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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Motor City Makeover

It’s high noon on a Sunday in Detroit’s old Corktown neighborhood, and Slows Bar-B-Q is hopping. They’re taking names at the hostess stand and schlepping briskets, baby backs, pale ale, and sweet peach tea. The rich aroma of smoke, meat, and sauce hangs in the air.

The bars and cafes in Corktown mostly date from the glory days of Tiger Stadium, now demolished. But Slows’ hip haven of reclaimed wood and exposed brick opened in 2005, after the last Major League Baseball game was played there in 1999. Within view of the ruined windows of the long-abandoned train terminal — a heartbreaking emblem of Detroit’s long decline — Slows stands as a symbol of the opposite: the spirit of the new Detroit.

While the nation’s press has been filled with tales of Motor City blight and auto industry woes, Detroit has been quietly going on with its work of revival and reclamation. One thing I learned about Detroit in the three years I lived there: It doesn’t give up easily. So when that “Imported from Detroit” Chrysler commercial debuted, I began to wonder how the city had changed in the eight years since I’d left.

The answer: a lot.

Not only did my visit remind me of the things I’d enjoyed — those balmy, temperate northern summer evenings when the days seem to last forever, the Ambassador Bridge twinkling over the Detroit River to Canada in the blue dusk, the grand art-deco buildings, the passion Detroiters hold for their symphony and opera, the vitality and edge of the urban art scene, the ability to hop in my car and be in another country in 10 minutes — but it also woke me up to how much has happened in Detroit in the last decade.

I remember shaking my head when I heard there were plans to renovate the once-grand Book Cadillac Hotel. There wasn’t enough money in the world, I thought, to reverse the ruin two decades of abandonment had wreaked on the sad relic of what was once the world’s tallest hotel. Now, $200 million later, the Westin Book Cadillac is downtown’s most elegant destination, abuzz with a busy bar scene, private condos, and a hyper-hot restaurant. The city’s three casinos have moved from temporary housing into glitzy new homes with spas and celebrity-chef restaurants. The sports scene is as rousing as ever, filling the stadiums downtown. The cultural Woodward Corridor has sprouted new cafes and housing. In summer, there’s some kind of festival practically every weekend, often on the river at Hart Plaza.

So, after several days of dawn-to-dusk sightseeing, wining and dining in Detroit, I asked myself: Having experienced the new Detroit, would I visit again? You bet, and here are some reasons why:


Museuming: Monets, Motown, and Model T’s

Detroit is home to two of the Midwest’s greatest treasures: the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which completed a renovation in 2007, and the Henry Ford, a museum that lives up to its slogan of “America’s Greatest History Attraction.”

The DIA grew up in an era when Detroit was home to some of the richest people in the world — people who wanted the finest in art and culture. In the range, depth, and quality of its collection, the DIA offers rewards for every kind of art enthusiast, and the recent reorganization makes it accessible to kids and connoisseurs alike. But the heart of the museum is the courtyard with walls holding Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” frescoes. Teeming with energy and dense with images, they can hold your gaze for hours. Fork over your driver’s license and a credit card, and you’ll get an iPad-esque device loaded with apps that’ll clue you in to Rivera’s secrets and symbols. Fair warning: I’d allow at least a day to absorb this museum’s treasures.

A day is hardly enough for the Henry Ford, either. The inside of the 12-acre building feels like an automotive wonderland. You can help assemble a Model T; tour the ’40s-futuristic Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House, a prototype for a circular aluminum house whose parts could be shipped in a metal tube; or sit in the seat Rosa Parks refused to give up on the historic bus rescued from a field in Alabama. You can’t sit in the chair in which Lincoln was shot, but you can see the stains on it through the glass that encloses it.

Outside, on 80 acres, Greenfield Village’s 83 period buildings offer vignettes of an earlier America, from a working 1880s farm to the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop. Mount the 1913 carousel for a twirl to the Wurlitzer band organ, dine in an 1850s tavern, or watch a costumed re-enactor in Thomas Edison’s reconstructed Menlo Park “invention factory” make a tinfoil recording of his own warbling voice and play it back with a megaphone. 

If you’re still thirsty for more history, Detroit also offers the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Arab American National Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Center, or the Motown Museum.

Art-hopping: Opposite attractions

Art buffs have the option of two polar-opposite attractions unique to Detroit. One is the 319-acre Cranbrook campus. The serene haven of contemporary art and design, with a 1908 Albert Kahn manor home, offers 40 acres of gardens, an art academy, a natural-history museum, an outdoor sculpture collection and an art museum (under renovation until November).

From Cranbrook in tiny Bloomfield Hills, the metaphoric distance could hardly be greater to Heidelberg Street in east Detroit, a crumbling neighborhood that would be forgotten by everyone but those doomed to live there if Tyree Guyton hadn’t picked up a paintbrush 25 years ago and started painting polka-dots. Gradually, he has turned his neighborhood into an “art environment” — painting abandoned houses and even the streets and sidewalks; arranging urban detritus gleaned from vacant lots on porches, trees, and poles; attracting other artists, and becoming a cause célèbre in the process.


Dining: Pigs, pierogies, and pitas

Detroit’s jobs drew immigrants from not only the American South but all over the world, which translates to a smorgasbord of ethnic eats — Polish pierogies in Hamtramck; street tacos in Mexicantown; souvlaki in Greektown; and fried chicken in east Detroit, where Southern Fires bakes stun-you-into-submission desserts. Italian options run the gamut, from institutions such as Giovanni’s and Mario’s to ambitious contemporary fare at Bacco. The area’s concentration of Arab-Americans means excellent Middle Eastern eateries are everywhere, especially in Dearborn.

If you have only one night to splurge, Michael Symon’s Roast in the Westin Book Cadillac is the only choice: cool cocktails, hot people-watching, and a gloriously meat-centric restaurant. The Roast Beast of the Day — often a suckling pig — turns on a spit. The beef-cheek pierogies, roasted bone marrow, and pork shank confit are all too lush to pass up. The last time I had charcuterie anywhere near as good as Roast’s house-cured duck speck, I was in Greenwich Village.

Staying and going:

The hottest spot to stay in the new Detroit is the luxe Westin Book Cadillac, where the bathrooms are as big as the typical Manhattan hotel room. All three casinos — the MGM Grand, MotorCity, and Greektown — have their own hotels too. Greektown’s rates are generally lowest; the hotel compensates for its small rooms with walls of windows and the action in the casino and in the surrounding Greektown clubs and cafes.

If you want a hotel nearer the airport or if the Henry Ford is the focus of your trip, Dearborn is a good choice. Its most prominent hotel is the Henry, a former Ritz-Carlton rebranded by Marriott, offering spacious rooms at not-too-steep rates and an ambitious new “American brasserie,” Tria.

You can get around downtown — and get a good overview of it — on the elevated People Mover, but navigating the Motor City generally requires a motor, so plan on renting a car if you’re not driving your own.

When You Go:

Detroit Metro Convention Visitors Bureau – www.visitdetroit.com


Detroit Institute of Arts – www.dia.org

The Heidelberg Project – www.heidelberg.org

The Henry Ford – www.hfmgv.org

Michael Symon’s Roast – www.roastdetroit.com

Slows Bar-B-Q – www.slowsbarbq.com

Westin Book Cadillac – www.bookcadillacwestin.com

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