Comeback city

Detroit’s post-Recession renaissance offers travelers delightful dining, art, music, architecture and recreation

Detroit, a 1.5-hour flight or a 12-hour drive from the Twin Cities, has rebounded with gusto from the Great Recession.
Detroit, a 1.5-hour flight or a 12-hour drive from the Twin Cities, has rebounded with gusto from the Great Recession.

This just in: Among urban getaways, Detroit is the new black — as in “in the black” again and ready for prime time. The red ink of its headliner bankruptcy crisis has faded, thanks to civic heroes and everyday folks who refused to let their city die.

The new Detroit is a hustling, can-do city, sporting vibrant downtown towers; a light rail line and a new multipurpose stadium set to open this year (Little Caesars Arena), adjoining the fields of glory of the Tigers and Lions; a festive, four-mile Riverwalk; and a recent designation as a UNESCO City of Design — the first in the U.S. to win that honor.

Eye-stopping design is just in Detroit’s DNA. Take a gander at the facades, outdoor sculptures and mighty murals that fuel the city’s public arts on a free architectural walking tour offered by Detroit Experience Factory, which “looks at the city through the lens of art and design,” said our guide Isabelle Weiss, who reminds visitors ogling those fab facades that “During the ’20s, Detroit was the wealthiest city in the country.” (Thanks, auto industry.)

Result: A skyline of towers whose owners threw money at star-chitects to erect something bigger, better.

Everybody’s favorite is the Guardian Building, a flamboyant Mayan Revival Deco wonderland blazing with mosaics, murals and stunning geometry, constructed in 1929. (Bonus: Today its interior hosts a Made in Detroit gift shop, offering everything from Motown recordings to messenger bags made of recycled seat belts.)

Detroit’s People Mover is a fun way to see the city. Photo by Vito Palmisano
Detroit’s People Mover is a fun way to see the city. Photo by Vito Palmisano

Seeing the city

Campus Martius, downtown’s outdoor living room, features fountains, a faux beach, lawn, a bandstand and picnic benches — and an adjoining block of public basketball courts backed by murals designed “for people who’d never visit a gallery.”

That’s true also for the “secret” alley called The Belt, squeezed between two parking ramps, all of which are dressed in vivid murals; bystanders can often watch the artists paint. Downtown’s above-street People Mover train stations all sport murals unique to their neighborhoods, too. (Pay 75 cents for a 20-minute loop ride.)

Then it’s off to the Riverwalk, where outdoor sculptures erupt (along with an antique cannon, aimed at Canada across the river, just in case). Follow the broad promenade past welcoming Adirondack chairs, volleyball courts, a marina and food trucks to a carousel, whose bobbing saddles sit atop Midwestern critters, such as walleye and heron.

Detroit’s Eastern Market is one of the oldest and largest year-round markets in the U.S. Photo by Bill Bowen
Detroit’s Eastern Market is one of the oldest and largest year-round markets in the U.S. Photo by Bill Bowen

No longer a ghost town

How did this renaissance happen, so soon after suburban flight turned downtown into a ghost town? Well, local leaders didn’t wait around for mega-grants and lengthy studies. They just went ahead and did things.

Jeanette Pierce, executive director of the Detroit Experience Factory, said: “It’s due to a development philosophy of ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ that got swift (and award-worthy) results.”

Even the city’s venerable Eastern Market — at 125 years old and 250 vendors, the oldest and largest in the country — has caught the fever.

Its buildings also flaunt flamboyant murals. Linda Yellin, of Feet on the Street tours, leads the curious and hungry on a belt-busting trek (“Come hungry, leave happy”) that includes Supino’s Pizza, On the Rise Bakery and DeVries’ Cheese Shop, with a frozen finale of Mootown’s ice cream.

The Detroit Zoo features four types of penguins (macaroni, king, Gentoo and rockhopper) at its Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the largest penguin facility in the world. Photo by Bill Bowen
The Detroit Zoo features four types of penguins (macaroni, king, Gentoo and rockhopper) at its Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the largest penguin facility in the world. Photo by Bill Bowen

Neighborhoods are fast-renewing, too. Corktown, once home to penniless Irish immigrants, has emerged from it gritty roots as a hot new center of urban hip. Today it’s flush with vintage shops, bars and cafes like Slows BAR BQ with its hours-long line and Two James distillery (tours and samples).

Steve Johnson’s Motor City Brew Tours stops in Corktown, too, among many other neighborhoods, such as Midtown — another revival success, drawing the “Eds and Meds” of nearby Wayne State U and Detroit’s premier hospital.

Top shops lead off with Shinola, whose home base here peddles its legendary bikes, leather goods and watches at prices that call for a second mortgage, along with must-haves such as designer thumbtacks and hand-crafted string.

Across the street, City Bird and Nest supply the “yoga and yogurt” crowd’s cravings, whetted by Motor City Brewing Works and HopCat pub.

Detroit’s Guardian Building, built in 1929, is a showcase for Mayan Revival Deco architecture. Photo by Bill Bowen
Detroit’s Guardian Building, built in 1929, is a showcase for Mayan Revival Deco architecture. Photo by Bill Bowen

Art and music, too

Midtown also boasts two of the city’s top three attractions, leading off with the Detroit Institute of Art. Yes, that museum, where city fathers not so long ago threatened to sell off its masterpieces to solve the city’s debt. Didn’t happen. It still boasts all its rock stars, including Breughel, della Robbia, Fra Angelico and Rembrandt. But the piece — THE piece — everyone views slack-jawed with wonder is Diego Rivera’s 1932 room, a workingman’s Sistine Chapel whose four walls of murals showcase Detroit’s achievements, noting inventions good (smallpox vaccine) and bad (bomb development), culminating in the story of the Ford Motor Plant. (See if you can spot Edsel’s portrait. Diego’s too.)

Nearby, Motown celebrates the infectious story of how young black artists like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye got their start in this recording studio.

But you want your music live, you say? Try the lineup at the gorgeous former movie houses of the Roaring Twenties, the Fox and the Fillmore. Or head to the Majestic, a burger-joint-turned-bowling-alley with nightly jazz. Or Bert’s, in Eastern Market, to get down with wings and ribs around the performance stage.

Campus Martius Beach
Campus Martius Beach

Where to eat

For serious eats, head to Chartreuse (in a room where Rivera and Kahlo once hung out) for its best-selling twice-cooked egg on spicy greens; delectable short ribs with eggplant and mushrooms; trout atop spaetzle; and down-home vanilla pudding, jazzed with lemon-basil syrup.

Hearty cuts of critters reign at Roast, where the short rib is equally outstanding — and huge enough to make one wonder, “rib of … brontosaurus?” So’s the lamb shank. And silky salmon dressed in olive tapenade. Or make a meal of starters like the horseradish-spiked beef-cheek pierogies and pork belly partnered with watermelon.

Hungry for information? Check out visitdetroit.com.


Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.