Love Letter to the Motor City

I have a secret.  Something that I’ve never told Eric, but I will divulge to you now.

Growing up, I was pretty sure there was nothing good that came out of Michigan.

Now, you have to understand that that particular sentiment was stemmed from the sports rivalries that spanned the generations.  Ohio State/Michigan.  Or, for someone who has been a basketball fanatic for as long as she can remember, the days of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” comes to mind.  Admittedly, I had only been to Michigan once (on a field trip to Detroit) growing up and, looking back, I saw nothing of what that city had to offer.  I really had no basis for that negative opinion.  I’m glad I’ve been able to turn that opinion around as an adult because there are parts of Michigan that are downright incredible.

But I don’t want to talk about the state as a whole here, I am really writing to express my undying love for Detroit.  No, that is not tinged with irony – I actually love Detroit.  How did this happen?  In brief, I began traveling there for work over the years that I spent working at Modernista! LTD. on the Cadillac account.  I saw the Ren Cen, a lot.  The inside of restaurants.  The Townsend.  The Detroit Athletic Club.  The bars in Birmingham.  But my knowledge of Detroit, for as many times as I traveled there in those years, barely scratched the surface.

Then, I began dating (and, obviously, later married) a Detroiter.

Through Eric I got to experience the side of Detroit that I never experienced before.  Beautiful things – some in the shadow of the Ren Cen or other places I’d been – but never even known about.  I quickly became a fan of the city that I came to think over the years as Cleveland’s sister city.

So, not being the type that can keep good things to myself, I began talking about Detroit one day to my friend Becky Astrop (of Cleveland Museum of Art + general awesomeness fame).  Becky’s a Brit – though she + her husband Tim have lived in the states for several years – and she hadn’t been to Detroit but was very curious about it.  She asked me questions relating to what she’d seen in the media over the past few years (like this) and wanted to know if this was what it was like.  Without hesitation I told her that the only way to understand the true state of Detroit, albeit as the outsiders we are, is to see it for yourself.  With a qualified tour guide, of course.  Thus was born our Detroit Urban Adventure Tour (aka Weekend Getaway to the D).

Eric and I quickly began the planning.  We knew that we had to squeeze a lot into a short period of time.  What came of it was this:

  • After a mere 2 hour and 45 minute drive up, we began the Tour de D at Slow’s (Phil Cooley happened to be in that night but we didn’t get to chat with him – I’d love to connect with him to talk about bridging the CLE/D gap, figure he might have ideas.  Some day!).
  • Next came a stop at D’mongo’s Speakeasy – which I’d only read about before.  This speakeasy jazz club, only open 1 night a week, lived up to its stellar rep for live music and brimmed with character.
  • We ended the night at one of Eric’s former haunts, Bronx Bar.  The decor in this place is awesome – edgy cool meets traditional (old wood, stained glass table lamps, etc.).

  • Saturday morning we scraped ourselves together and, given the fact that it was raining, decided to hold off on outdoor activities until the weather let up.  That was fine because we were jonsing for brunch at Toast.  Though we love both locations, we opted to head to Ferndale so that we could also show Tim + Becky the area.  Eric took me here for my birthday breakfast a few years back and its since become a destination for us when we have time to stop for a leisurely breakfast while in the area).
  • Next stop: One of my all time favorite buildings.  The Guardian Building.  Built as a bank for the “common man,” this building now holds many different types of businesses while still sporting one of the most unusual exterior/interior aesthetics I’ve ever seen.  Art deco meets Aztec art.  Doesn’t sound like it would work, huh?  Well, it not only works – it’s a masterpiece.  I’m so glad this building has been maintained and wasn’t left to deteriorate (unfortunately, an issue that both Detroit and Cleveland have to contend with).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • By now the weather had not only improved, it was a gorgeous sunny day in the Motor City.  So, we decided to walk around Hart Plaza.  There was a church group meeting.  The pastor was preaching and urging his congregants to “pray for the jobs to return.”  It was heartbreaking to hear his words here, in the middle of this public amphitheater, just reverberating for all to hear.  A worthy prayer – and completely indicative of the times we find ourselves in in the Rustbelt.  Recession isn’t yet behind us.  Beyond that experience, being in the plaza was incredible – it’s hard to believe that this type of public space was supported and actually built.  Right there on the water (what a great use of the waterfront – a-hem, Cleveland…), Canada in the distance across the river.  Just awesome.  Being here also let us show Becky + Tim the Renaissance Center (home of General Motors world HQ) and talk about our days working on the Cadillac account.  Memories…
  • We then took pix with Joe Lewis’ fist.  ‘nough said.

 

  • Walked over to the Spirit of Detroit (trivia tidbit: sculptor that created this – Marshall Fredericks – was from Cleveland and also sculpted the Fountain of Eternal Life) and took more pix.
  • By that time we had worked up an appetite (and, in full disclosure, were in the mood for some day drinking – yay vacation!).  We headed to the Majestic & Garden Bowl so Eric could show us the space and partook in some vittles and libations.
  • We then got the show back on the road.  In all the times I had been to Detroit, I never got a proper souvenir.  This time Eric was determined not to let that happen.  He took me to Pewabic Pottery and let me pick out a few pieces for our new home.  Very, very exciting.
  • Next up – another place I had been wanting to go for years.  Somehow it happened that, every time Eric would go, I wouldn’t be with him.  Not this time.  We went to Motown – and it was awesome.  I got to sing in the same studio where everyone had recorded in the ’60s, dance on the floor – bad-ass!  Tim had some mad Temptations moves too – gotta pay credit where credit is due.

  • We chose to go up to the D this weekend because Dally in the Alley was happening.  By this point in the afternoon, the weather was glorious and we went to partake in the festival.  I wish that Cleveland had something like this (Ohio City would be a perfect location – someone should plan this – hint, hint, nudge, nudge!).  Great music + interesting booths + good times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • After a few hours we were ready to continue our adventure.  We grabbed a quick snack at Cass Cafe and then headed to Indian Village to marvel at the magnificent homes.  Most of this area, despite its location in metro Detroit and the state of many of the surrounding areas, is still in excellent condition.  I really commend the residents that have chosen to stay and keep this neighborhood beautiful.
  • Continuing on the real estate tick, it had been a while since Eric and I had driven by the Dorothy Turkel house (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright).  Holy cow – it is magnificent.  The current owners have put such love and effort into both the structure itself and the surrounding grounds.  I would love to tour this place some day if it’s ever open for that kind of thing.
  • We drove around quite a bit in the following hours, showing Tim/Becky the other, more widely covered side of Detroit as of the past few years.  It’s hard to describe how it feels to go through some of these areas.  In the past I’ve described it as a war zone – vacancy on a scale that cannot be fathomed unless you see it for yourself.  The houses that have caught fire, most likely not recently, but have been left to decay.  Other homes – “feral houses” – where nature has begun to claim the structures and return the land to it’s origins.  Blocks and blocks of Woodward Avenue with empty storefronts.  There are a few images from this area of Woodward that stick in my mind – both have to do with structural devastation.  The first I saw a few years back – it still exists in this state – what looks to have been a bustling furniture store at one time now exists as a scene out of a Hollywood apocalypse film.  What seems to have happened is that the store, still operational, had the roof cave in.  Instead of repairing it, they left it.  Like time stood still.  structural beams resting on sofas; electrical wires draped from the ceiling, only to rest on dinette sets.  Eerie.  The other visual that comes to mind when I think of the decay on Woodward (the once grand avenue where engineers and drag racers would race to see who really defined Detroit muscle), is a large, probably 8-10 story building where the building’s upper floors seem to have caught on fire.  The roof completely collapsed and can be seen through the open window frames of the top few floors.  The reason this building sticks out to me over others is because there seem to be businesses still operating on the street level.  This is the reality, and sadness, that also exists in Detroit.  It’s important to understand the extremes of the city, which is why we wanted our friends to see these places, as hard as it is to know that such a grand city could crumble in parts.
  • We had decided to grab a late dinner at a “secret location” but still had a few hours to kill so we headed over to La Dolce Vita (really, really great spot in the middle of what seems to be a rougher area – they have gated valet parking – it’s amazing that this place still exists in this location – I really commend them for remaining committed to the area).  The place was bursting with people of all ages and live music.  We stayed for a drink outside on a gorgeous September night and gave ourselves a chance to relax (we really had packed it in, as you can see!).
  • The rest of Saturday night was spent at one of my new, favorite-of-all-time places: Cadiuex Cafe.  Three words: feather pin bowling.  Okay, two more words: Belgian frites.  This place is for you if you want the real-deal side of Detroit.  One of the things I love most about Cleveland/Detroit is that, because of our rich, diverse ethnic make up, you can find these amazing cultural gems.  You might ask, “what, pray tell, is feather pin bowling?”  To that I can only offer that it’s kind of like bocce, with a feather target, and with wood discs that resemble small wheels of cheese.  It’s all kinds of amazing.  Sadly, what we found out the hard way, is that British people kick a whole lot of booty at bar sports like this, especially after a few beverages.  I commend Tim/Becky on their masterful win and use it as reason to spur my featherpin training (one day, there will be a rematch).

  • The next morning was beautiful.  One of the to do’s on Becky’s list was to get over to Grand Central Station in Corktown.  We didn’t venture in (despite someone on the top floor who was urging us to do so – in Tim’s words: “This is how horror movies begin…”), however, we walked the perimeter and got a good look inside.  There were cranes out the day we went – it’s exciting to see the depot being restored – man, do they have their work cut out for them.

  • We grabbed breakfast at Astro Coffee, across the way.  Nom nom nom – I adore this place.  I want to be here, like, every weekend.  The coffee selection, the edgier vibe, the pastries (lavender almond torte?  Yes please!).  No disrespect to Phoenix Coffee (you know there isn’t another latte that can hold a candle to yours as far as I’m concerned!), but I feel like we need a place like Astro in Cleveland.  This is the type of environment that those of us that spent time in “Creative Class” cities (for a lack of a better descriptor…I know it’s wretch-worthy, but you know what I mean) yearn for.  I’ve been back to Astro 3 times – we’ve since been to Michigan a few times for weddings and visits to my in-laws – and have even driven out of our way for a treat for the ride home (last time was their flourless chocolate cake – which might just be the best I’ve ever had).  So, yes, I’m a super big fan of this place 🙂

  • Coffees in hand, we took off to another “secret destination.”  Since Becky works at CMA and has a true passion for art, we decided to spend the rest of the time we had left in Detroit at two destinations that are polar opposites in terms of where they land on the artistic spectrum.  The first one: The Heidelberg Project.  I won’t waste time explaining (you can learn more here), however, here are a few photos.  You have to check this out if you haven’t been.

  • Finally, my first trip to the Detroit Institute of Art.  Spectacular.  My only regret is that we didn’t have more time to spend here.  The Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Fresco paintings were breathtaking.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to step back, look at something and feel totally amazed.  I found myself getting so excited as I’d discover new messages, tucked in behind the featured subjects in these paintings.  I also f0und myself thinking, wow, how visionary was the DIA’s staff?!  They let Rivera come in and paint these frescos on their walls to be a permanent display in 1932.  Brave – and we’re fortunate they did.  Another absolute must see.

With this, our urban adventure – our Tour deTroit, if you will – came to an end.  We piled in the car and, as we drove back to Cleveland I couldn’t help feeling that what separates Cleveland from Detroit (apart from size and the issues that come from being a bigger city), is that Detroiters walk with a little swagger.  This is metaphoric as well as physical.  There’s this feeling that Detroiters know their city is great – they’re not apologetic for its shortcomings – and they live the life they want to live, build the social “scenes” they want to participate in, despite what the rest of the world might be saying about their city.  I know there are some of us that behave this way in Cleveland, but it’s not as widespread in Detroit.  They say “perception is reality” – if that’s true, then we need to behave in a world-class manner so that others, both Clevelanders and those outside of the region, will think of us that way.  Never apologize for our city’s hardships and don’t dwell on them – we all know what they are.  Instead, focus on the positives.  Speak with authority on our incredible city.  Make things, build things, bring people together.  This is the lesson I learned from Detroit.