Back in June I took a weekend jaunt to Detroit with a friend who, like me, had been hearing great things and was curious to explore the city. Here are some of our Motor City highlights:
We flew in on a Saturday morning and headed to our hotel in Corktown. I was struck by how flat and spread out the city is. (Here’s a view from the Fisher Building to show you what I mean.)
Ironically, it made me feel a little claustrophobic. I guess that’s a side effect of growing up in the Northeast.
But the weather was beautiful and I ended up feeling grateful that there weren’t too many skyscrapers to block my view of the sky.
We dropped our bags off, had a quick look around (Corktown cuteness above), and took a taxi downtown. The first landmark we spotted was the Michigan Building, where a parking lot now occupies a once-grand theater.
On the ground floor it doesn’t look like much…
But accessible via the upper floors of the building is the decaying shell of the theater’s ceiling. For structural reasons, the ceiling was unsafe to knock down when the building was converted, so it was left intact. The space is pretty spectacular in its own haunting way.
I didn’t intend to come to Detroit just to gawk at “ruin porn.” It was one of the first things we saw, but it was also the only thing on our itinerary that could be considered illustrative of Detroit’s decline rather than of its vibrance and life.
Here are some beautiful downtown sights from the course of the weekend.
Cool ghost signage and old school neon:
The awesomely decorated Siren Hotel, with its beautiful pink Candy Bar (it’s empty because I took the picture before it opened. We went back during prime time and it was packed and too dark for a pic.)
Not beautiful, per se, but the GM building is impressive.
Its backside faces the riverfront, which has a walkable promenade.
You can see across the river to Windsor, Canada.
There’s also a “beach” downtown, but it’s manmade, presumably just for summer, and in the middle of all the big buildings.
The automobile industry made Detroit one of the richest American cities during the first half of the 20th century, and no expense was spared on Art Deco skyscrapers like the Guardian Building, the Fisher Building, and the Penobscot Building. The Fisher Building is actually pretty far from downtown, but the other two are in the heart of the city so I’ll show them to you all at once.
The Fisher (1928) – Albert Kahn, who was from Detroit, was one of the architects.
All the stone on the exterior and interior of the building is marble (yes, all), the ceilings are hand-painted and feature gold leaf trim, and there are intricate mosaics and engraved brass details everywhere.
Penobscot Building (1928)
My favorite, the Guardian (1929)
The first night we went bar-hopping downtown and had swanky drinks at a couple of places including a fun speakeasy called Evening Bar. It’s behind the Shinola Hotel in Parker’s Alley, which features this beautiful painting.
Before that, though, we went to see a show at Willis Show Bar, a cabaret and cocktail lounge in Cass Corridor that opened in 1949, shuttered in the 1970’s for 40 years, and reopened in 2018.
We saw a burlesque show followed by “Willa Rae singing the ladies of soul and funk.”
And even before that, we checked out Eastern Market, where there is good food and nice street art.
Okay, on to Sunday. We headed to midtown for the museums. First, the fascinating Detroit Historical Museum..
…where they have recreated Detroit street scenes from different eras (the 1840’s, 1870’s and 1900’s) in the city’s history.
Then, the Scarab Club, a members-only artists club. Its Arts and Crafts-style clubhouse was built in 1928.
The wood beams in the upper room, above, were signed by artists who visited, including Diego Rivera and Norman Rockwell. On the ground floor, there was an exhibit featuring the winners of the club’s annual art competition.
My favorite was by Douglas LaFerle and entitled “Media Darling.”
Across the street from the Scarab Club is the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where I was overjoyed to see work by one of my favorite artists, El Anatsui, hanging on the wall.
They also have an amazing cafe in the center of the museum, housed in a recreation of an old European abbey that features hundreds of years old statues coexisting with Womb chairs.
My kind of place, and they incidentally had the best food we ate in all of Detroit.
And then of course there are the Diego Rivera murals…
(I say of course, but actually I had no idea about them until I got to Detroit.)
After the museums we checked out the Mies Van Der Rohe townhouses east of downtown. They are just west of the Dequindre Cut, an old rail line that has been turned into a greenway.
They were built from 1958-60, and even though in photos they look really modern and a little cold, in person they seem cozy and inviting, a cave-like place to ensconce yourself, surrounded alternately by trees and light.
That night, we took a taxi to Baker’s Jazz Club for some more music. It bills itself as the world’s oldest jazz club, open since 1934.
The music and the vibe was great, though the picture is dark.
And there you have it (more or less), a lovely weekend in Detroit. It was a very nice introduction to the city, though we barely scratched the surface in our two and a half days. There is so much more to see than we had time to cover (including nearby Dearborn and Ann Arbor)…