Michigan - Detroit

Detroit Strong!


If you find yourself in Detroit you will see that every mode of transport is ‘bringing it’ in Motor City. From cars to motorbikes to push bikes and roller skates they are all tricked out. The bikes and rollerbladers whizzing past us had their wheels lit up. Even the city center tram blared a horn that mimicked an ancient locomotive, nice touch. They called the tram a 'People Mover' - love the American literalism.

Detroit gets a bad rep, even the few who sing its praises add cautionary advice to their praise (‘Don’t go to blah’, ‘Stay away from bleur’, ‘Ask if a neighbourhood is safe before you visit it’ - Who am I asking exactly? The dude with the gun in my face?).

[Pre Covid] we landed late in the evening, hungry and tired. Upon arrival at our hotel the staff were SO kind and helpful and up for a big ole chat. We almost had to break with politeness and storm off in search of food to quench the trashing appetite in our bellies.

The lady behind the desk had moved to Detroit from London as a teenager, as soon as she heard Dom's British accent she went from hardcore American intonation to cockney sparrow. Dom's timbre also took on an amplified version of itself. I thought at one point they were going to break into a round of “Knees Up Mother Brown” followed by ordering a portion of fish n’chips (I wouldn't have minded the fish n’chips).

A visual mind melt

After one round of Rule Britannia, we headed out into the night and passed the Cadillac Building - a reminder that we were in the heartland of America’s love affair with the motor vehicle. As we walked, our eyes took in the solid lines of skyscrapers, another building block of old America and evidence of a prosperous past.

Given all the pre-travel advice (warnings) from friends about Detroit, I was bracing myself for danger when we headed downtown, but it was as friendly as it gets, lots of people smiling and saying hello. At one point Dom sneezed while crossing the road and a young man in a passing car, bouncing along to hip hop, leaned out and shouted "Bless you, man"!

We passed by an English pub followed by a dive bar followed by a gallery dedicated to "Young Men of Colour" followed by a fancy restaurant. All teeming with ebullient folk.

Park yourself down

After a bite to eat we took a stroll around Campus Martius Park. A mini sized park in the center of a roundabout that hosts a restaurant (with a grass garden as a roof) and a bar. The bar has a man-made patch of beach out the back, complete with deckchairs. It was the perfect place to chill as the city swam around us. Dom informed me that Campus Martius Park is the starting point for Detroit's co-ordinated grid system, 8 miles north of it you will find the famous 8 Mile Road. Hhmm, maybe Dom should stick to sneezing. My eyes dimmed, tiredness taking over, until they landed on the cascading water fountain in the centre of the park, that was cleverly lit to look like a raging fire. Given the city's motto includes "It shall rise from the ashes" I thought this faux fire trickery was very clever indeed - well done Detroit! 

As the evening turned into night and we strolled back to our hotel, we noticed there was music everywhere in the city, blasting out of cars, even just randomly bellowing from tannoys hanging from street corners, it infused the city. We were serenaded back to our hotel and slept like babies. Like every other city Stateside Detroit is not immune from the US obsession with brunch. The next day, we joined the queue and brunched down at a nice spot called The Dime Store. A hopping hangout where the food is ‘scratch made’, it took a while for my European brain to rejig that to ‘made from scratch’ in other words ‘fresh’, makes me wonder what everyone else is serving up!

"Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back"

Post brunch we took a stroll along the Riverwalk, again more music - buskers, and bicyclers hanging boomboxes from their bikes as they bombed by. One older dude was sporting a bright red tracksuit, cycling a cruiser, with his hands grasping the wide handlebars, blasting out Motown music from his stereo - being the best version of himself. Across the river you can clearly see the Canadian city of Windsor, we’re talking a couple of miles away. It was strangely thrilling to see the signs "Tunnel to Canada". You could tickle Canada's tummy!

Speaking of Motown music, it was time to check out something we had been talking about for years, the Motown Museum (thanks for the tip, Killian). I spent a lot of my teenage years listening to Motown (thanks to movies set decades before I was born such as 'Stand By Me' and 'My Girl').

"The Tracks of My Tears"

The museum’s neighborhood was pretty rundown with lots of abandoned buildings and smashed windows, physical evidence that Detroit was a bankrupt city. Much to our horror the museum was closed :( It was still special to see the house (recording studio) nicknamed "Hitsville USA", where Barry Gourdy masterminded hit after hit from bands like The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, to name a few. With heavy hearts we motored on - Motown don’t go anywhere, we’ll be back.

That evening we went for some outdoor dining in Greektown. It was a bustling small street filled with restaurants, all the seating spilling onto the narrow pavement. It was exciting to feel the city parade past us as the night buzzed into life. I got a buzz of my own as my teenage crush, the British musician Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz fame) walked by, my eyes popped out of my head. 

I did that classically Irish thing of squeezing my husbands arm and whispering "Don't look, it's your man, DON'T LOOK, is he looking at me? Don't look AT HIM, oh god he's walking by". As Damon walked by I looked him straight in the eye, gave a casual nod with a "How's it goin?" then I turned immediately away as if I simply hadn't got time to wait for an answer and resumed a conversation I hadn't been having with my husband. I don't think Damon saw me, at best we're really second tier friends, it's all good.   
Detroit, it's a musician's gritty city.

The next morning we drove to the pretty Belle Isle, a parkland in the middle of the Detroit River bordering Canadian waters. There wasn't a soul to be seen, some of the stately park buildings were boarded up. We found an incredible abandoned playground and jumped out of the car. Minutes later it was apparent why there was no one else taking advantage of the picturesque silent space.... Mosquitos! A battalion of mozzies devoured us as we fled family style back to the car.

I insisted we go to a Tim Hortons. I am a huge fan of the Canadian coffee house, most notably their hot chocolates, since my Canadian backpacking days (for those stories read here). I was excited to learn that Detroit was home to a few Tim Hortons thanks to its proximity to Canada. Alas, it turned out the idea doesn't travel well, some things are best left to the Canadians.


My search for Tim Hortons brought us through the grimmer side of Detroit. The infamous side, where one in three houses were boarded up and abandoned. It was heartbreaking to witness this. The streets we drove down did indeed have every third house in disrepair. Even more heartbreaking was seeing schools, churches, hospitals all closed up. Signs up from loan sharks offering "Get cash today".

How did one of America’s most innovative cities end up destitute?

Innovation moved west, their taxable base shrank over the years - unemployment rose, people left, the outgoings including paying for healthcare, pensions and unemployment benefits outstripped the incoming tax. Detroit famously went bankrupt in 2013.

But there is hope in this city, they are building themselves back up. As an incidental side effect of low rent comes artists. Detroit is growing into a fashionable art haven. In years to come I predict tourists will flock to this cool, friendly, musical motor city rising from the ashes.

Detroit Strong!

Detroit, the comeback kid, a very American tale, I wanted to understand more of what made an American tick, so we went to a museum dedicated to it...