Detroit still has its vibe
Working hard to stay in the big leagues, a city proud of its industry, sport, music, and art
DETROIT -- On a front lawn off Jefferson Avenue, 11-year-old Tania displays dolls dressed in hand-designed African fashions.
"My grandmother buys them and gets fabric to make the outfits," Tania says, reporting that on this day sales are up with spillover traffic from the free Jazzin' on Jefferson festival. I buy a beautiful doll in green and gold kente cloth headdress before walking the block toward the sounds of the Motor City All Stars playing with New Orleans piano legend Eddie Bo.
The neighborhood party signifies why Detroit can be an unexpectedly inviting summer weekend destination. A creative, consistently friendly, and unpretentious atmosphere with predominantly African-American vibes suffuses the city, layered with a melange of Greek, Polish, Arab, Mexican, and other ethnic textures highlighted in a series of free music and cultural festivals. If you need guidance, Detroiters are proud to describe the event choices for any given weekend.
A helpful geographic anchor for a city excursion is the Woodward Avenue corridor stretching from the downtown riverfront to the cultural center two miles north. Along this stretch one finds comfortable accommodations, restaurants, the elegant Detroit Institute of Arts (reopening Nov. 23 after a six-month reconstruction and renovation project), and the setting for a neighborhood architectural tour. It's best to have a car because Detroit is big, and you can log significant mileage between locations.
Begin the day at the Eastern Market just east of Woodward. Operating at this location since 1891, the enormous market is a vast outdoor array of produce, flower, antique, and food stalls. Having forsworn barbecued ribs, kielbasa, and lamb kebab as breakfast foods, I opt for a feta cheese bagel from a Greek food cart, then gather picnic items and head for the waterfront to stretch out along the scenic Detroit River at the only point in the United States where visitors look south to Canada. This summer the city is putting the final touches on its two-plus-mile RiverWalk after years of clearing industrial sites and overcoming red tape.
"There was just waste here and a factory graveyard for too long," says Nicholas, a dreadlocked painter selling canvases along the walk. "We needed this."
Beyond downtown and the riverfront, the visitor will confront vivid visual testimony to the economic battering the city has endured over the past decades as high-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared. Rather than avoid this wounded Detroit, consider it an opportunity to experience the city's sobering beauty. A residential tour through the Woodward corridor reveals dozens of beautiful homes, many abandoned, some being restored. A few of the finest are in the Brush Park area along Edmund and Alfred streets. Four beautiful Victorian homes have been converted into The Inn on Ferry Street, a reasonably priced bed-and-breakfast jewel in a city where few options for accommodations exist outside the high-rise downtown hotels.
Detroit's residential ruins and shuttered public structures are remnants of the city's mid-20th-century wealth, when the population was almost 2 million, more than double its current size. The most stunning skeleton is the 18-story Michigan Central Depot train station, standing with countless shattered windows along Michigan Avenue a half mile from Tiger Stadium, another landmark abandoned since the baseball team moved to upscale
Detroit's most vibrant architecture may be its churches, particularly the Gothic structures that reflect the city's long French and Polish Roman Catholic heritage. From the cultural center along Woodward, drive in almost any direction and look for spires and towers. To get started, locate Sweetest Heart of Mary Church at Russell and Canfield, north of Eastern Market. Two affiliated churches with distinct architectural styles, St. Joseph's and St. Josaphat's, are nearby.
Complete the architecture tour with the opulence of the Whitney Mansion on Woodward. The 52-room Romanesque house, with grand staircases, Tiffany stained glass windows, and 20 fireplaces, has been converted into an elegant restaurant.
When evening arrives, enjoy Detroit's vital blues, jazz, classical, or rock 'n' roll tradition. On the Saturday night I spent in town, Wynton Marsalis played the Detroit Orchestra Hall, but I preferred to remain street level for Jazzin' on Jefferson before heading off to Baker's Keyboard Lounge on the far north side. Baker's, said to be the world's oldest operating jazz club at 73 years, is an urbane space featuring live music seven nights a week in a packed setting where the stage kisses the front row of tables. I order blackened catfish and yams during the second set from a menu that would do well in southern Georgia. After the kitchen closes at 1 a.m., R.J., the doorman, waives the cover charge and highlights the club's notoriety. He points to an alphabetical list above the door.
"Everyone in jazz who counts is up there. Think of a name." I scan for Miles Davis and R.J. folds his arms looking satisfied.
"When Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker are back in town, they'll stop by. And you see the top of the bar?" I note that the long white counter replicates the look of a piano keyboard. "When Liberace heard about it, he sent a guy here to check it out and put the design around his swimming pool."
Music venues in the northern suburbs offer intriguing possibilities as well, but if you want to venture beyond Detroit proper over the weekend, consider waiting until morning for a drive east along Lakeshore to Grosse Pointe, where stately mansions stand back from Lake St. Clair. Or take a day trip 40 miles west to Ann Arbor for a quintessential college town tour. Traverse the University of Michigan's "Diag," the tree-lined central plaza, and meander onto outlying streets to discover a campus comfortably woven through residential neighborhoods. Stop for lunch at Dominick's on nearby Monroe Street, an Italian cafe inside an old house with a fountain on its backyard plaza. Seating out front includes an exterior view of the Gothic law quadrangle across the street.
After you leave the central campus, take a short drive north to Gallup Park and watch wild geese patrol the shore of the Huron River. And for a moment of grandeur before departing Ann Arbor's otherwise modest dimensions, honor the gridiron gods at the 107,501-seat expanse of Michigan Stadium. The football stadium, the largest in the country and known as the "Big House," is often open for public viewing in the off-season.
As affluent economic counterpoints to Detroit, Grosse Pointe and Ann Arbor illustrate the severe disparities that have come to characterize the area. As you head home, the contrasting images will probably prompt reflection, interwoven with the sound of jazz and the smell of souvlaki.
Erik Gleibermann can be reached at email@example.com.