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A City Lover’s Guide to America’s Most Underrated City — Detroit

Jay Walljasper / Nov 21 2012

For Release Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jay WalljasperFor those of us who love cities in all their giddy, gritty glory, the Motor City awaits.

Although struggling, Detroit offers experiences you expect from a world-class city: heart-stopping architecture, a bustling waterfront, topnotch art, convivial nightlife, great food, picturesque city squares, a crowded public market, memorable strolls and a spirit all its own.

Let me start with a confession. Though I’m a lifelong Midwesterner and veteran travel writer, I always avoided Detroit. I expected to be depressed by seeing a once-grand place battered by economic disinvestment. I finally visited two years ago and witnessed scenes of abandonment and decay that almost broke my heart – but also examples of perseverance and creativity that stirred my soul.

Shortly after, I was connected to the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Project at Wayne State University, which tapped 29 young professionals to work with organizations on reviving the city. The project – funded by the Kresge Foundation, Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Skillman Foundation and Wayne State – is part of an unprecedented philanthropic effort to reinvigorate Detroit.

Seeing Detroit through the fellows’ eyes – both Motor City natives and newcomers – I got a close look at a city that has fallen farther than any other but is waging an exciting comeback. “No city has gone through what Detroit has gone through. But that leaves the door wide open to do new things,” says fellow Matteo Passalacqua, an urban planner working with the Vanguard Community Development Corp.

Surprises abound, beginning with this: You can see a lot of the Motor City comfortably on foot. Woodward Avenue offers an urban promenade covering 2 miles between Midtown and Downtown – the nuclei of Detroit’s revitalization.

Midtown, home to Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts, is a haven for the young and the hip. You’ll see new housing and office developments with shops on the ground floor in the classic urban style – signs of a building boom. There’s even a Midtown housing shortage, as young people plus employees of Wayne State and the nearby Henry Ford Health System and Detroit Medical Center seek to move in – evidence the “Eds & Meds” revitalization strategy is working.

Coming to downtown, you’ll pass the Tigers’ new brick ballpark and Grand Circus Park, one of several landscaped squares laid out 300 years ago. Handsome, mid-rise buildings line Woodward and surrounding avenues. Compuware and Quicken Loans spurred downtown’s revival by moving their headquarters and more than 6,500 employees in from the suburbs. Campus Martius, an inviting square renovated in 2004, lured $500 million in new development to adjacent blocks.

Woodward Avenue meets the Detroit River at Hart Plaza, the social focal point of downtown. Site of many summer festivals, it holds an iconic sculpture of boxer Joe Louis’s arm and a deeply moving Underground Railroad Memorial showing escaped slaves looking across the river toward Canada.

The River Walk edges the Detroit River 5 miles from downtown to Belle Isle, a Frederick Law Olmstead park with sweeping lawns and landscaped lagoons on a 982-acre island. You’ll pass Renaissance Center, GM headquarters and a showpiece of the 1970s strategy to renew downtowns by concentrating new development in fortresses set apart from everything else. Up the path lies William A. Milliken State Park, trailhead for the DeQuindre Greenway, a biking and hiking trail leading 1 mile to the Eastern Market. The market offers 250 vendors from the region, with nearby bakeries, meat markets and specialty food shops.

Corktown, next to Midtown, draws young people with loft apartments and hipsterati hot spots like Slow’s Bar BQ and the Sugar House. A four-floor warehouse of used books, John K. King books, is the most complete bookstore I’ve ever browsed apart from New York’s Strand and Portland’s Powell’s.

You wouldn’t go to Athens or Rome without seeing the ruins, and neither would many visitors to Detroit. The city’s industrial freefall and population loss (from 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 today) left spectacular scenes of devastation – documented by photographers in a genre dubbed “ruin porn.” The two best examples are Michigan Central Railroad Depot, an imposing 18-story train station on the edge of Corktown where every pane of glass is broken, and the Packard Plant, a 3,5000,000-square-foot auto factory by eminent architect Albert Kahn on East Grand Boulevard. It was abandoned in 1958 and later made musical history as the site of raves, where techno music first gained popularity in the late 1980s.

Less than 4 miles west on Grand Boulevard is an even more world-renown musical shrine – a modest frame house where Berry Gordy lived on the second floor. Superstars like Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations and Four Tops recorded a mountain of hits downstairs. You can see the dining room table that was the shipping department, the couch where Marvin Gaye sometimes slept after all-night recording sessions and the desk where receptionist Martha Reeves greeted visitors – the Martha Reeves who later sang a memorable ode to the exuberance of city life:

“Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancin’ in the streets

They’re dancin’ in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
Up in New York City…
Philadelphia, PA
Baltimore and DC now
Yeah, don’t forget the Motor City
(Can’t forget the Motor City)”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas got it right in 1964 – anyone who truly savors urban life can’t forget the Motor City.

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, chronicles urban life for a variety of publications. His website: columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted November 22, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Jay, what a nice paean to one of my favorite cities. I worked in Detroit during the mid-1990s and assembled the land for the Campus Martius and Compuware projects. I visited Detroit Renaissance and the Eastern Market recently and I was impressed with how much better the core area looks and feels. There is a heart beating in Detroit, and more people should discover it. Oh, and by the way, as an old English major, the word in “renowned” not “renown.”

  2. Posted November 23, 2012 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    Great piece about life after pre-certified death! A decade or so ago, after visiting many US cities to see what was being done and taking over groups of local city council and goverment folk to show what could be done, I visited Detroit on my own and realised it was where I should have taken everyone else to show them what doing nothing could result in. Detroit at its worst was a major stimulus to me to stop that happening to Joburg.! Like Detroit, we are not out of the woods yet but have made huge leaps forward – so good to read your account that this once great city is coming back.