Tell anyone you’re going to Detroit for vacation, and they’ll look at you with some serious respect. Or like you need your head examined.
This is the same city, after all, that’s inspired its share of late-night comedians and now ranks right up there with Karachi as one of the least safe cities in the world. But, these days, something odd is in the air: a sense of optimism.
Yes, for all the barbs traded about Detroit, something improbable is happening: Travelers are starting to give the city, and its suburbs, another look. Maybe it has something to do with good news on the “Big Three” front — GM recently posted its first profits in three years.
Meanwhile, it’s Toyota, not Detroit, that’s been worrying people lately. But the crowning moment may have been when the metro area’s own Rima Fakih was crowned Miss America in May.
Take that, Detroit bashers!
The glory days may indeed be over for Motown and motors, but at least one thing hasn’t been entirely exhausted: the passion of those who live around here for the city and its history.
Because, after everything else has gone to seed, it’s the people who are this city’s last best brand. And, like some last man standing, they’re eager to rebuild. And let you in on what you’re missing.
Detroit: From the ashes
To really understand Detroit, you have to go back to 1805. That’s when a fire nearly destroyed the city — but not its spirit, earning it the motto, “From the ashes.” Ever since then, Detroit has gone through, oh, just a few fiery reinventions.
Walk around downtown Detroit, and you’ll find no national restaurant chains, except one lone Hard Rock Café. But while nearly everyone else seems to have given up on the city, the locals sure haven’t. Within one square mile of downtown, you’ll find about 125 locally-owned bars and restaurants. Each carries its own lively energy.
Among them is Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes. Inside, the owner, Torya Blanchard, works the griddle in a snood and black dress, making crepes. She offers 50 varieties in all, some sweet, others savory — from a “Heath bar-ricotta cheese-chocolate” ensemble to a “bacon-boursin cheese-spinach” mix.
It was just two years ago that Blanchard, a Detroit native (and former French teacher), was looking for a way to combine her two great loves: French culture and her hometown. So, she opened this creperie, in the heart of the city. It’s since grown from an itty-bitty kiosk into a bustling business, with eight employees and two more locations on the way.
“What people don’t get is the resilience of Detroit and the surrounding metro area — we’re a very resilient people,” says Blanchard.
Tim Tharp is another Detroiter who knows all about resilience. And good beer. Several years ago, when Detroit’s economy had already tanked, well ahead of the nation — and his own father had just passed away — Tharp faced two choices: Stay or leave.
He soon stumbled upon a rundown old pub for sale. Not just any pub, though. It had once served as a railway ticket office, and was located on historic Woodward Avenue — the first thoroughfare of America. For Tharp, the choice was easy. He stayed. These days, his business, Foran’s Grand Trunk Pub, serves up nearly 15 varieties of local Michigan brews (the Scotty Karate Scotch Ale for serious beer lovers, only).
Purchasing the pub “just felt right,” Tharp, 37, tells me. “There’s a lot of us that have such a strong love for this city because it’s our heritage … and it’s given so much.”
Detroit’s auto heritage
Detroiters are proudest of their auto heritage, no surprise there. Sure, you meet your share of Gran Torino types here, still stuck in the ‘50s. But at a time of bailouts and busts, there’s something kind of invigorating about revisiting a time when Detroit, and America, were riding high.
It’s a heritage that Motorin’ Marianne Maisano preserves in her own small way. Like today. As she waxes poetic about the day she got her driver’s license — Detroiters do that sort of thing — Maisano cruises down Michigan Avenue in her 1961 Thunderbird Convertible, what she calls her “bonding car.” Sure enough, passersby wave and shout out, “woo-hoo!”
Our first stop is the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant. “This is the place that put the world on wheels,” says the factory’s guide, Dick Rubens.
The 65,000 square feet of space, which spans three levels, served as the first assembly factory for Ford Motor Company and went on to set the world record for car production by 1907.
But perhaps no facility is more exhilarating than Ford’s Rouge Factory. Yes, despite last year’s country hit, “They’re Shuttin’ Down Detroit,” manufacturing still goes on in the Motor City.
These days, the Rouge Factory still stands as the maker of the number one truck in America: the F-150. The self-guided tour includes a multi-sensory theater experience where you literally see, hear, feel, and smell how every Ford is made.
Detroit’s living history
The man who made Detroit’s manufacturing might possible was, of course, Henry Ford. His big motto was “learning by doing,” and you can experience that first-hand at Greenfield Village, in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. In 1929, Ford created this expansive living history museum, covering 300 years of the American experience. Today, you’ll see snapshots in time along the grounds: farmers, artisans, inventors, writers, railroad workers, and more in period pieces.
The village even includes historical food — slow cooked, and most of it locally grown. It’s all at Eagle Tavern, a wood-frame structure built in 1831, in nearby Clinton, Michigan, and later relocated here. A certain Calvin Wood ran the tavern from 1849 to 1854; he’s faithfully recreated here today.
In between servings of chicken fricassee — supposedly, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite dish — “Wood” comes up, and fills me in on the day’s president, Zachary Taylor: “He died two weeks ago,” says the re-enactor, dead pan.
Less than a mile away, the Henry Ford Museum offers an astonishingly intimate view not only of Detroit but American history. Everything from pop culture — the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile — to the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. You can even sit inside. (But prepare to get goose bumps.)
Detroit’s lively ‘burbs
The past isn’t just housed in museums. It’s alive, kicking … and singing, as I find out the next day, with “Big Daddy” Marshall Lackowski, an accordion player making his way through the streets of Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit.
Workers cleaning up a statue by Marshall Fredericks titled 'The Spirit of Detroit.' Click on photo to enlarge.
Decked in a star-studded black suit, he twirls his index finger: “Take your finger and go ‘Purrrrrrr-hey!’”
And, off he goes: “Everybody do the la-dee-da …”
In the years following Detroit’s explosion as the auto capital of the world, immigrants poured into this suburb from all over the world. Including Poland.
That presence remains strong. Your stomach will feel it first-hand at Polonia, a local restaurant where you’ll find Polish-style comfort food including stuffed cabbage, pierogies, and veal on a stick. The place is pretty popular.
“My secret?” says Polonia’s owner, Janusz Zurowski. “Beautiful waitresses!”
On the other side of town, over in Dearborn, you’ll get a feel for an equally rich heritage: that of Arab Americans. Around the turn of the 20th century, some 200,000 immigrants came to the United States from what was then known as Greater Syria. Lured by work in the auto industry, many settled in Dearborn, which has since become home to the largest Arab community in the United States.
That story, and others like it, are showcased at The Arab American National Museum, which opened five years ago and remains the first (and to date, only) museum of its kind in the United States.
The day I stop by, one of its guides, Nadia Bazzy, fills me in on the fascinating story of her own family’s deep roots in Metro Detroit, including a great-uncle, Hoover, who was named after, you guessed it, America’s 31st president.
By late afternoon, the museum’s manager, Ron Amen, shares a cup of Turkish coffee up on the roof. Then we’re off for a spacious meal at Al Ameer Restaurant, the Lebanese cuisine of which reflects the large number of locals whose families hail from the country.
By evening, it occurs to me: how starkly different the last few days’ experiences have been from the news reports I brushed up on before coming here. If anything, Metro Detroit is kind of like Zen: to really appreciate it, you have to be in the moment. That means pulling up a chair and enjoying, simply, a local beer or crepe, pierogi or plate of hummus. Whatever your choice, you may just meet a Detroiter with a story to share about this fair city making its way up, slowly, yet again — from the ashes.