Category Archives: Detroit

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

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Live in Detroit

WHERE? Mexicantown, Southwest Detroit (around Bagley Ave & Vernor Highway). WHAT IN? Something like this, located just to the north on Junction St. A 3-bedroom 1862 sq ft family home with 1 and a half bathrooms,many upgrades: siding, windows, cement driveway, carpeting, fencing, kitchen, kitchen cabinets and all. Quietly gingerbread in style with porch and off-street parking. Priced at a very reasonable $28,500. NEIGHBOURHOOD: On the rise and unusually lively (in a good way) for Detroit. Good community feel with a surplus of Mexican restaurants, bars, panaderias nearby, as well discotecas. Colourful, arty, cheery and energetic. NEIGHBOURS: This is Detroit’s fastest growing hood. Roughly half the population is Hispanic – not only Mexican, but plenty hailing from points south i.e. Guatemala, el Salvador, Columbia y mas, the rest representing the general Detroit mix: African Americans, descendants of earlier waves of immigration – Poles and the Irish, and a new influx of hipsters from all over the states. MORE INFO: See the excellent ModelD for the visiting and / or moving guide.

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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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The Detroit Homestead

Three indications this isn’t a hotel: 1. There’s a gleaming, lovingly restored BSA motorbike in pride of place in the living room; 2. The hosts are cooking, music’s playing, friends are coming round, and we’re invited to join them for dinner; 3. Dave is given a bike and directions to a liquor store, and pedals off into the dark (the other guest, Nick, in town for an interview at med school tomorrow) jogs in front to show him the way.

The two vibrant, nicely-lit guest rooms share a bathroom and guests have access to the kitchen, and the run of the ground floor. The owners, Alyssa and Matt, bought the central Virginia Park neighbourhood property (close to Wayne State University, Henry Ford Hospital, and Detroit’s New Center) for $13,000 in September. Yes, $13,000 – although they’ve invested cash and a huge effort into redoing all the hardwood floors, restoring it . . . and in record time. They occupy the top half. There’s talk of converting the attic space, and work is underway on a bunk room.

Like several properties in the area, the homestead, an example of what can be done, is now a bit of an anomaly in its street. To the uninitiated, the surroundings are hard to compute; not exactly shocking but baffling. Empty lots, boarded up houses, collapsing houses, burnt-out houses, entire abandoned streets. But we arrived in the dark, enjoyed the best hospitality with a group of people whose intelligent optimism and enthusiasm was illuminating, and by the time we stepped out in the morning to explore Detroit, we were seeing it more in terms of the exciting potential than its problematic past, okay, present.

Good company, comfortable bed and one of a handful of special places offering a fantastic opportunity to learn about Detroit rather than skim over its surface.

Detroit Homestead bookings; Coming soon: Conversations with Detroit locals about life in the city. Check back!

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Where to stay in Detroit?

Timely time to visit Detroit given Mitt Romney’s ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt’ infamous op-ed. The appeal of Detroit is, however, its DIY revival; the slow but steady emergence of independent bars, clubs, arts, restaurants, greening and community projects. If you stay at the MGM Grand or the MotorCity Casino it’s going to take longer to get orientated and find the gems in the rough. But alternative accommodation is hard to find and pretty much unmapped, and, if you are completely ignorant about Detroit, like me, it’s hard to know where to start a hotel / B&B hunt.

There’s a lot of information online that’s detailed, helpful . . . and off-putting. One person posting on where to stay in the city on the Lonely Planet Travel Forum recommends Downtown, adding it’s “probably the safest place in Detroit, it’s generally safe during the day, but I wouldn’t attempt it at night.” Cityboy2010 goes on to say:
“As far as safety and security, it’s sad to say that all of Detroit (with the exception of Downtown and the adjacent areas of Greektown, Corktown, and Mexicantown) is likely to be very dangerous . . . it should be said that most residential areas in Detroit are extremely dangerous. Be very vigilant, and don’t carry anything of value around. There are a few pretty safe neighborhoods, but these are in the minority, unfortunately. The following are, based on my experience as well as Detroit crime stats, the worst areas in the city that I avoid at all times, even in the day:

  • Anything from Coleman A. Young Airport, all the way to the northeast city limits.
  • Highland Park (probably worse than Detroit, it’s an independent city surrounded by Detroit)
  • The area within a 30-block radius or so from the Joy Road and Evergreen St intersection
  • Most places right off the freeways.
  • Where the Davison and Lodge Freeway meet.

Of course these aren’t the only bad areas, those are just the ones that you shouldn’t go into at all because of their high violent crime and homicide rate.”
Fair enough. It all sounds very complicated. And as there aren’t any small hotels embracing the designer ethic and emblazoned with vibrant local art anyway, the best course of action is to track down someone who lives in the city, knows it well and loves it, and stay with them. Travel blogger, Meghan McEwen, offers two chic rooms across from the abandoned Michigan Central Station at Honor & Folly in Corktown ($165). Further north, Nathan Andren offers super-affordable rooms and a wealth of knowledge about his native Detroit at the Detroit Loves You Guesthouse (bookable through Airbnb from $39 to $199 for the whole property), and a few blocks away there’s two rooms available at the Detroit Homestead (also through Airbnb). These last two properties aren’t in neighbourhoods generally regarded as ‘good’, but neither are they ‘bad’. They’ve been down, and now the majority of local residents are working hard to bring them up.

Having spent many idle moments when I was supposed to be working, trawling through Detroit property listings, dreaming about buying a couple of houses for a couple of thousand dollars, relocating and spending the rest of my life doodling and doing good works, it was the fact that the Homestead owners, Alyssa and Matt, were  new arrivals from Pittsburgh, that swung it for me. They’d fallen in love with the city during the course of long bike-riding visits, made loads of friends and chucked in their jobs to ‘engage in Detroit’s renaissance’, buying and renovating a property and opening it to guests to recoup their investment. They were now full of dreams and plans ranging from raising ducks, emu and pygmy goats, to running a bike rental and repair business, and offering facilities for aquaponics, music and  beer and cheese making. I like this enthusiasm!

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Toronto to Detroit on Greyhound

I’m not actually recommending this, just saying I’m doing it. One-way on WestJet is $603; the slightly cheaper flights go via Washington or Philadelphia which given that Detroit is just a hop over the water, doesn’t make much sense. There are trains – VIA Rail – to Windsor ($39), and taxis and shuttle buses across the border, but it’s not much quicker than the bus, and the bus journey doesn’t end at the border amidst uncertainty and confusion about connections and taxi fares. No, it ends here, and so now I’m wondering whether buying a $42 ticket on the Greyhound Package Express was such a good idea. The reviews aren’t great, to be honest:

If you would like to visit the details are: 1001 Howard Street Detroit, +1 313-961-8011, greyhound.com. The bus leaves Toronto from Bay St opposite the north end of the Eaton Centre. (And the journey was fine – 5 and a half hours with leg room, pleasant homeland security officials in the tunnel, and no muggings, decapitations* or creepiness anywhere en route, including at the Detroit terminus despite being met by Dave working a Bill Nighy look and sporting a new cravat.

* refers to a story told to me by George as I was boarding (Man beheaded on Greyhound bus: Screaming passengers fled in terror from a Greyhound bus as an unidentified fellow passenger suddenly stabbed a man sleeping next to him, decapitated him and waved the severed head at horrified witnesses standing outside. www.canada.com)

 

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