6 Reasons to Hang Out in Detroit (Yes, Detroit)

Jan 21, 2017

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Even diehard Detroiters admit the Motor City’s golden age ran out of gas decades ago, leaving a deeply troubled city that’s become a synecdoche for the decline of American manufacturing. But beyond the easy jokes, non-Michiganders are finally starting to realize that there’s a lot to be celebrated in a city that’s never lost its sense of itself; that continually embodies the best American values, like determination and inclusion; and that is finally regaining its well-deserved sense of pride. Renaissance City, indeed.

The next time you’re booking a vacation, think of Detroit as more than the airport you have to fly through on the way to more obvious destinations. Consider sticking around a day or two to explore this unsung Midwestern metropolis, hitting a few of our favorite spots while you’re there. Here’s why this bustling city is worth a second look.

1. Get Your Fix of Urban Art, Food and Fun in The Belt

So-called hipster neighborhoods — and, really, isn’t that phrase just a way of denoting urban gentrification with an emphasis on local culture rather than McMansions? — are popping up around Detroit like mushrooms, from Jack White spearheading the transformation of the Cass Corridor with his Third Man Records, to the Victorian homes and trendy bars and restaurants of Corktown, and even to the socially and environmentally conscious farmers bringing life back to the abandoned lots of the East Side. But The Belt stands out for turning that most vilified of city features, the dark and creepy alley, into a brightly colored public art space. Artists both local, like Tiff Massey, and international, like Shepard Fairey (of Obama “Hope” poster fame) have created works for The Belt, and a stroll through the downtown walkway is an absolute must. The Belt has also attracted galleries, bars, restaurants and even a bowling alley to the block, meaning that after your tour of thought-provoking street art, you can take a load off with a martini and a frame or two.

Get some perspective in The Belt, Detroit
Get some perspective in The Belt, Detroit’s art alley. Image by the author.

2. Tap Your Toes at the Motown Museum

When the history of sound is written a million years from now, our historian descendants will note that the high point of their annals began on an unassuming boulevard in the LaSalle Gardens neighborhood in 1959, the brainchild of Berry Gordy Jr., a grocer’s son turned songwriter turned record producer and canny entrepreneur. Hitsville, U.S.A., may have stopped being a working recording studio in 1972, but Gordy’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards converted the house and its neighbor into The Motown Museum in 1985 — it’s presently due to undergo a $50 million renovation that will turn the entire block into a 50,000-square-foot tourist destination.

It’s almost easier to name major American artists of the ’60s and ’70s who weren’t part of the Motown family than to try to list them all: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Rick James, the Four Tops, Lionel Richie, the Commodores — and the list goes on and on. You’ll hear about all of them on the hour-long guided group tour ($15 per person) that takes you back through time to tell how the grandson of a slave helped change the face of music — and incidentally became the man behind the most successful African American-owned business in the US. You can also see the iconic white glove Michael Jackson wore for the 1983 performance of “Billie Jean” (where the King of Pop first introduced the world to the Moonwalk); carefully preserved rooms from the Gordy family’s apartment and the original Motown offices (including the vending machine where a pre-adult Stevie Wonder indulged his hankering for Baby Ruth bars); and Studio A, where some of the most beautiful music ever created was made immortal — you’ll probably end your tour joining your guide in singing “My Girl” in the same spot the Temptations recorded it.

Gordy didn’t get to where he is today without zealously protecting his intellectual-property rights, so photography inside the museum is strictly prohibited — the security guards manning the ubiquitous cameras will discreetly inform your guide if you so much as take too long checking your cell phone for the time. Gordy’s also clearly painted as the hero of what more cynical visitors will consider an interactive hagiography — you won’t hear mention, for example, of the musical or movie Dreamgirls, in which the thinly veiled Gordy character comes off as far from noble. Still, even hardened skeptics with an ounce of melody in their souls should make sure the Motown Museum is high on their Detroit must-do lists.

Get mo
Get mo’ Motown at the Motown Museum. (That’s what you want.) Image by the author.

3. Indulge Your Inner Bookworm at King’s Books

This Corktown institution touts itself as the second-best used bookstore in the world, but with all due respect to the undeniable gorgeousness of Venice’s Libreria Acqua Alta, John K. King Used & Rare Books deserves the crown by almost any other measure. The onetime glove factory is home to over a million lovingly preserved tomes of every imaginable variety, spread out over several seemingly endless floors that you sometimes have all to yourself or sometimes have to share with other hushed-toned lovers of the printed page. The shelves are organized by the bookstore’s own uncrackable logic, complete with handwritten signs and arrows that lead seemingly nowhere, so it’s best to go in with the intention of getting lost. You may find poring over a complete set of pulp Westerns starring a blue-eyed half-native woman in increasingly revealing buckskin bodices, an early copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, James Ellroy’s trilogy on a fictional conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, or decades’ worth of the minutes of Midwestern city council meetings. There’s an ocean of books at King’s, and every time you come back in, you’ll discover something new.

John K. King Books Used & Rare Books stacks up against the best used bookstores in the world.
John K. King Books Used & Rare Books stacks up against the best used bookstores in the world. Image by the author.

4. Shop at the Historic Eastern Market

Detroit’s Eastern Market has a special place in the heart of its citizens, serving as the unofficial base of Lions tailgaters, hosting weekly farmers markets, the beloved Flower Day (always the Sunday after Mother’s Day) and serving as many area families’ primary grocery store for generations. Beyond the main sheds, its 43 acres — which make it the largest historic public-market district in the US — include a number of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and studios, as well as non-retail businesses and offices. You could easily spend an entire day exploring, but be sure to get a kickass black-on-black Detroit vs. Everybody t-shirt by Tommey Walker; peruse all the floors of the historic DeVries & Co. 1887 specialty food shop; find out what a “coney” is, exactly, at Zeff’s Coney Island diner; satisfy your nut fix at the Germack Pistachio Company; then recharge next door at its sister business, the Germack Coffee Roasting Company.

Point your compass toward Eastern Market. Image courtesy of Danielle Walquist Lynch via Flickr, and used under the <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode" target="_blank">Creative Commons license</a>.
Point your compass toward Eastern Market. Image courtesy of Danielle Walquist Lynch via Flickr.

5. Discover Detroit’s Burgeoning Food Scene

Conventional wisdom says New York, Chicago and northern California share the limelight when it comes haute cuisine, SoCal rules when it comes to tacos and fast food, the South hogs up all the quality barbecue and everyone else has to settle for more obscure regional specialities at best. So, what’s that leave Detroit with?

Well, pretty much everything, it turns out. The city’s chock-full of ambitious restaurateurs making their hometown over into a destination food city. If you’re already in the Eastern Market, stick around the neighborhood for one of the nation’s best pizzerias, Supino Pizzeria — if you’re ambitious, order the smoked-turkey pizza with smoked Gouda, cherry peppers and roasted garlic. Or, if you’re in a more classy-dinner mood, make reservations at Antietam, where you can have incredible duck-fat-fried almonds, bacon rillettes and classic cocktails in an Art Deco masterpiece of a space.

Still think barbecue has to come with a Southern accent to be worth a trip? Over in Corktown, Slow’s Bar BQ has upended Northern expectations with its nationally acclaimed Yardbird pulled-chicken sandwich and heavenly macaroni and cheese. Angelenos can try the lobsters-and-scallop tacos at El Asador Mexican Steakhouse in Springwells Village and finally shut up about how they can’t find any decent tacos more than hour from the Pacific. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just know that when you come to Detroit, you ought to pack an extra stomach.

A drink and a meal at Antietam can make warring friends civil again. Image courtesy of Antietam.
A drink and a meal at Antietam can make warring friends civil again. Image courtesy of Antietam.

6. See How Dearborn’s Islamic Culture Lends Global Flavor to the Midwest

Detroit’s metropolitan area has one of the largest populations of Muslims in America, surpassed only, perhaps, by New York City. By itself, the adjacent suburb of Dearborn has America’s largest Lebanese population and one of its largest Arab-American communities, while Hamtramck recently became the first American city with a majority-Muslim city council — its Muslim population has boomed largely thanks to an influx of Yemeni and Bangladeshi immigrants. Detroit is a truly international city that reflects the heritage of its variegated citizenry.

There are countless ways to enjoy and celebrate the Islamic culture of the region, including tours of the Islamic galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts or visits to Hamtramck’s coffee shops and festivals, but the tastiest is undoubtedly making the short trip to Dearborn’s Al Ameer, which in 2016 became the first restaurant in the state to win a James Beard Award. The Lebanese eatery is famous for its welcoming waiters and waitresses, paprika-infused sujuk sausage, and luscious shredded lamb, but no matter what you order, be sure to try out the divinely light hummus, get extra baskets of hot, fluffy pita, and opt for at least one of the fresh raw juices — if you’re treating yourself, share the Al Ameer Specialty, a tower of chunks of strawberry, apple, banana, cantaloupe and pineapple in mango juice, all topped with raisins, pistachios, honey and the sweetish, soft Lebanese cheese called ashta (kind of like ricotta). It may be on the juice menu, but you’ll probably want to save it for dessert.

Dessert after the main course? Nuts to that! Image courtesy of the author.
Dessert after the main course? Nuts to that! Image by the author.

What are your favorite places to visit in and around Detroit? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image courtesy of the author.

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