Detroit is the charismatic black sheep of the American family. In the prohibition era, illicit Canadian booze seeped into the States through the Motor City. A combination of space, decent wages during the post-war heyday and almost universal car ownership caused the city to grow out rather than up.
Riots in 1967 fuelled ‘white flight’ towards the suburbs. Town planning since then has been reliably hopeless – impractical, destructive of community and racially divisive. Now, desolate ‘urban prairies’ abound in a city that is is vast in scale but shrinking in population. Derelict, often burned-out buildings loom ominously, many of them within a stone’s throw of the city centre. Most unnerving are the wide open spaces – overgrown and usually spookily deserted, they hint at a city wildly out of kilter with itself.
Detroit’s reputation for danger is hard to escape, and in fairness, it’s not entirely unwarranted. Politicians and business have hardly helped. The last mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was spectacularly bling and spectacularly corrupt. The 2008 economic crisis might have been the last straw had Barack Obama not twisted various arms and persuaded General Motors to remain in the city. So, why would anyone go there? Well, as the French situationists proclaimed; ‘Under the pavement, the beach’.
Remarkably, for a city with such vivid, turbulent history, Detroit has the feeling of a place that is starting again. As befits the home of Motown, The Stooges and Jeff Mills, it’s a relentlessly forward-looking town. Possibly as a result of having withstood such a rich variety of trauma, Detroiters are incurably optimistic and, like their closest UK relatives, Scousers, relentless in their civic pride. The city feels like a new frontier; post-industrial and almost post-capitalist. Scratch the sometimes shabby surface and something is stirring here.
Of course, every new frontier needs pioneers. Nascent projects include innovations in electricity transmission and hybrid cars. The remarkable ‘Green Garage’, a workspace constructed entirely from reclaimed materials, suggests a blueprint for urban construction that could reach far beyond the city of its birth. Fearless, creative youngsters are beginning to flock to the city, attracted by its enviable mixture of resonant cultural history and dirt-cheap living and working spaces. Might these adventurers remake the city in their own image? And will their initiatives prove sufficiently inclusive to accomodate the beleagured, mainly black underclass which has born the brunt of the various crises?
There’s a recognition that any meaningful evolution needs to involve the city’s grass roots – the people who will use the services, work the jobs and drink in the bars. The various urban farming initiatives are a perfect example of the kind of inventions that arise from neccesity. People baulk at using the word ‘traditional’, seemingly aware that old ideas have failed and innovation is not only desirable but fundamental. Detroit has bottomed out and the only way is up.
Architecturally, you have never been to a city like Detroit. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely a recommendation to visit. Take, for example, Michigan Central Station. Built by Reed and Stern (best known for New York’s Grand Central Station), it’s a magnificent beaux-arts structure which has towered over the city since 1913. Sadly, it’s been empty since 1988 and a legal battle has raged over its preservation. It’s a potent symbol of civic ambition gone sour. Likewise, the Highland Park district, whose police and fire stations face each other, united in dereliction. These follies are gloomy but well worth seeing as a monument to the city’s dysfunction.
Fortunately, beauty and ingenuity are also evident. Check out the Guardian building (500 Griswold St; +1 313 963 4567) a financial exchange-turned-shopping mall, with its extraordinary art deco-meets-Mayan interior. And pay a visit to one of Detroit’s thriving urban farms. They’re the single most uplifting consequence of the city’s economic travails and reflect a genuinely successful attempt to relocate the concept of community within ailing and abandoned neighbourhoods. Public transport in Detroit is patchy at best – far better to see the city under your own steam. Try Wheelhouse Detroit (+1 313 656 2453, www.wheelhousedetroit.com) which specialises in tailored, guided tours by bike.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Avenue; +1 313 832 6622, www.mocadetroit.org) offers visual art, poetry and music. The Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (5141, Rosa Parks Boulevard; www.thecaid.org) is a smaller, not-for-profit organisation attempting to locate the arts within the community. Both are well worth a visit.
The city’s most impressive art-spot is the astonishing Heidelberg Project (3600 Block, Heidelberg St; +1 313 974 6894, www.heidelberg.org). Located in one of Detroit’s edgier neighbourhoods, this remarkable community arts project is the brainchild of Tyree Guyton who, in 1986, commandeered and beautified a whole derelict street. This ever-evolving enterprise sees houses decorated with psychedelic polka dots, amusing and unsettling installations co-opting lamp-posts, and dolls swarming and clambering up walls. The Heidelberg Project is now deservedly among the most popular tourist spots in in Detroit. And, in a neighbourhood in which 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, there has been no recorded crime on this street since the project began.
Detroit’s musical heritage speaks for itself and a trip to the place where it all started is essential. Small, but perfectly formed, the Motown Historical Museum (2648 West Grand Boulevard; +1 313 875 2264, www.motownmuseum.com) allows you to wander through the minutiae of Berry Gordy’s dream. Marvel at the floors Marvin Gaye used to mop. Gaze at Jacko’s diamond-encrusted glove. Admire the minutely maintained period details – including reproductions of Stevie Wonder’s favourite chocolate snacks. And even, if you’re lucky, try your hand at some harmonies in the studio where the magic happened. The guided tour is recommended; this tiny but atmospheric place demands context.
For more contemporary thrills, try the Magic Stick (4140 Woodward Avenue; +1 313 833 9700, www.majesticdetroit.com), through which Detroit’s most recent musical royalty (White Stripes, Von Bondies) have all passed. Techno-heads, meanwhile are catered for by Paxahau (625 Shelby St; +1 248 584 1646, www.paxahau.com) which is regularly favoured by the legendary Richie Hawtin. And jazz lovers shouldn’t pass through without a visit to the cavernous but welcoming Cliff Bell’s (2030 Park Avenue; +1 313 961 2543, www.cliffbells.com). All this, and a world-renowned opera house too…
Food & drink
For a genuine taste of Detroit, a visit to Slows Bar BQ (2138 Michigan Avenue; +1 313 962 9828, www.slowsbarbq.com) is essential. The baby back ribs win awards. The Carolina-style pulled pork melts in the mouth. The sides, ranging from waffle fries to black beans, are sublime and beautifully chosen. Slows is everything that’s good and slightly overwhelming about American cuisine.
For more deliciously guilty artery clogging, try the burgers at Roast at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel (1114 Washington Boulevard; +1 313 442 1600, www.bookcadillacwestin.com) topped with a fried egg and accompanied by wonderfully crisp and delicate fries. Then go for a long walk. Beer connoisseurs should look out for the handiwork of the excellent Black Lotus brewing company which is one of many new microbreweries in the area, offering a superb range of porters, wheat beers, IPA and pilsners.
If you’re in search of megabrand retail therapy, Detroit probably isn’t for you. The city is refreshingly free of big chains and it’s hard to pinpoint a clearly designated main drag. Instead, there’s a growing abundance of the quirky and the local. Eastern Market (2934 Russell St; +1 313 833 9300, www.detroiteasternmarket.com) becomes a community hub on Saturdays selling local produce. The surrounding square houses the excellent likes of the self-explanatory Fine Wine Shop (which sells excellent beer too) and R Hirt Jr’s wonderful cheese shop and deli.
Elsewhere, check out Spiral Collective (4201 Cass Avenue; +1 313 832 1155) for an unusual retail/arts triple whammy incorporating a radical book shop, an art gallery and a purveyor of divine, if expensive, homemade cosmetics. For more traditional Detroit thrills, try Showtime (5708 Woodward Avenue; +1 313 875 9280, www.showtimedetroit.com) which is a legendary vintage clothing store glorying in the motto ‘dressing Detroit bands and entertainers since 1989’.