Why didn’t I come here sooner? As I enter my fifth year living in Michigan, I berate myself for just now making it to Detroit.
I was unaware of Michigan’s quirks and nuances when I moved to Grand Rapids in 2012. The tightly-knit locals call their half of the state “West Michigan.” No, not western Michigan, as you may typically refer to a region. The designation of “West Michigan” is a severing from the east side of the state in an attempt to form a distinct identity.
The east side of the state, with its statistics and stereotypes. Poverty, crime, blight, bankruptcy, pollution, lead poisoning, decay. I wrote Detroit off. I let the headlines and apocalyptic language shape my understanding of places I had never been, where people live who I had never met. When a co-worker suggested I visit Detroit sometime, I scoffed.
As Courtney Martin writes in The New Better Off, “…curiosity is not a matter of geography, but generosity.” Writing places off denies their beauty and worth; it denies that there is life and vitality and something to learn from each nook and cranny of this marvelous world.
In the past few years, I’ve seen more of Michigan. I’ve visited the quaint towns, climbed the sand dunes, and been awed by the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan. I’ve been to Flint several times and even Dearborn, but I still hadn’t made it to Detroit until recently.
My friend Isabel and I headed east from Grand Rapids on a cloudy Saturday morning. A fellow type-A travel nut, Isabel got busy planning our itinerary as we drove.
Our first stop was the historic, 150-year-old Eastern Market. The market’s sheds span several blocks, with additional vendor stalls and food trucks scattered here and there. Brick and mortar businesses surround the heart of the market. Just beyond lay seemingly empty warehouses and industrial spaces. Straying from the bustle of the market, we found ourselves on near-deserted streets dotted with a wide variety of murals and street art—catching my eye at every turn.
Something to know: my favorite pastime is to explore places on foot, and I love markets and street art. Bring those things together? Elation. Then and there in the Eastern Market I began to fall for Detroit.
We circled back to the center of the market and devoured powdery beignets for lunch. On our way out, we popped in Germack for a quick drink. The coffee was good, but it was Germack’s character that stood out. Feisty, truth-proclaiming prints were strung across beautiful exposed brick walls. We soaked in the atmosphere before moving on to our next stop.
We checked into our downtown Airbnb then meandered to the Detroit River. Our riverwalk started east of downtown at the William G. Milliken State Park. We followed the path along the river, pausing to take in the sights of GM’s dominating Renaissance Center and the Ambassador Bridge stretching to Canada.
I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the newly furnished sidewalk—peppered by modern outdoor seating, gorgeous landscaping, and even the occasional sculpture—with the empty parking lots and concrete structures that lay beyond. A chain-link fence served as a stark divide between manicured grass and asphalt. Though new to Detroit, this picture seemed to represent the city itself: its rise, its abandonment, and its current revitalization.
As we neared the end of our walk, we stumbled upon a statuary commemorating the role Detroit played in Underground Railroad. Titled “The Gateway to Freedom,” the memorial honors Detroit as one of the largest terminals to freedom. Due to the efforts of diverse groups of people in Detroit, thousands of African Americans escaped enslavement—many passing through the city on the way to Canada.
We finished our walk and hopped on the Detroit People Mover, a single-track public transit system that loops through downtown. It was worth the city views for only 75 cents!
That evening, we walked through the BELT, a redeveloped alley featuring murals and art installations. Their website states that the redevelopment is “part of a continuous effort to ensure that artists have a space to create and engage with the public in Detroit.”
As a street-art lover, I had a field day walking through the BELT. But despite the impressive works of art, it all felt a bit out of place. The well-polished alley was quiet, with only a few others meandering through while we were there. Still, it was definitely a fun stop on our wanderings through Detroit.
Isabel and I walked a few more blocks before stopping at the Detroit Beer Co for dinner. The experience was mediocre, but we still had fun celebrating Isabel’s belated birthday and watching the People Mover go by from our table on the second floor. After dinner, we passed the iconic Fox Theatre and The Fillmore before turning in for the night.
The next morning we headed to Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood located west of downtown. Irish immigrants hailing from County Cork (hence the name “Corktown”) settled the area in the mid-1800s. Though today, Corktown is known to be one of Detroit’s trendiest neighborhoods.
After fueling up with coffee and sandwiches from hipster enclave Astro Coffee (which features a chalkboard mural by Ouizi), we popped in a few off-beat shops including the Detroit Artifactory and Eldorado General Store. Erin, the owner of Eldorado, gave us some great tips on how to spend the rest of our afternoon.
Before leaving Corktown, we walked by Michigan Central Station. At its height in the 1940s, this massive rail depot served over 4,000 passengers a day. A 2015 BBC article states, “...as the auto-industry slumped and the local economy collapsed, the station saw less and less traffic. Since the last train left in 1988, the once-regal station has come to symbolize Detroit's economic woes.” Future plans for the landmark are unclear, yet locals remain committed to its preservation.
From Corktown we headed to Detroit’s east side to check out the Heidelberg Project. Located in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, the Heidelberg Project is a 30-year old community organization and open-air art project "designed to improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art."
It began raining when we got there, so we had just a few minutes to explore. The project fascinated me and I found myself scrambling to find meaning in each perplexing square inch.
We visited Belle Isle Park next. An island sandwiched between the U.S. and Canada, Belle Isle is allegedly Michigan’s most-attended park—though it felt quite deserted on this gray, dreary day. Even so, one could envision the full glory of the park and gardens on a summer afternoon.
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory was our first destination and it proved to be a delight. Once again, I was impressed by the history of this unsuspecting city as I learned the conservatory, which opened in 1904, is the oldest continually-running conservatory in the U.S. The tiny Belle Isle Aquarium next to the conservatory shares the same honor as the oldest continually-running aquarium in the U.S. (aside from a short stint of closure 2005-12).
The conservatory was a perfect place to rest (and warm up, thanks humidity!) amidst sightseeing. I found the aquarium a bit dull, but worth popping in to view its green opalite valuated ceiling.
In need of an afternoon pick-me-up, Isabel and I heeded the advice of Erin, the owner of Eldorado, and headed to the West Village. We stopped by Red Hook Coffee, where we spotted another work by Ouizi on the ceiling, as well as on the building across the street.
We passed on Sister Pie, another recommended West Village spot, in favor a full meal at Rose’s Fine Food. Rose’s is an old-school, community-minded diner that cooks from scratch. Though their prices are a bit steep (I paid $13 for two breakfast tacos with a side of rice), they are justifiable. In addition to using quality local ingredients, Rose’s also donates to Detroit-based organizations and gives a discount to neighborhood residents. Tipping is also optional, as they pay their staff livable wages.
With full bellies and tired feet we said goodbye to Detroit. On our way out of town we made a final stop in Dearborn, a small city just outside of Detroit. With the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the U.S., Dearborn is a fascinating place well worth a visit. But on this day, we were just there to pick up baklava before hitting the road.
The car quiets and my mind wanders.
What if we believed there was beauty in everything—in every person, place, and experience? How would that change us? How would it change our engagement with the world?
I sink into these questions as we drive westward.
What if we were generous with our curiosity? What if we didn’t settle for the easy beauties of our world—the Parises and Florences—but dug deeper, looking beneath the surface of written-off places ?
I reflect on the past 30 hours in Detroit, a city disregarded by so many, and I feel grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to see a new place and walk new streets; grateful to listen and learn and be present in a place others call home.
What if we sought the beauty that exists in all places? What might we find there?
We just might witness tenacity and notice a strong sense of self. We may be inspired by a never-give-up attitude. We may find beauty, yes, but we might also find hope.
Detroit’s flag features two Latin mottos that translate to “we hope for better things” and “it will rise from the ashes.” If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we just may find hope in this city; a hope gritty and dogged, worn and resilient. A hope we can learn from and lean on during the midnights of our own souls, and a hope that will lead us forward, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.