Travelogue: Detroit.

Friday, September 4, 2015

One day in early spring, just as the frost of winter had begun to fade, a rainbow appeared in Bushwick. Of course, this being New York City — which is, in my experience, a land of many thunderstorms but very few rainbows — this one was drawn in paint, arcing across the surface of a billboard on Bogart Street. Its colors trailed in the wake of an airplane soaring above the black-and-white streets of Brooklyn, touching ground in some ostensibly more tantalizing city on the other side. DETROIT, the billboard read. Be Left Alone.

To a New York resident of what's soon to be eight years — a period of time that's left me and just about everyone I know wrestling with a love-hate relationship with the city's crowded streets — this caught my attention. But it wasn't until a couple months later, after reading this National Geographic feature on Detroit and watching Anthony Bourdain tour its culinary and cultural highlights, that my boyfriend and I indulged our curiosity and booked a trip. Today, one week later, I'm so glad that we did.

Before we left, friends who'd either grown up in Michigan or had spent time in the area were kind enough to share the names of their favorite restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and museums; once we arrived, we were happily flooded with even more tips from friendly locals. In the end, thanks to our very knowledgeable and generous Airbnb host, our trusty rental car, and a handful of Ubers (amazingly, we never paid more than $6 for a ride), we were able to pack in 28 sites in three-and-a-half days.

Among the highlights: great food at Selden Standard, Gold Cash Gold, The Detroit Institute of Bagels, Green Dot Stables, and Duly's, a diner specializing in a city staple: the Coney, a hot dog buried beneath a puddle of meat sauce, mustard, and shavings of raw onion.

We also made a stop at the Detroit City Distillery, which serves up small-batch whiskey, gin, bourbon, and vodka. (Other memorable bar trips included Bronx BarThe Old MiamiThe Raven Lounge, and d'Mongo's, a much-loved speakeasy on Griswold Street that may just be the friendliest place in town.)

After leaving the distillery, we toured the surrounding Eastern Market, stopping for a few minutes at Salt & Cedar, a letterpress studio and trove of printed wonders. Later: a last-minute movie at Cinema Detroit, an independent theater located in an old school building in Midtown.

We'd heard a lot about the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts) and spent part of one afternoon there, necks craned in its breathtaking lobby and color-rich Diego Rivera Court. We also made quick stops at MoCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit), Library Street Collective, and Dabl's African Bead Museum, which is home to an enormous collection of beads and a sculpture park.

Before we left, Dabl showed us that he'd recently been featured in a New York Times story on Detroit art. "I took a different approach to art," he says. "What it has suggested to people who come here is, you can pretty much do what you want. You don't have to start from the top."

Though the majority of the trip was focused on what's alive and thriving, we did visit what's left of the Packard Automotive Plant and the old Michigan Theatre, which is now a parking garage.

The best part of visiting the city, though, was discovering its incredible warmth. I had no idea what to expect when we arrived — and, to be honest, much of what I'd heard and seen about Detroit prior to the trip made it seem like a dangerous, desolate place — but I can't say enough about the positive energy we encountered. Everyone we met —including our 72-year-old Airbnb host, Robert, who lives in an old house filled with local art and relics from the city's past — was so welcoming, so proud to be there, and so happy to share what they loved most about the city. It was wonderful to visit at such an exciting time — to see things changing and a vibrant creative community flourishing.

I know I only saw a sliver — and that as a visitor, my grasp of the city's complicated past, present, and future is somewhat loose — but, as someone said to me before the trip, "Detroit deserves to have nice things said about it." That's absolutely true.

Many thanks again to all of you who wrote me with recommendations — they were incredibly helpful. For anyone planing a visit, I've put together a list below of some favorites — very much looking forward to adding to it in the future.

FOODSelden Standard / Gold Cash Gold / Duly's / Detroit Institute of Bagels / Wright & Co. / Chartreuse / Eastern Market
DRINKSDetroit City Distillery / d'Mongos / Bronx Bar The Old Miami / Raven Lounge
COFFEEAnthology / Red Hook / Astro / Great Lakes
ARTDIA / MoCAD / Library Street Collective / Dabl's African Bead Museum
OTHERCinema Detroit / Shinola

Wishing you a wonderful holiday weekend, and safe end-of-summer travels. Thanks so much, as always, for reading.


cary said...

What a wonderful tour guide to Detroit. I had no idea there are so many interesting places to check around and eat/drink! Thank you!

burntfeather said...

I'm the biggest advocate for putting positive light onto places that don't have much of it. My own town, or where I live close too, had a somewhat bad reputation but honestly it's such a pretty and friendly town, I get shocked when I hear of any ill spoken about it!

Lauren McGregor said...

So happy you enjoyed my hometown! <3 Fantastic city guide!

Loulou said...

Your trip sounds like it was a very good one. We've been talking about going to Detroit too, and now I'm very inspired to get on to planning that. It's a fairly easy drive from Toronto and I recall driving through on family holidays as a kid, but we never stayed long enough to have a good look around. It looks to be a very interesting and cool city. I love your photos.

marie said...

Detroit is one of the most special places I've ever been to. I spent a week there and it sort of changed my life. I appreciate this post!

Tori's Tales said...

A friend recently took a trip to Detroit and I marvelled at the images she shared...yours, Sho? Well they really are the best advertisement for the city, coupled with your warm, encouraged, and positive words about what it has to offer. It looks fantastic, and I'd be really bloody keen to give it a go!

Natalie said...

This is so cool! Makes me want to go back today. Glad you had a great time!!

Shoko said...

Lauren, I did indeed! Such great memories, and can't wait to return.

Loulou, thank you so much. You should definitely plan a trip — and please post pictures!

Marie, thank you! It is really something else — so incredibly happy to have gone. I know it'll stay with me.

Tori, thanks so much. I highly, highly recommend a visit!

Natalie, thank you for the recommendations! They were invaluable!

NicoleD said...

How could I have missed this post?? You did all of the best things, including things I haven't been able to do yet. Bravo! Lovely photos + words.

Shoko said...

Nicole, thank you! I thought of you! Really, really loved Detroit and can't wait to return—let's meet up when that happens! :)


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