10093 W. Seven
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. 4885 15th, 313-896-8333, aswdetroit.org.
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. 2546 Michigan, 313-964-1222, x20th.com.
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. 3161 Woodward,
Detroit, 313-831-0864, peoplesdetroit.com.
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. 1114 Washington,
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. 84 E.
Ferry, 313-871-6000, innonferrystreet.com.
Inn at 97 Winder Huge restored 1870s Victorian mansion at the southern edge of Brush
Park, just north of downtown and the stadiums. 97 Winder, 800-925-1538, theinnat97winder.com.
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. thepeoplemover.com.
D-Dot Bus The buses have gotten better but remain unreliable. detroit.mi.gov.
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.
Send a letter to the editor.
From the Reader blogs