Detroit: the ‘Comeback City’
Imagine my surprise when I read the New York Times recently called Detroit a “top travel destination worldwide” for 2017, along with cities like Budapest, Hungary, Santiago, Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.
My impression from reading stories about the bankrupt city the last few years was of a metropolis full of boarded up or torn-down homes, broken street lights, the near sell-off of valuable works of art, auto companies bailed-out and people leaving by the tens of thousands — a devastated city.
Since I have family members living in Detroit and I went to graduate school in nearby Ann Arbor, Michigan, I’ve followed the recent stories about the once-great city.
I wondered how a city could get to that point, and then how it could pick itself up, so I visited Detroit — also called Motown or Motor City — to see how it’s doing. You can feel a new energy there and it’s earning a new nickname: People have begun calling it the “Comeback City.”
Riding around, I saw some boarded-up buildings but many were new or renovated in the downtown area. People in the arts community are moving in, drawn by low rents, new jobs, proximity to the Detroit River and Riverside Park, a large year-round farmers’ market and Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. The District Detroit, now under construction, will be home to the new Detroit Red Wings and Pistons arena and 50 blocks of new retail, residential and entertainment venues.
My trip began with a dinner cruise up the Detroit River on a 117-foot chartered yacht to see both Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit along the riverfront. A new five-mile walkway along this scenic riverfront has plenty of call boxes and security guards patrolling the international border.
I already knew Detroit was where the moving assembly line manufacture of cars began. But what I wasn’t expecting as I walked into the Henry Ford Museum was the much broader view of automobile history presented, beyond just the Ford Motor Company.
The museum tells much more about the development of the auto industry, as well as how it shaped the U.S. The Model T on display was considered the first affordable car for an emerging middle class, and larger touring cars allowed people to escape to the country. Then there were historical examples of how very important people rode: Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage; FDR’s 1939 car specially designed for his paralysis; the car in which President Kennedy was shot; and Reagan’s 1972 Lincoln.
There were unexpected historical items as well — the chair President Lincoln sat in when he was shot, the bus Rosa Parks took when she challenged the status quo and a camp bed that belonged to George Washington.
A few years ago, the fate of the famous Detroit Institute of Art was in question while Detroit was in bankruptcy, but in 2014 the museum pulled through thanks to financial aid from the city, state and wealthy donors.
The art institute has gallery-sized Diego Rivera frescos depicting the history of the automobile industry and the labor force of the 1930s, when Detroit was home to the largest manufacturing industry in the world. The frescos by this famous Mexican artist are two-stories tall, cover four walls and have been declared a National Historic Landmark.
I still remember my introduction to Rivera when I was 17. My high school Spanish club went to Mexico for a week over spring break, and we saw his murals.
Beyond Rivera’s work, DIA was the first U.S. museum to acquire Van Gogh and Matisse paintings, and has works by many old masters like Rembrandt, Bruegel and Tintoretto. Its vast collection of about 60,000 diverse works from many cultures and ages is wonderful — I recommend touring the museum with a guide.
At the Detroit Zoo, I was mesmerized watching four different types of penguins toddle around their habitat like babies that just learned to walk. They dove in the water like children playing follow the leader. The zoo’s new Polk Penguin Conservation Center is the largest one of its kind in the world and home to more than 80 penguins.
Cheap real estate and open spaces have led to an influx of new restaurants in the city — according to National Geographic, Detroit has become a top food destination.
I enjoyed dinner at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, which is located near the art institute — it’s in the building where Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, stayed while he painted the DIA frescos.
Coincidentally, it’s located on the main floor of the building where my physician niece lived, so she walked downstairs to join my friends and me for dinner. Chartreuse has an eclectic and changing menu of locally sourced foods.
There’s also the old. Within walking distance of the Greektown Hotel and Casino where I stayed, Detroit’s Eastern Market is one of the largest and longest-lasting farmers’ markets in the country, dating to 1898. It’s a fun place to browse around and sample pizza, ice cream, hummus, pineapple upside down cake and nuts and seeds.
The market is open every Saturday, and in the summer it’s open several weekdays, as well. The market fills half a dozen indoor buildings with standards like fresh produce, flowers and crafts of many kinds.
On the edge of the market in September, Murals in the Market is a nine-day festival with colorful giant murals painted on many buildings. One mural featured kids with goggles representing the Tuskegee Airmen.
Another mural summed up the feel of the recovering city, and what I saw of Detroit on my trip, with its rich history and art, its revitalizing culture. The mural showed an angelic surgeon repairing the symbolic heart of Detroit.
Reprinted with permission from Lillie Suburban Newspapers in Saint Paul, MN.