How many Detroits are there? Ask, and you'll find there's a different metropolis mapped in the head of every resident here. We asked a handful of folks to tell us something about the map in their heads, what one thing they'd show an out-of-towner to explain this place. It probably says something about Detroiters that very few could limit themselves to one must-see. Here are some of them.
Island life: Get to the island Belle Isle, that is advises Skillman Foundation President and CEO Carol Goss, especially in the early morning and especially if a blanket of snow gives it a winter sheen. And if you're a runner, it's made for you.
While you're there, Lowell Boileau wants you to go to the far western tip and look at "those twin icons, the Ambassador Bridge and the Renaissance Center." Boileau, the creator the DetroitYES and Fabulous Ruins of Detroit sites on the Web, says he starts tours for out-of-towners here, pointing out a place inhabited for millennia by Native Americas and where the arrival of Cadillac 300 years ago set in motion what you see today: a city extending 40 miles or more in every direction. Boileau says it's like seeing "a giant storyboard just waiting for a script."
Downtown: Bring an ex-Detroiter back to the D, and where do they head? Ann Delisi, longtime radio personality, currently at WRCJ-FM, uses that measuring stick to make Lafayette Coney Island "it's stood the test of time" a mandatory stop. She recommends that visitors ask the waiters to show "the stunt where they put the glass on your head and fill it with milk."
Sarah Lurtz and Sarah Lipinski suggest in addition to their own Pure Detroit Design Lab for local fashion that downtown stops include the Karmic Café (for organic smoothies, etc.) in the Guardian Building and the Comet Bar for Friday night karaoke.
Ryan Elliott, a DJ associated with Ann Arbor's Ghostly International/Spectral Sounds label, says just walk downtown, take note of the still-empty buildings, "and soak in some of the uniqueness that just oozes out of this town and its ghost buildings."
And artist Maurice Greenia touts the People Mover, not as a means of traveling, but as a means of seeing: too slow for a roller coaster, but "a big carnival ride" nonetheless. And away from downtown, he recommends Zeitgeist Gallery ("One of my homes away from home") where you can see local artist Robert Hyde alongside French artists Claudine Goux and Pascal Hecker.
Monuments: Singer Sista Otis, on a Southern leg of her "The Good Time Revolution Tour 06," e-mailed to say visitors shouldn't miss the Spirit of Detroit statue at the foot of Woodward Avenue or the statue of runaway slaves on the river side of Hart Plaza. Note that all of the figures are looking toward Canada; none are looking back to the United States. Next, she writes, "bust out laughing, get a six-pack of PBR, drink them in the car, go the Hard Rock Café and steal rock 'n' roll memorabilia." (Not that we'd recommend the drinking-driving or stealing part.)
Dave Elsila, a former editor of the UAW's Solidarity magazine who teaches at the Wayne State University labor school, recommends the Labor Legacy Landmark on Hart Plaza. "Wander among the 14 bronze reliefs telling the stories of workers who built Detroit, with quotes from labor and civic leaders, all framed by two 63-foot steel arcs," Elsila says. And, in addition to Ford Field, he points to the Ford legacy on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts in the form of the Diego Rivera murals, depicting the Ford Rouge Plant of the 1930s.
Showtime: "The Fox remains the most beautiful theater in America and would be a great moment to teach about what Detroit's theater scene once was, and hopefully will be again," says Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for the Triangle Foundation.
Mealtimes: Eat breakfast at Avalon bakery in the Cass Corridor, snack at bakeries in Mexicantown, head on to Dearborn's New Yasmeen Bakery for tabbouleh and more pastries, people-watch in Ferndale and Royal Oak, back south to Hamtramck for improv at Planet Ant, and finish in Harmonie Park and Greektown. That's a full day suggested by artist and photographer Ryan Keberly (snowsuit.net).
Overview: It's no place to stop, but take a quick look from East Grand Boulevard's railroad overpass just east of I-75. The abandoned factories you see offer "a poignant metaphor for Detroit in the last half-century," says Frank Rashid, English department chairman at Marygrove College. And see St. Anne's Church, built in 1886, in southwest Detroit and the surrounding neighborhood for an example of urban revival "designed to fit into the existing neighborhood."
Get out of town: Drive west on Jefferson Avenue from downtown until it turns into Biddle Avenue in downtown Wyandotte, says Jeremy Hansen, associate designer at River's Edge Gallery. Yes, he's directing you to where he works, but there's also Energie Coffee and Smoothie Bar (with Fair Trade coffee), Belicoso Cafe and Fine Cigars, Gizmo's Martini Lounge (with live jazz), Candy Wrapper (a vintage candy shop), Boston Tea Room (to hang out with a psychic), Austin's Hyde Park Grille, Portofino on the River for fine dining, and more. Featured gallery artists include local faves such as Niagara, Gary Grimshaw and Mark Arminski.
What's unseen: Both Michigan Chronicle columnist Steve Holsey and historian Paul Lee tell out-of-towners to look for clues to the black community that was Black Bottom, to the east of downtown, and the likewise demolished business-entertainment district of Paradise Valley. Holsey says if he were a tour guide, he'd pass on stories of the 1940s from his uncles and others; he'd take visitors to rebuilt areas such as Lafayette Park, and talk about what used to be. Lee notes that the southern tip of Paradise Valley "lies buried under the hulking new Ford Field, where the Super Bowl will be played." He'd direct the visitors to see the parking lot a few blocks away that once was Motown headquarters. He'd focus "on our collective failure to preserve, husband and celebrate precious aspects of our history and culture, particularly those of black Detroit."
W. Kim Heron is Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to [email protected] or call 313-202-8011.
More advice from your Detroit guides ...
The riverfront vista
While touring newcomers to our city, I always end up by walking them out to the far western tip of Belle Isle, often with a fine bottle of wine and snacks. There, from that peaceful and stunning panorama, dominated by those twin icons of Detroit, the Ambassador Bridge and the Renaissance Center, I tell the story of Detroit.
I explain to them that we are sitting amid Le Detroit, the straits of Detroit, after which the City of Detroit is named. I point out that we are an international metropolis, the world’s largest, and are blessed to be next to and at peace with a great and progressive neighbor, Canada.
I describe how we are an ancient city, inhabited for millennia by native Americans, then point out where Cadillac landed with his tiny flotilla of canoes over 300 years ago beyond which the city now extends for forty miles or more in every direction. I show them where the first big auto factory stood and tell the story of the amazing rise of modern industrial Detroit. I move on to the story of our travails of disunity in the last half of the 20th century beginning with the 1943 riots by the Belle Isle Bridge and continue through to the story of the re-emergent rise of today’s Detroit.
It all lies right there, a giant storyboard just awaiting a script. That is the reason I use that vista as the header of my DetroitYES.com website.
The overpass and the church
East Grand Boulevard railroad overpass: Whenever my historian colleague, Tom Klug, and I give tours of the city to students or visitors, we always try to include a spot on East Grand Boulevard, the overpass over the railroad junction just east of I-75. The Grand Trunk Western railroad line at this point once provided rail frontage for an important center of Detroit industry. After World War II, however, smaller automobile manufacturers went out of business; the major auto companies automated and decentralized; and small, auto-related industrial firms either followed the auto industry elsewhere or closed up. Thomas Sugrue thoroughly describes this process of deindustrialization in Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. The near-east side of Detroit was especially hard-hit — I sometimes wonder how many urban areas anywhere in the world have endured such intense devastation other than in times of war and natural disaster. From the East Grand Boulevard overpass, looking north and south, one sees literally dozens of abandoned factories. The view from this overpass provides a quick and graphic illustration of what has happened to Detroit and why it’s wrongheaded to blame the city and its residents for the devastation of the last sixty years. The abandoned factory is a poignant metaphor for Detroit in the last half-century.
The Ste. Anne’s Church neighborhood: This is another important stop on our tour. Anyone visiting this neighborhood 10 years ago would have seen the city’s oldest institution surrounded by vacant lots and a few homes in need of serious repair, some on the verge of demolition. Freeway construction had dissected this once-densely populated southwest Detroit neighborhood; industrial and commercial interests had treated it with disdain; crime and declining property values had chased away most of its residents and small businesses; restrictive zoning had thwarted its redevelopment. Today, a revitalized, economically diverse urban community surrounds the wonderful old church. New housing has been designed to fit into the existing neighborhood. Old homes have been restored. (Often it’s difficult to tell the new homes from the old.) A senior citizen housing complex and market rate condominiums have been added. A neighborhood has been reborn. Safeguards ensure that the redevelopment does not displace the neighborhood’s long-standing residents. This amazing transformation shows what can happen when strong community leaders, area residents, and local organizations and agencies share a common vision and work tirelessly to bring it into being.
—Frank D. Rashid; Chairperson, Department of English and Modern Languages; Faculty member, Institute for Detroit Studies; Marygrove College
A historian’s lament
The city of Detroit has had and still has enormous gifts — spiritual, artistic, intellectual and material — to contribute to this nation and, indeed, the world, and there is no shortage of Detroiters to promote them.
However, I would hope that, as a historian, I could be forgiven for focusing, particularly during the past week, upon our collective failure to preserve, husband and celebrate precious aspects of our history and culture, particularly those of black Detroit.
No-Town: So what would I direct the attention of out-of-towners who will visit our beloved city during the Super Bowl to?
No. 1, to the parking lot that was, until last week, the famed Motown Building at Woodward and the Fisher Expressway (not to be confused with Motown’s original home, Hitsville U. S. A., on West Grand Boulevard).
I would point out to them the inexcusable tragedy of how Motown founder and former Detroiter Barry Gordy, a second-term black mayor (who, ironically, grew up in the Black Christian Nationalist Shrine of the Black Madonna) and a mostly black City Council failed to save this historic structure for posterity.
Worse, I would add that, for years, our collective neglect allowed this building to be looted of original documents. I would then tell them a story that few would want to believe — that the remaining records literally wafted threw the air while the wrecking ball obliterated this monument to one of the world’s most popular modern musical forms.
I would end by advising them that, according to our city’s political and business leaders, this was all done for the convenience of them, our out-of-town guests. But for many Detroiters, it is merely the latest example of the careless face-lifting destruction of the irreplaceable remnants of our material heritage.
Museum of too little history: Next, I would take them on a tour of the new core exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History at East Warren and John R.
I would explain to them the sad irony in the fact that in this, the largest museum of its kind in the world, native Detroiters search in vain for any meaningful representation of the history of its distinctive neighborhoods — East side, West side, Southwest, north Detroit — these communities within the larger city that indelibly and uniquely stamp all of us as Detroiters.
With a heavy heart, I would advise them that Detroiters and out-of-towners alike would not find anything historically reliable about the once-proud, now-gone Black Bottom residential neighborhood and the famous Paradise Valley entertainment and commercial district (the southern tip of which lies buried under the hulking new Ford Field, where the Super Bowl will be played).
These historic districts were destroyed by urban renewal — which many black people understood to mean "Negro removal" — and "integration."
Nor would they find any account of the old North End, which ran from E. Grand Boulevard to Highland Park, also a once-thriving entertainment and business strip, which is now a wasteland dotted by the occasional worn structure, seemingly wondering what became of the community of which it was once a part.
It gets worse. No representation of Conant Gardens, the Sojourner Truth and Jeffries projects, the Brewster Homes (where many Motown greats once lived).
I would point out that Detroiters could be forgiven for wondering about the priorities of a museum that ambitiously aspires to recount the glories of ancient African civilizations, but couldn’t seem to find space to tell the finger-snapping, styling and profiling, hustling and balling tales of 12th Street.
The museum’s noble floor ring of memory couldn’t possibly accommodate the hundreds of black Detroiters who have contributed immeasurably to our rich history and culture, so most of them die every day without ever having been properly acknowledged, honored or, most of all, thanked! Nearly as tragically, it hasn’t seemed to occur to anyone to contact their families for their personal records.
Finally, I would tell our guests that black Detroiters — most of whom, I’m convinced, pray and yearn for the success of the museum — cannot be blamed for feeling alienated from an institution that, in recent years, has been headed by people like themselves — out-of-towners — with little or no knowledge or understanding of our history and too little personal investment in or organic connection with us, the work-a-day people who made and continue to make Detroit history and culture.
They understand that there has never been a good reason to reach beyond the vast pool of education, experience, talent and commitment that exists right here.
Our song: Out of respect and love for our honored ancestors, the living and the yet-born, this is the story, the lament, that I would share with our guests — that black Detroiters, out of hard necessity and boundless ingenuity, did everything — fed, clothed, housed, transported, traded with, played with and entertained ourselves, a story that our children, no less than out-of-towners, know. It is worthy of being memorialized.
So I would ask our guests to join us in prayer and good works to recover, protect (even from ourselves!) and promote the deeds we have done, the places we have lived, the institutions that we built, our hurt, our pain, our power — the song that we sing like nobody else in the world.
—Paul Lee, Highland Park (born at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital, Detroit)