Detroit Local

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Detroit ‘s weirdest attraction is now also it’s top attraction – its abandoned buildings. They’ve been captured as art in a zillion photo essays and collections and  The Ruins of Detroitby Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre is particularly poignant. The most magnificent waste is Michigan Central Station which if you head to Corktown you can’t miss, but post-apocalyptic buildings are everywhere: hotels, theatres, churches, office blocks, factories – most famously the vast Packard Plant, and of course residential blocks and countless houses, even whole blocks. There are whole swathes of the city where so many buildings have been abandoned, that the streets and freeways are empty. So driving around is both speedy and riveting; cycling of course is better although the nip in the air and the fact I hate bikes (at least riding them) put me off, and exploring on foot is of course best – although not all areas are safe. Nathan at the Detroit Loves You Guesthouse tells me that he used the Packard Plant as a playground as a kid, but a friend of his was recently whacked over the head in there with a two-by-four, and most of the buildings themselves are in a precarious state. The emptiness is just fascinatingly and endlessly odd.

Is there a map of them? I don’t know. I couldn’t even find a map of Detroit (although thanks to Judy at Radioshack and the web, calls, text blah package she set up for us for $50 a month, we’ve now got a phone with SatNav which really helps when you’re trying to cross America given there’s lots of roads to choose from.) I think I heard about someone who had set up an organised group cycling tour.

Then, the flip side of that, is the regeneration. We’re talking small steps, but there are pockets of buzz – specifically Corktown and Mexicantown, but also Greektown. To be honest, I spent a fair bit of time going up and down the wide, straight, empty Michigan Avenue looking for Corktown before I realised I’d been through it a dozen times. With its share of empty buildings and bleak lots, it doesn’t zing ‘life’ to the uneducated eye, but there’s a smattering of great places, from Slows (Bar BQ) at 2138 Michigan Ave (and the guesthouse, Honor & Folly above it) to the coolly local Astro Coffee (No. 2124) with its exposed brick walls and espresso steam and slightly over-priced egg florentine muffins. Some of the old ports of call are still open for business, like Nemo’s Bar and Grill, an old sports bar built next to the Detroit Tigers’ stadium and still much revered (in the way that old bars with history and gruff bar staff are) and the bar for of choice for Tigers and Red Wings fans despite the fact sports fans have to be shuttled to and from the games at a new stadium some distance away as this one, opposite, has been abandoned and is in ruins. It was doing a bustling lunch trade thanks in part to its sizeable burgers. The ornate pub-plastered and brown-glossed walls, the Irish flag above the bar, a reminder of Corktown’s Irish roots.

The streets of nearby Mexicantown, on the other hand, are close to crowded in comparison, and full of families. The atmosphere is messy, normal. Unsurprisingly there are loads of Mexican restaurants and bars, immigration businesses, panaderias, and cafes, with the sunny and cheery Cafe Con Leche, run by Jordi, a force for good, serving as a local community hub. Everyone seems to know Jordi.  Coming soon: Conversations with Detroit locals about life in the city. Check back!

If I had half a day longer I’d have spent it at the Motown Museum. The state the city’s in, it’s not hard to imagine another tough time when a group of young, ambitious, talented people and entrepreneurs got together and made something happen . . . for a while before Berry Gordy stuffed his furs in his big white car and headed off to L.A. Gordy set up Hitsville USA at 2648 West Grand Boulevard and Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Velvelettes, Funk Brothers, Frankie Valli etc ad infinitum passed through the doors. The museum is a record of what was, but you can’t be in Detroit for more than three minutes before you hear sweet soul. The industry’s gone, but the music is everywhere, and Alyssa was saying that the old timers get together and play events in parks in the summer.

More information on GreektownMexicantown, also Hamtramck (for Detroit’s Polish heritage), and the world’s premier museum for African American history, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. (See also Forgotten Detroit). Other options: the Henry Ford museum, queue at a stadium for Jerry Springer or Madonna, or, season and strikes allowing, watch top sport – Red Wings (hockey), Lions (football), Tigers (baseball) and Pistons (baseball).

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