Getting Around

If you’d like to check out downtown Detroit or if you’re heading to a downtown destination, you may want to take The People Mover – Detroit’s light rail train that loops around Detroit’s central business district. Check out the People Mover route map for landmarks and People Mover Stops. The fare is $0.75 per ride.

Eating & Drinking

There are literally dozens of restaurants within walking or People Mover distance of Cobo/the Civic Center. Here are some, at various price points, that come recommended by locals.

Blue Star Café

239 W. Congress 313-222-5893 | bluestardetroit.com | PM stop: Cobo Center | Price: $
The Blue Star Café is a charming, down-home breakfast and lunch spot that serves a changing roster of entrees from their buffet table. The food is simple but not plain; it is well-prepared and very reasonably priced. Blue Star is popular with local office workers, so be prepared to wait during the lunch rush. Check their website for the daily menu choices. Open limited hours: 7 AM – 3 PM M-F. No alcohol.

Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy

1439 Griswold | Cafe D’Mongo’s on Facebook | PM Stop: Grand Circus Park | Price: $$ | MUSIC!
It’s a bit of a stretch to describe Café D’Mongo’s as a restaurant. They usually serve only two main dishes, typically BBQ ribs and chicken, and soul food sides like mac-and-cheese and black-eyed peas (which all are reported to be very good). But the food is not the draw anyway; it’s the music, the liquor, and the camaraderie. Café D’Mongo’s is the kind of place that locals enjoy knowing about, and taking their out-of-town friends to visit as a special treat – as if it were a hole-in-the-wall bar in Greenwich Village for which you have to know the password to enter. It’s gathered some celebrity cachet too, but they are the opposite of pretentious. A couple of tips: The website under their name is functionally dead; better to visit their FB page and look under the About page for information, the Timeline page for updates and news, or the Reviews page for the enthusiastic feedback. Most importantly: they’re open only on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Cliff Bell’s

2030 Park Avenue | 313-961-2543 | www.cliffbells.com | PM Stop: Grand Circus Park | Price: $$-$$$ | MUSIC!
Nowadays, for downtown music, Cliff Bell’s is the place to beat. And the place to be. They’re a double threat, since they have an impressive, creative menu in addition to their dynamite jazz. During NN14, these are the featured performers:

  • Wed 7/16, Soul Rebels
  • Th 7/17, Diego Figueiredo
  • Fr 7/18, Delisfort Project
  • Sat 7/19m Taylor Pierson Trio and Delisfort Project

Cover. Check the website for set times. Reservations advised. Full bar.

Colors

311 E. Grand River | 313-496-1212 | www.rocunited.org | PM Stop: Broadway | Price: $-$$
COLORS uses local ingredients and trains local employees in collective entrepreneurship to create an eclectic menu and communal dining experience that provides excellently and ethically prepared meals. COLORS is a project of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)-Michigan, which is dedicated to winning improved working conditions for Southeast Michigan’s 134,000 restaurant workers, many of whom work for low pay with little or no benefits. Their local website is down for maintenance, but the one for the national organization works well. Their hours are limited: 11-9 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday. Call ahead for weekend dining.

Coney Islands

PM Stop: Michigan Avenue | Price: $
American: 114 W. Lafayette | www.americanconeyisland.com | 313-961-7758

Lafayette: 118 W. Lafayette | 313-964-8198
These two adjoining restaurants share a history they both would rather forget—something about a family rivalry a couple of generations back.

The two do specialize in the same thing, Coney dogs, with some subtle differences in their preparation. Otherwise, there is very little resemblance between the two. The décor in American Coney Island is much more glitzy, going along with its recent expansion and upgrade; the menu at American is bigger, too. As for differences between the dogs themselves—that appears to be a matter of taste. But Lafayette used to have great loose dogs and twice-cooked French fries. Either way, they offer an authentic Detroit experience. Beer is available at the American; the Lafayette is dry. Both are open 24/7.

Fishbone’s Rhythm Kitchen Café

400 Monroe St. | 313-965-4500 | www.fishbonesusa.com/locations-greektown.html | PM Stop: Greektown | Price: $$
Fishbone’s was one of the first restaurants with a non-Greek menu to take root in Greektown, after the casino arrived. It features New Orleans-style cuisine, both Creole and Cajun, including alligator meat appetizers, crawfish, catfish, and jambalaya, but it also has a large, more conventional aspect to its repertoire. Sunday Brunch is a bargain for what it offers; weekday breakfasts start early, for those who want a substantial start to the day. There’s often live music upstairs. Loud and lively overall.

Flood’s Bar and Grille

731 St. Antoine | 313-963-1090 | www.floodsdetroit.com | PM Stop: Bricktown | Price: $$-$$$ + drink minimum
Flood’s is another hot downtown night spot known for both food and music. At Flood’s, they specialize in soul food, and the menu offers almost all the classics, from wings, catfish, and pork chops, to mac and cheese, greens and peach cobbler. Music presented there covers a wide range of genres. It’s a place to see and be seen; they set a dress code– see website for details. Check the Metro Times for current performers.

Golden Fleece

525 Monroe St | 313-962-7093 | PM Stop: Greektown | Price: $-$$
The Golden Fleece is one of the oldest original businesses still operating in Greektown since the arrival of the Casino and the accompanying hotel. Their menu onsite is much larger than the one they post online: a full array of Greek dishes ranges from saganaki, skordalia, and taramasalata to pastitsio, spanakopita, and stuffed grape leaves, with meat or without. Their specialty is the gyro, and they do it well. Wine and beer. Open till 1 AM during the week, till 3 AM F and Sat. Full bar; many Greek wines available, and ouzo. Don’t forget the Jazz Loft upstairs!

Foran’s Grand Trunk Pub

612 Woodward | 313-961-3043 | www.grandtrunkpub.com | PM Stop: Financial District (though the restaurant is only two blocks from Hart Plaza) | Price: $$
A newcomer to the downtown scene, the Grand Trunk Pub occupies an old railroad ticket office, though little remains to signify that incarnation. Still, the owners’ renovation of an makes the most of their historical space, drawing the eye up to the classic double-vaulted ceiling. The main room is long, narrow, and noisy—though they do have café tables outside, and just inside French doors. The side room is quieter, and in either area the pub grub is excellent and generously-proportioned. Their version of the classic “Maurice Salad,” long-beloved by Detroiters who remember the restaurant at Hudson’s, is very good, as is their Shepherd’s Pie. They emphasize local products: Calder Dairy, Faygo pop (soda, for you non-Michiganders), Avalon Bread, Better Made Potato Chips, among others. Full bar, with lots of beer on tap, including many Michigan microbrews.

Hudson Café

1241 Woodward Avenue | 313-237-1000 | www.hudson-cafe.com | Centered between Grand River & Gratiot/State | PM: cadillac center | Price: $-$$
Taking its name from the late, lamented department store that once occupied the huge open lot across Woodward, the Hudson Café offers traditional breakfast and lunch options—pancakes, waffles, omelettes, crepes, sandwiches, and salads—with a twist. So, they not only have plain or fruit waffles, for example, but also chicken waffles and…catfish waffles. Who would have thought? Good array of breakfast-y sides, too, including corned beef hash and cheesy grits. Locals fill the place quickly, so be forewarned. Their “bar” offers coffee drinks and baked goods to go. They extend their hours into the evening when there are special events downtown; call to check.

Jacoby’s

624 Brush St | 313-962-7067 | www.jacobysbar.com | PM Stop: Bricktown | Price: $$
Jacoby’s German Biergarten may be the oldest commercial establishment in the City of Detroit, at least downtown. Its nearest challenger by age might be the Eastern Market, described below, which is an entirely different kind of enterprise. Jacoby’s has been open since 1904, run for nearly a century by successive members of the Jacoby family. In 2006, the family connection was lost, but the current owners are invested in maintaining the traditional feel of the place, including a menu that is heavy on German specialties. They maintain a decent assortment of beers, including several German varieties, along with a full bar. Jacoby’s gets a fair amount of traffic from those awaiting shows at St. Andrew’s Hall around the corner, so the lawyers in suits who come from the nearby courthouse right after work are often replaced by concert-goers in decidedly unconventional dress. A Detroit original with atmosphere to burn.

Roast

1128 Washington Blvd. | 961-2500 | www.roastdetroit.com | PM Stop: Michigan Avenue | Price: $$$
As one would expect, the menu of Roast, a high-end restaurant in the recently renovated Westin Book Cadillac, emphasizes meat. Chef Michael Symon opened Roast in 2008 after achieving great success with restaurants in Cleveland, and his efforts here were rewarded with the Best Restaurant in Detroit title from the Detroit Free Press the year following. Expect generally attentive service, an interesting array of meat and seafood dishes, and an inventive bar. Reservations (via OpenTable) recommended.

Sweetwater Tavern

400 E. Congress | 313-962-2210 | www.sweetwatertavern.net | PM Stop: Bricktown | Price: $$
Yes, Virginia, there are great ribs—and wings—to be had in Motown. And if you like to eat with your fingers while enjoying classy surroundings, Sweetwater Tavern is the place for you. Located in the heart of the city’s historic district, the building that Sweetwater occupies is one of the oldest extant, dating to the mid-1800s. First as a hotel, then evolving to become a restaurant and bar, Sweetwater has been celebrated across the metro region for its authentic homemade food for thirty years. Its clientele includes travelers, celebrities, high-level politicians and Detroiters from all around town who come for the wings, the ribs, the eleven fifty-inch flat screens, and the considerate wait staff. Sandwiches and salads, tempting desserts, and a full bar round out the offerings.

Activities in Detroit

Looking for something fun to do in Detroit? In addition to the usual online references such as Yelp, Urban Spoon, or Trip Advisor, it’s worth looking up the current listings in the Detroit weekly periodical the Metro Times, which has a comprehensive guide to food, music, and special events, along with many detailed and recent reviews.

Churches—Active congregations with political significance

Central United Methodist Church

23 E. Adams, Grand Circus Park (1 mile from Cobo Center) | www.centralumchurchdetroit.org | PM Stop: Grand Circus Park (the only non-accessible stop)
Central United Methodist Church, one of the first Protestant congregations in Michigan, is a Reconciling Congregation that welcomes all people regardless of socio-economic situation, race, gender identity or sexual orientation, age, ability, belief, or background. Long known as a “peace and justice” church, Central’s present ministries include the Swords Into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery, which relates the arts to transforming the world from one of war and violence to one of peace and justice (closed all summer, alas for us); NOAH (Networking, Organizing to Assist the Homeless) which includes serving a bag lunch twice a week, art programs, a parish nurse and social services; and The Green Team, leading the church in celebrating and caring for God’s creation.

Second Baptist Church

441 Monroe St (.7 mile from Cobo) | www.secondbaptistdetroit.org | PM Stop: Greektown
Detroit’s seventh major church (preceded by St. Anne Catholic, First Presbyterian, Central Methodist, St. Paul Episcopal Cathedral, First Baptist, St. Mary Catholic) was established when 13 former slaves decided to leave First Baptist because of its discriminatory practices. In March 1836, these 13 men and women received permission from the Territorial Legislature of Michigan to own and operate their church, the city’s first Black church, which is now recognized as the oldest African-American congregation in the Midwest.

From the beginning, Second Baptist embraced a mission to free slaves and to enable them to have the full rights of American citizenship. A mere three years after its founding, Second Baptist opened the first school in Detroit for black children in the basement of the hall where the congregation worshiped; prior to this, black children could only be educated at home. Its first pastor, William Monroe, was a noted anti-slavery activist, and in 1843, he presided over the first State Convention of Colored Citizens which was held at Second Baptist. At this convention, delegates demanded the right to vote and the end to slavery; their petition to the State of Michigan was denied.

By 1857, Second Baptist was able to purchase the building of the First German Reformed Zion Church (built in 1852) which was located at the site of the present building. Even before the purchase, Second Baptist was active as a station on the Underground Railroad; the new building had an underground area where slaves slept before continuing their journey across the Detroit River and into Canada. Church members also helped with the formation of the Amherstburg Baptist Association and the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association, and the church, with these groups, aided fugitive slaves fleeing north. The material assistance of food, clothing and shelter was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, and it is estimated that more than 5000 slaves stopped at this station before moving on to Canada. In 1859, Frederick Douglass addressed the public from the church; in 1863, the church held a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation (although the reading necessarily included the explanation that President Lincoln had only freed the slaves in the 10 rebellious states); and also in 1863, black volunteers met at Second Baptist to form the First Michigan Colored Infantry Regiment.

The end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments did not end the activism of Second Baptist. During the period of the Great Migration, the church was heavily involved in self-help programs designed to help new arrivals adjust to urban life. Committees from Second Baptist met every train arriving in Detroit from the South to assist the migrants, and Second Baptist served as a major social service center for blacks throughout the city. Today, Second Baptist continues its outreach to the community, as well as celebrating its history with Underground Railroad tours.

Fort Street Presbyterian Church

631 West Fort Street | fortstreet.org | PM Stop: Fort/Cass.
Just a few blocks to the west of Cobo Center, the tall copper spire of Fort Street Presbyterian Church hearkens back to an ancient architectural tradition. First constructed in 1855 and completely rebuilt in 1877 after a fire sent its spire crashing into Fort Street, Fort Street Presbyterian Church is one of the best examples of the Gothic Revival (or “Victorian Gothic”) school that dominated American church architecture in the mid-to-late 19th century. But don’t let its downtown location or ornate façade fool you: Fort Street is a vibrant congregation that lives out progressive values in the neighborhood. During World War II, the church converted its gymnasium into a dormitory for transient servicemen, ultimately accommodating 60,000 men by the war’s end. After the 1967 Detroit rebellion, Fort Street embarked on a long-term program of social service outreach, which currently including free meals, shower facilities for the elderly and homeless, HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, and providing professional clothing at no charge for women graduating from college or reentering the work force and need clothing and accessories for job interviews.

Other Points of Interest Downtown

For those curious about these points of interest or others, there’s a good chance that the folks at Historic Detroit have covered them, with contemporary and vintage photos to boot. It’s an excellent, reliable resource.

Campus Martius Park

800 Woodward Avenue | 313-962-0101 | www.campusmartiuspark.org
Campus Martius Park, a mostly-public space located three blocks up Woodward from Hart Plaza at the intersection with Michigan Avenue, is a new park in a very historically-significant location. It includes the point of origin from which surveyors plotted a new configuration of streets for Detroit, after the fire that leveled the then-tiny city in 1805. (If you look closely enough, you can find the little marker in the stone walkway near the fountain.)

The original park covered several acres and was a major gathering area for citizens; for years, it was the public space for celebrations and commemorations, right in front of the (Old) City Hall. But the park itself lost ground faced with pressures for increased lanes of traffic at that tricky intersection. Then when the Old City Hall was torn down, it was replaced by a concrete expanse called Kennedy Square that had almost no character or charm, and the memory of Campus Martius was virtually erased.

Within the past decade or so, other trends in urban planning (along with the dismal presence of Kennedy Square) encouraged yet another reconfiguration of the space. Now, Campus Martius is home to several different public areas, including two performance spaces; a fountain; a beach in the summer (no water, but lots of sand) and a skating rink in the winter. It also boasts a restaurant, the Fountain Bistro, as well as the occasional street vendor. At the southern edge of Campus Martius, a venerable landmark has been permanently (we hope) relocated: the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, dedicated to the memory and sacrifice of Michigan soldiers and sailors in the Civil War.

Detroit Opera House/Michigan Opera Theater

1526 Broadway St (0.9 miles from Cobo Center) | PM Stop: Grand Circus Park
Opened in 1922 as The Capitol Theatre, a grand movie palace in the Italian Renaissance architectural style and built at a cost of $2 million dollars. Ownership changed multiple times over the years, as did its use from movie theatre to live concert venue back to movie theatre. In 1984, the theatre closed and become a victim of “demolition by neglect.” Purchased in 1988 as the future home of the Michigan Opera Theatre, renovation began, and in 1996, the grand reopening was held with a gala concert featuring Luciano Pavarotti. The Michigan Opera Theatre has continued to expand its reputation as a solid regional opera ever since.

Guardian Building

500 Griswold Street | PM: Financial District | www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/detroit/d17.htm
The Guardian Building, a National Historical Landmark, may be the single most impressive structure in downtown Detroit. Constructed just before the Great Depression for the Union Trust Company, the architect Wirt Rowland, working for Smith Hinchman and Grylls, spared no expense for both innovative design and priceless materials. The exterior features an unusual orange brick accented with buff, pink and green bands around the base of the building, with the stepped arches at each portal creating another major design motif used throughout the building. If possible, the interior is at least as spectacular as the outside, with unique marble and wooden accents throughout, and must be seen to be believed. The debt of the designers to the Art Deco themes of the era is unmistakable; borrowing from Native American artistic traditions out of context was popular then, too. The building is almost fully occupied by private tenants, including some of the Wayne County offices. However, there is a small café in the lobby, the Rowland Café (after the architect), and a branch of the local high-end souvenir shop, Pure Detroit. FYI: Pure Detroit also sponsors walking tours of the Guardian Building and the downtown area; see puredetroit.com for details.

John King Books

901 W. Lafayette | 313-961-0622 | www.rarebooklink.com | PM: Fort/Cass, though not close
Occupying a nondescript old four-story building that once was a glove factory (commemorated still by a faded painting of a glove on its exterior), the main site for John K. King Used and Rare Books is heaven for any serious bibliophile. But be prepared to walk out with many books you didn’t ever expect to want (or to find). King and his staff seem to have a system to keep track of their enormous inventory, which some estimate to be over a million titles. Very little of it is computerized. That’s irrelevant in the end when it comes to the sheer serendipity that might lurk around every shelf. No evening hours; closed Sunday.

Old Wayne County Building

600 Randolph | www.historicdetroit.org/building/old-wayne-county-building/ | PM stop: Bricktown
On the east side of downtown, not far from Greektown, an imposing granite-and-sandstone masterpiece of Beaux-Arts Classicism looms over most of its more modern neighbors. This is the Old Wayne County Building, one of the very last turn-of-the-20th-century structures left in Detroit. It is impressive enough for its size and grand design, but becomes even more striking thanks to the copper statuary on top—especially the female-driven chariots on each side of the portico and tower, which seem ready to plunge into the sky.

As splendid on the inside as it is on the outside, this magnificent structure was deemed obsolete when the fever for urban renewal gripped Detroit in the early post-WWII era. The Wayne County Building lost most of its offices when the City-County Building (now called the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building, across from Hart Plaza) was finished in 1955, though a few departments, including Traffic Court, remained. During the early 1980s, when the glorious building had fallen into considerable disrepair, a public-private ownership scheme was drafted in order to help fund a massive and costly renovation, and upon its completion the County relocated many of its offices into the refurbished space. However, after a relatively short-lived (22-year) occupancy by some Wayne County departments, Wayne County again played musical chairs, transferring its operations to the Guardian Building in 2009. Today this irreplaceable and unique creation stands empty, at risk once again.

Penobscot Building

645 Griswold Street | www.penobscotbuilding.com | PM Stop: Financial District
Located in the heart of Detroit’s financial district, the Penobscot Building exemplifies the Art Deco architectural style applied to the skyscraper in the early 20th century. Designed by Wirt Rowland in 1928—during a remarkable decade which also saw him design Detroit’s Guardian and Buhl Buildings—the Penobscot was an iconic landmark that anchored the city’s downtown. 47 stories high, with its signature red ball on top visible for miles, it remained Michigan’s tallest structure for almost half a century, until the central tower of the Renaissance Center (now the Marriott Hotel) eclipsed it in 1977. Unlike many other downtown skyscrapers, the Penobscot building has been a desirable commercial location with a consistently high occupancy rate through the economic ups and downs that afflicted the Motor City. The building itself is named for the Penobscots, Native Americans from what is now Maine who have no historic association with this area. As with Rowland’s Guardian Building, an assortment of Native American motifs (having no connection to Penobscot traditions) is much in evidence, both inside and out. The building’s lobby, which contains several small shops, is open to the public, and for fans of spectacular architecture it is well worth a quick visit.

Nearby Landmarks (not downtown)

Midtown

Also known as the Cultural Center, given how many of Detroit’s major cultural institutions are located there, Midtown is an area of Detroit experiencing some resurgence of late, thanks in large part to the city residents and entrepreneurs who have invested time, effort, and money in their projects.

The main attractions of the area— the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Detroit Historical Museum; the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History; the Michigan Science Center —are well-known and well-deserving of one’s time. But there are some other, smaller gems that are also worth a stop for entirely different reasons. Here is a sample.

Avalon International Breads

422 West Willis (2.3 miles from Cobo Center) | 313-832-0008 | www.avalonbreads.net
Tucked away in a side street in the heart of Detroit’s Cass Corridor—one of the most economically devastated areas in the city, still bearing the scars of the long-term economic disinvestment that worsened starting with Reagan—stands a testament to the combination of progressive politics and local empowerment. Known to the residents of Midtown simply as Avalon Bakery, this remarkable business began in 1997 through the vision of Jackie Victor and Ann Perrault, who learned how to bake bread so that they could open a socially-responsible food source in the city. With a host of neighborhood volunteers, they converted an unfinished space with neither lighting nor plumbing into a full production and retail facility. From the beginning, the Avalon owners have been committed to paying good wages and benefits to their workers. Today, more than 1,000 customers stream through Avalon’s doors from sunrise to sunset, seven days per week, for their baked goods, sandwiches, salads, and coffee, which can be taken home or eaten at a few cozy tables inside or at patio tables in front. Three trucks leave each morning, delivering organic breads and baked goods to more than 40 restaurants and markets in the greater metro Detroit area. If you’ve never had a chocolate-chip-with-sea-salt cookie from Avalon, this is an experience you won’t want to miss!

Cass Café

4620 Cass Avenue (2.4 miles from Cobo Center) | 313-831-1400 | www.casscafe.com | Price: $
Located near Wayne State University, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Hillberry Theatre, Cass Cafe is a comfortable and low-key place to meet and eat while in midtown Detroit’s Cultural District. The NN staff have found it a congenial and convenient place for gatherings when they were scouting the city. The menu offers an eclectic array of entrees, soups, salads, and sandwiches with a strong emphasis on vegetarian cuisine. It’s also home to the Cass Cafe Gallery, which exhibits the works of local and nationally known artists, although it should be noted that the content is frequently NSFW. The (full) bar features products from Detroit’s Motor City Brewery. The French Roast is exceptional, and the wifi connection is free. What’s not to like?

City Bird and Nest

City Bird: 460 West Canfield Street | 313-831-9146 | www.ilovecitybird.com
Nest: 460 West Canfield Street | 313-831-9776 | www.nestdetroit.com
Founded by siblings and seventh-generation Detroiters Andy and Emily Linn, City Bird is a retail store located on West Canfield between Cass and Second in Midtown. After establishing an online business featuring local products, they opened the Midtown store in November of 2009. City Bird sells housewares, jewelry, paper goods, apparel, accessories, and home decor by many independent artists and designers from Detroit and other Rust Belt cities. In its on-site studio, City Bird produces a popular house line of Detroit, Michigan, and Great Lakes-themed items which is available in-store and at more than 50 other retailers throughout the region.

In 2011, Andy and Emily Linn opened a second store next door—Nest—which offers an array of gifts and provisions for the home including candles, soaps, terrariums, bar and kitchen accessories, and home décor. In 2012, they teamed up with their brother Rob to compile and publish Belle Isle to 8 Mile: An Insider’s Guide to Detroit, a 448-page guidebook which details “more than 1,000 attractions, sites, institutions, restaurants, bars, and curiosities from the essential to the obscure.” It’s the best guidebook currently in print.

If you’re looking for a single location to find home-grown, high-quality, Detroit-made goods at a price that won’t bankrupt your personal finances, City Bird + Nest is where you want to go. If cost is no object, then you might prefer to get in line with those waiting to get into Shinola across the street.

Corktown and Mexicantown

Head out from downtown on Michigan Avenue (US 12, which runs more or less uninterrupted from here to Washington State), and in a mile or so you can’t miss the enormous ruin that towers over the cityscape. This is the Michigan Central Station, one of the buildings most often featured in the ruin porn of Detroit. (Follow the link for an excellent history of the building, including vintage photographs.) Once upon a time, from 1913 to 1988, it was the major passenger railway station in the city. From its opening in dramatic fashion—the station it was to replace some months hence having suddenly burned down—up until now it has been a marvelous object, signifying much to each generation who sees it. 

Every once in a while it’s possible to get inside to see the magnificent central lobby, now empty of seats and customers, but still an amazing construction of marble pillars and floors meant to last for centuries. Its basic construction is so durable that decades of exposure to the elements and to scavengers have not rendered the building irretrievably damaged. Unfortunately, the current owner, billionaire Matty Maroun (also the owner of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan, to Windsor, Ontario) has spent virtually nothing on securing the building, let alone restoring it. He recently promised to make good on earlier offers to invest in the building, but no one is counting on him to follow through. For years it’s been a favorite destination of graffiti and/or performance artists, each in their own genre trying to provide meaning to this beautiful, empty hulk. The Michigan Central Station has lately become a symbol of all that has befallen Detroit, including the unwillingness of the wealthy to carry their proportionate share of the civic burden. 

Its size makes it impossible to ignore, but the residents of Corktown, the oldest neighborhood in Detroit, manage to carry on their business in spite of its baleful presence. Corktown is not (yet) gentrified, but the signs of economic resurgence are there. Several good restaurants have emerged in the past few years, the best known being Slows BarBQ (2138 Michigan Ave., 313-962-9828), whose reputation seems only to grow.  But other, newer ones show promise of staying for the long haul. One is the Mercury Burger and Bar (2163 Michigan Ave.; 313-964-5000) which offers an imaginative assortment of burgers and the usual sides. The twist is that you can eat and drink outside with a front-row seat of the decrepit Station.  Another is Brooklyn Street Local (1266 Michigan; 313-262-6547), a breakfast-and-lunch café where you can order poutine, of all things. Logical, perhaps, for a town so close to Canada. 

If you venture along West Vernor Hwy, the divided street that seems to head from Michigan Avenue into the Michigan Central, you will find yourself on a street that veers to the west of the Station, goes under the train tracks, and then emerges within a few blocks in Mexicantown. On the east end of the district, you could visit a tortilla factory, La Jalisciense (2650 Bagley; 313-237-0008), which sells their product throughout the metropolitan area, or stop for a meal at the Mexican Village restaurant (2600 Bagley; 313-237-0333).  (For those coming from the Southwest, do not be misled: this is classic Americanized Mexican food, simply but decently prepared.) If you stay on W. Vernor long enough to cross the freeway, then make a left turn onto 23rd Street, you arrive after a long block at the other end of Bagley Ave., the home of several other Mexicantown institutions. The signs and the parking lots attest to serious competition between El Zocalo (3400 Bagley; (313) 841-3700), Xochimilco (3409 Bagley; (313) 843-0179), and Los Galanes (3362 Bagley, 313-554-4444), among others. Which one could become a favorite depends on personal taste or tradition much more than on the variety of their menu options. 

It’s unfair in some regards to represent either of these neighborhoods in terms of the entertainment and/or food they offer for purchase; both areas of Detroit have their own distinct histories along with their own current problems. But to explore the near downtown neighborhoods can at least give you a glimpse into the more ordinary, typical living circumstances for Detroiters, quite different from the impression you can get staying downtown. In the neighborhoods, people are surviving under duress, without glamour, somehow hanging on. None of these restaurants could stay in business if only the neighborhood residents came to eat there. So go, take a chance, see a bit of the real city apart from the glitz.

Old Main (Wayne State University)

4841 Cass Avenue, at the SW corner of Warren Avenue (2.6 miles from Cobo Center)
There are three public research universities in Michigan: the University of Michigan; Michigan State University; and Wayne State University. Only the latter has a legitimate claim to being an urban university, located as it is in the heart of Michigan’s largest city.

Old Main is where WSU began. Built from limestone quarried directly from the land in front of it, Old Main was built between 1894 and 1897 to serve as Detroit’s Central High School. In 1913 the high school began offering some college-level courses, and in 1917 the new two-year Detroit Junior College began to operate in the building. In 1923 this would become the four-year degree-granting College of the City of Detroit, the main precursor of Wayne State University.

Old Main houses the departments of music, dance, theater, anthropology, and geology. Be sure to tour the first floor to check out the displays of urban archeology in Detroit, including a major excavation of workers’ lodging in Corktown; check out the Planetarium in the basement; and gaze at the rock garden in front of the main steps by the flagpole, which includes samples of glacial rock from northern Michigan and a host of other varieties as well.

Russell Industrial Center

1600 Clay Ave (4.4 miles from Cobo Center, via I-75) | www.russellindustrialcenter.com
When people mention the resurgence of the art scene in Detroit, the Russell Industrial Center is one major piece of evidence often cited to support that claim. Designed by Albert Kahn in the nineteen-teens as a large production site for a variety of auto parts, the complex was empty for several years in the late 20th century as local manufacturing collapsed. In the early 2000s a private group of investors (Clay Street Group) decided to give their plan for revitalization a whirl. Much to everyone’s surprise and relief, so far their experiment appears to be going well: there are already dozens of artist studios, with a somewhat smaller number of small manufacturing enterprises. The complex is huge—over 2 million square feet of floor space—and magnificent, a testament both to the grandeur of Detroit’s heavy industrial past and to the promise of its artistic and innovative future. On summer Saturday evenings from 5-7 PM, their onsite Gallery 17 hosts shows by RIC occupants and other local artists. For a glimpse of one important element of the local art scene, one can’t do better than to check out the RIC.

Other Special Locations

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

20510 Livernois (about 11.5 miles from Cobo Center) | 313-345-6300 | www.theofficialbakerskeyboardlounge.com
This musical institution, founded in 1934, stakes a claim to being the oldest continuously-operating jazz club in the U.S. It has hosted a variety of world-class players and vocalists, from Fats Waller to George Shearing; Ella Fitzgerald to Betty Carter; Miles Davis to Earl Klugh. A small and intimate (99-seat) performance space, a knowledgeable clientele, some endearing décor (a bar painted to look like a piano keyboard), all continue to make this a good place to hear solid jazz, despite the recent ups-and-downs the lounge has suffered. It’s located on the far northern edge of Detroit, on Livernois at Eight Mile Road. Check their website for performers and set times. Full bar; full kitchen, with a lean toward a soul food menu.

Belle Isle State Park

Belle Isle, the jewel of Detroit, is a lovely island park in the middle of the Detroit River. It’s an interesting drive out east along Jefferson Avenue between downtown and the MacArthur Bridge, which marks the end of East Grand Blvd. and connects the Michigan mainland to the island. You’ll pass some prosperous residential neighborhoods on the riverfront, including Harbortown, but you’ll also pass many a blighted stretch. (Drive a couple of blocks farther east of the MacArthur Bridge, and you’d see the neighborhood where the Manoogian Mansion, the official mayoral residence for Detroit, is located; turn right on Lodge and follow to the end at Dwight.) 

Belle Isle itself has been a well-beloved destination for generations of Detroiters, benefiting since 1883 from the well-considered design of Frederick Law Olmstead, who was also the designer of New York City’s Central Park. Unfortunately, not all of its history has been rosy. The saddest episode for the island occurred in June, 1943, when a true race riot—that is, in which white people targeted black people—started there. Of the 34 people who were killed during three days of chaos, 25 of them were African-American, with two-thirds being killed by police. 

But most Detroiters today have much happier memories of the place. Old-timers still remember the livery stables on the island, with horses to rent for riding around the island’s trails, or the ice skating warming center for use when the canals froze over. Those are gone, but other special destinations remain. The Aquarium on Belle Isle, now open only weekends, is the oldest in the U.S. (and has some truly unusual specimens). The Conservatory is also impressive, though more refreshing in the winter. The James Scott Memorial Fountain at the western end of the island is a favorite spot for wedding photos. The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is a must-see for those interested in maritime history, particularly as related to Detroit and the Great Lakes. (It has the bow anchor of the Edmund Fitzgerald on permanent display.) A herd of European Fallow Deer once roamed freely on the eastern end of the island; now they’re confined to the Nature Zoo.

But the biggest attractions of Belle Isle are the water and the trails for walking, biking, or driving. It’s not as easy simply to go there and hang out since the State of Michigan entered into a long-term lease agreement under which Belle Isle has become a state park, requiring an entrance fee currently being phased in. But the island, and the animals and birds who call it home (to say nothing of the fish swimming by that tempt anglers to try their skill), remain unperturbed by the political turmoil that surrounds it. Only problem is that if you go for an hour, you’ll want to stay for the day. 

Eastern Market

2934 Russell St (1.8 miles from Cobo Center) | www.detroiteasternmarket.com
Farmer’s markets have a long and rich history in Detroit. When the city of Detroit was incorporated in 1803, the third ordinance on the books was the establishment of a farmer’s market. Today, Eastern Market is the last of the three public markets that once served the city; since 2006 it has been a public-private partnership, managed by the non-profit Eastern Market Corporation.

The site of today’s Eastern Market was once the Russell Street Cemetery in the heart of Detroit’s German community. As land value appreciated and Gratiot Avenue became a major roadway, the cemetery was vacated, remains were moved, and nearby wood and hay markets expanded. In 1891, the farmer’s market, started in 1841, moved from its original site near Cadillac Square to the Eastern Market District when the first sales sheds were built. At the same time, several food establishments were established in the area, a precursor to today’s mix of privately-owned wholesale and retail specialty stores and ethnic food shops. As the mixed commercial and residential district grew, shop owners often maintained their businesses on the ground floor and lived above their shops. The area prospered and sales sheds were added in 1922 and 1929; by 1924, Eastern was widely considered to be the largest farmer’s market in the world. Today, with 150 vendors housed in 5 sheds and more than 140 different businesses in the district, Eastern Market is the largest historic public market district in the United States with an estimated 40,000 visitors on any Saturday.

Some sites to consider if visiting Eastern Market:

  • Ciaramitaro Brothers Wholesale Produce Commission House
    2506 Market Square: Built between 1885 and 1888 as a saloon with sleeping rooms on the second floor.
  • Rudolph Hirt, Jr Building (now home to DeVries & Company)
    2468 Market Street: A three-story store with Romanesque arches and Tudor-arched windows on the third floor. The cheesemonger used to be R Hirt and Company, but after a much-publicized, and fortunately, short-term closure, the family divided its business between wholesale and retail; DeVries & Company is the new retail business in the same location. Specialties are cheese (and more cheese…and even more cheese), as well as meat and olive oils.
  • Rocky Peanut Co.
    2489 Russell Street: Fresh-roasted peanuts and so much more; dried fruit, gourmet and specialty foods, every kind of candy you can imagine, as well as a deli and grocery section.

On Sundays from 10-4 during the summer, Eastern Market will be sponsoring a Sunday Street Market in Sheds 2 & 3 featuring locally-made art, crafts, furniture, jewelry, clothing, and more.

Heidelberg Project

3600 Heidelberg Street (at Mt. Elliott – about 2.8 miles from Cobo Center, via Gratiot) | 313-974-6894 | www.heidelberg.org
The brainchild of Tyree Guyton, the Heidelberg Project is one of the most interesting urban art installations the U.S., let alone the City of Detroit, has ever seen. In 1986, Guyton (with the help of his grandfather, Sam Mackey) began adorning the abandoned houses in the neighborhood of his youth with the debris that people left behind. Through his vision, these houses—whether covered with polka-dots in a variety of colors, painted clock faces, or bits and pieces of baby dolls—created a powerful statement about a society in which everything becomes disposable, including people, cities, ways of life.

Guyton has encountered considerable resistance to his efforts, some originally from his neighbors, who thought his work was disrespectful, and some from the City officials, who just thought it was junk. The City itself destroyed several ornamented houses in two different events in the 1990s. More recently, as his work has gained international recognition and acclaim, the official quarrels have diminished. Unfortunately, several buildings were recently burned down despite security systems intended to prevent arson. Still, Guyton and his associates and supporters are resilient, insisting that while change is inevitable the project will adapt and endure.
But this is far more than you need, really, by way of information. Bottom line: go see it if you can. Thought-provoking doesn’t even begin to cover it. The installation is haunting, enraging, poignant, well-crafted, and very powerful. If you’re lucky, Guyton himself will be on the premises and willing to talk. (Tours can also be arranged in advance.)

The Henry Ford

20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn (12.8 miles from Cobo Center) | 313-982-6001 | www.thehenryford.org
The only site on this list not in Detroit itself, the Henry Ford (an umbrella name that now includes both Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum) is a destination that some will enjoy and most will find interesting.

Henry Ford, besides being a manufacturing genius, an anti-Semite, and for some time the richest man in the world, was also a hoarder of sorts. The Museum and Village were originally derived from his ambition to collect a wide range of Americana that he felt was endangered by modernity (in fact, by the very product he helped make ubiquitous and indispensible). He had teams of workers scour small towns for old canning jars, for example, and was happy when they returned with thousands. A certain obsessiveness prompted him to purchase and relocate several notable structures, such as Thomas Edison’s boyhood home, into the ersatz nostalgia of Greenfield Village.

More recently, curators at the Henry Ford Museum itself have rightly chosen to organize their exhibits according to their historical significance. Some of the artifacts on permanent display include: the chair in which President Lincoln was sitting when he was shot; the vehicle in which President Kennedy was riding when he was assassinated; the bus in which Rosa Parks was famously denied her seat.

All this aside, the Henry Ford does have interesting objects and exhibits to see, and knowledgeable docents to explain the memorabilia, great and small. On some days and times, there are interpreters present, in character, to re-enact the crafts (blacksmithing, butter-churning) that were once done in these structures. Be prepared to walk, and to be regularly diverted, if you visit the Village.

Pewabic Pottery

10125 E Jefferson Ave (4.2 miles from Cobo Center) | 313-822-0954 | www.pewabic.org
Pewabic Pottery was founded at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement by Mary Chase Perry and her partner and inventor of the portable Revelation Kiln, Horace Caulkins. Ms. Perry started her career as a china painter, a highly popular and “acceptable” genre for women artists. Her art gave her experience with kilns, and when she discovered her neighbor had designed a kiln for his dental supply business, a partnership was formed. Initially, she traveled and gave china painting demonstrations, concluding by firing her work in Caulkins’ kiln. After demonstrating the use of the kiln, she took purchase orders for the kilns.

After several years of this joint venture, Perry was ready for a new challenge and a new medium. In 1903, she and Caulkins opened Pewabic Pottery at a stable on Alfred Street; four years later, the business moved to its present location, a Tudor Revival style building designed by friend (and future husband) William Buck Stratton. The initial line of Pewabic Pottery was focused on easily-marketed items like bowls, vases, and lamps. Under her direction, the pottery expanded its focus and started producing architectural tiles for homes. It was not until 1909, however, when Perry Stratton perfected an iridescent glaze—the secret method for which she took to her grave—that Pewabic Pottery became known beyond artistic circles. Today Pewabic work can be found throughout the country. In Michigan, Pewabic installations can be found in public spaces (People Mover Stations), commercial buildings (Comerica Park, Guardian Building, Detroit Public Library), numerous churches and private homes, and displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

 

Thank you to Catherine Daligga, Jerry Custer, Sherry Peninger, and Greg Sullivan for all of these amazing recommendations!

Netroots Nation 2015