Tag Archives: Corktown

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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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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