The Midwest Phoenix Rises Again
Detroit put the world on wheels then gave drivers Motown music and the likes of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes to ensure they wouldn’t get bored on the journey!
Once known as the Paris of the Mid-West, the city was the motor miracle of the Western world and home to Henry Ford’s original Model T factory built in 1904.
But, with changing fortunes, property foreclosures rocketed, buildings were left abandoned and Downtown became a commercial wasteland as the city declared bankruptcy in 2013.
However, what happened next is little short of Motown Magic for, just a decade on the beat is back and Detroit’s on the up in what can only be described as a miraculous resurgence.
Billionaires have been pumping cash into the city faster than a Detroit gas station and a new narrative is being written: as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy, might have said, ‘it is time to turn off the old recording and listen to a new one’.
The Spirit of Detroit statue, occasionally decorated by local sports teams!
So, it was with an open mind that I visited Motor City having heard all the stories and read all the editorials about its downturn, not unlike Bradford in West Yorkshire, once regarded as the wool capital of the world with its super wealthy mill owners and raft of Grade II listed buildings, but now a shadow of its former self.
The Westin Book Cadillac Hotel on Washington Boulevard, ‘the 5th Avenue of the Mid-West’, was built in 1924 as a stopover for politicians and Presidents, however, my stay began with an apology, for all the right reasons of course. The building was just undergoing a multi-million pounds room re-fit and check-in wanted to signal their regret for any inconvenience!
Which is probably a reflection of what has been happening in Detroit for many years now. Bankruptcy may have cast its shadow in 2013 but, according to our city guide and lifelong Detroiter, Paul Vachon, the city’s emerging recovery could be traced back to the early 2000’s if not sooner.
The huge sculpture tribute to boxer, Joe Louis.
That’s when local billionaire businessman, Pete Karmanos, Chairman and CEO of Compuware, whose annual revenues exceeded $2 billion at its height, took the decision to re-locate his company from the outskirts of Detroit into the heart of Downtown and Campus Martius.
The move sent out a signal. Karmanos was a powerful figure, his action was seen as a leap of faith and others started to follow.
The city may have been experiencing its own economic chaos but, beneath all the commercial carnage, other forces for good were silently at work.
But all that’s history. What does the ‘now’ look like?
The building blocks have always been there – Detroit was founded in 1701, a century before Chicago - and the city’s been taking time to give itself a spring clean.
Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals in the city's wonderful Institute of Art's
These days, it’s starting to look slicker than a dapper Detroiter from one of Henry Ford’s well paid production lines!
It’s iconic structures alone are an advert in themselves: The Guardian Building, constructed in the 1920’s as a bank headquarters and sporting its very own Tiffany clock, leaves you breathless as you enter the main hall.
The magnificent Guardian Building
…there’s the iconic Renaissance Center, the city’s tallest building located along the Detroit river, now world headquarters to General Motors and providing a kitchen to the stunning Highlands Restaurant on its 71st and 72nd floors. It also boasts views to die for across the river and into neighbouring Ontario, Canada.
Renaissance Center with its views across the Detroit River to Canada
…..the majestic Wayne County Building and One Campus Martius, home to a 114ft indoor waterfall, tall enough to have made The Guinness Book of World Records!
Not forgetting of course, the Detroit Institute of Arts.
And so the list goes on.
But, more than that, Detroit has also been looking at other ways to promote itself as a visit destination.
Jennifer Ollinger, Manager of Domestic & International Tourism with Visit Detroit, said: “We already have 500 building murals dotted throughout the city and have just commissioned another 200.
Many of our back alleys, once home to dumpster trucks, have and continue to be revitalised with many now containing restaurants, bars and micro breweries.”
Unlike many other US cities, Detroit has a 'story' to die for.
At a statistical level it has one of the largest theatre districts in the US outside Broadway and a population of 4m+ in the Detroit Metro area – 75% Afro American – but from a storybook or tourism point of view it writes its own fairy tale.
It has the United States’ oldest working bowling alley, claims the first street in the country to get traffic lights (Woodward Avenue), four pro sporting football, baseball and hockey teams playing out of three stadiums within five blocks of each other, it is home to the ‘square’ Detroit Pizza and, of course, there’s Hitsville, Motown and ‘Studio A’ where all those gold and platinum vinyls of the 60’s were recorded.
And, whilst its overgrown land and myriad of derelict buildings might still be perceived as a blot on the landscape, it is worth noting that many have been bulldozed as part of a continuing programme of demolition and redevelopment.
Land has been taken by grapevine cultivators and, using local labour, many have been giving a proportion of their crop to workers. Even beekeepers have been encouraged to use portions of land (www.beesinthed.com
). Fresh thinking for old problems.
But, interspersed between the challenges, are rays of considerable hope.
A walk through the Neo-Gothic Metropolitan Building’s spectacular Great Hall will gain you access to The Monarch Club and a rooftop cocktail bar, that enables you to stroll round its exterior and overview some of the city’s finest architecture
Shield's 'square' pizza!
You can sample ‘square’ Detroit pizza at Shield’s and discuss the long-standing friendly rivalry between them and fellow eatery, Buddy’s, as to who actually invented the crispy crust with thicker dough and the cheese before the topping dish!
You can get breakfast at Hudson’s Café, located on Woodward Avenue between Grand River and State Street. A nod to the famous Hudson’s Department Store that once graced the city’s streets, enjoy a Maurice salad – as served by the original store – Cinnabunn pancakes or even a Voodoo benedict!
But, once fuelled better than one of Henry’s T-Fords, you cannot leave this city without a visit to the Motown Museum or, indeed, The Henry Ford.
The former is still located in ‘the Empire on West Boulevard’, the original label’s eight buildings that host iconic Hitsville USA, Studio A, and an extensive array of Motown artifacts, photographs, apparel and memorabilia: work will soon begin on a major state-of-the-art extension to the museum.
Within fighting distance of Motown is ‘The Henry Ford’ made up of the The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, Greenfield Village and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour.
It is a mammoth indoor/outdoor education experience with its collection of cars, objects, and houses, documenting life in early America.
The bus that signalled a change to America's civil rights movement.
You can visit the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop, Thomas Edison’s laboratory, the very bus that civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, sat in when making her protest, and view at close quarters the Lincoln Continental which carried John F Kennedy the day he was assassinated. Absolutely stunning, all of it!
This vibrant city is now slowly regaining its reputation and is certainly a place worth visiting.
“We made history and didn’t even know it,” said the founder of Motown’s Museum, Esther Gordy Edwards, sister to the record label’s musical maestro, Berry Gordy.
Another chapter is still being written in Detroit’s newest history book and it’s going to be a good read. Buy a copy now. Even better jump on a plane, you won’t be disappointed!
The State of Michigan in the American Midwest is known as The Great Lakes State, with an international airport in Detroit. Travellers from the UK can choose from two daily direct flights via London with Delta Virgin Atlantic. However, for Northern tourists, there is a brand-new Manchester Airport to Detroit flight, via Iceland, with Icelandair. Details:https://www.icelandair.com/en-gb/
North American Travel Services (NATS) sell holidays to Michigan. More info here
Some Interesting Reads
- Bees in the City - For more information click here
- A City of Art - For more information click here
- Why did Detroit go bankrupt? - Click here to find out