Detroit builds things—cars, of course, but plenty more. Since the early 1900s, Detroit has had one of the largest concentrations of factories in the country, and this industrial muscle continues to give Detroit, increasingly popular with tourists, its style, look and pace.
These industries have also given Detroit a lingering reputation as a rust-belt relic plagued with crime, a declining population and racial divisions. However, in recent decades, Detroit has begun to retool itself into a healthier urban center with greater tourism appeal.
New businesses, residential developments, and arts and entertainment ventures, mainly in downtown Detroit, are contributing to a renewed optimism. Many of Detroit's historic structures have been renovated and converted into living spaces. Bars and restaurants have sprouted up on blocks that were once dormant, creating a sense of community where there had been none.
The impressive Compuware headquarters marks Detroit's new focus on high tech over industry. Casinos and world-class sporting events have sparked a flurry of development and breathed new life and tourism appeal into several sections of downtown Detroit.
Detroit occupies a strategic spot along the Detroit River, which forms part of the link between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Downtown Detroit is set along the north bank of the Detroit River, with Windsor, Ontario, on the opposite side. Jefferson Avenue runs parallel to the river, and numerous downtown landmarks are situated there, including the Renaissance Center, the Cobo Conference and Exhibition Center and Belle Isle. Residents use Woodward Avenue, which runs perpendicular to Jefferson and cuts through the center of downtown, to demarcate the east and west sides of the city and its suburbs. Downtown encompasses two smaller districts that are popular destinations for visitors: Greektown (a few blocks full of restaurants and bars, just inland from the river and just east of Woodward) and the Foxtown District (along Woodward Avenue, about 0.5 mi/1 km from the river).
If you follow Woodward northwest about 3 mi/5 km from downtown, you'll reach the Cultural Center area, which includes several of the city's museums and Wayne State University. Just a few more blocks north on Woodward is the New Center area, home to the Fisher Building.
A lot of Detroit attractions are located in its surrounding suburbs, and it helps to have a general idea of where they lie. Northeast of downtown, along the river and Lake St. Clair, are the affluent Grosse Pointes (Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Farms and so on). Along the northern border of the city are Warren, Ferndale, Southfield and, farther out, Royal Oak, Troy, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. Eight Mile Road, made famous by the Eminem movie of the same name, is the northern city limit. Fifteen minutes to the west of downtown is Dearborn, the site of Ford headquarters and the home of the largest Arab-American community in the U.S.
French fur traders founded Detroit in 1701, making it one of the oldest urban areas in the Midwest. It later passed into British hands and withstood a prolonged siege during the Native American uprising led by Pontiac in 1763. Following the Revolutionary War, the town became a part of the U.S., though the British held it during the War of 1812.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Detroit served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, as escaped slaves made their way to freedom in Canada. By the turn of the 20th century, the motorized age was dawning, and a farmer's son named Henry Ford made Detroit its epicenter. His method of production—the moving assembly line—revolutionized industry and helped put the world on wheels.
During World War II, the city's factories were put to use churning out weapons. In the following decades, Detroit enjoyed something of a golden age that was partly funded by its unionized workforce and energized by a large—and mobile—group of youthful baby-boomers. By the 1960s, the city was pulsing to the Motown beat, Detroit's other famous 20th-century contribution. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy (a former General Motors employee) introduced the world to talented black performers such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5, the Temptations and the Supremes.
But not all was bright in the golden age. Detroit's racial tensions exploded in 1967 when a prolonged riot turned the inner city into a war zone. The white flight that ensued after the riot swelled the suburbs and left the core of the city devastated, a process made worse by difficulties in the auto industry in the 1970s and '80s.
The divisions between Detroit and its suburbs are still very evident, as are opposing opinions about the city's future and its ability to ride out a nagging financial pinch. One thing most people can agree on, however, is that Detroit's fate depends on its ability to attract new businesses and create jobs for its residents.
Like almost everything else in Detroit, the city's most noteworthy sights are closely connected with the automobile industry. The wealth of the auto magnates helped endow two fine museums. The Henry Ford in Dearborn is the real standout. It has two main parts: Greenfield Village, an outdoor history park that focuses on U.S. life in the 1800s, and the Henry Ford Museum, known locally as Henry's Attic, whose comprehensive and fascinating collection is devoted to the technology of the 1900s. Another cultural legacy of the auto barons is the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which has a wide-ranging collection. Its centerpiece is especially fitting for the Motor City: Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry
, an artistic interpretation of the automotive age.
Also fitting for a city that has been significantly influenced by its black population is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. It covers historical events throughout the U.S. as well as Detroit's role in the fight against slavery and the city's vibrant black culture of the 1900s. Of course, Detroit's black community also defined the Motown sound that swept the nation in the 1960s. The achievements of Berry Gordy's groundbreaking label are the focus of the Motown Historical Museum, located in the little house that served as the original headquarters and recording studio for Motown.
To sample some of the sights, sounds and tastes that make Detroit unique, try Greektown or, for the more adventurous, Hamtramck, lively areas that showcase the culture of the Greek and Polish immigrants who have settled in the city. And be sure to spend part of a day sensing the pulse of the city at Hart Plaza or communing with the chimps at the first-rate Detroit Zoo.
Nearly every kind of after-dark entertainment can be found in Detroit. In fact, the city is fast becoming known as the dance-music capital of the world: People flock there each May to hear local DJs spin and scratch at the Movement Festival. The rest of the year, however, the action tends to be spread out, so you may have to do some significant driving across the metro area to find what you're after. But there's a range of music (jazz, blues, rock and folk) as well as dance clubs, comedy clubs and casinos.
The liveliest centers for nightlife are strung along Woodward Avenue, but don't plan on hitting more than one or two in a single evening: They are quite a distance apart. Close to downtown, in the Theater District (near the Fox Theatre), you'll find the State Theater dance club as well as some lower-key bars. A few dance clubs have sprouted up in downtown and in some of the suburbs: Places such as Bleu cater to an upscale, edgy dance crowd. A half-hour drive north is the town of Ferndale (if you travel Woodward Avenue to get there from downtown, you'll pass through Highland Park and some other run-down areas—taking Interstate 75 may be a better option). Ferndale is home to the Magic Bag movie theater and nightclub, a mix of Irish bars, a brewpub and several dance hot spots, including Boogie Fever and The Bosco.
Just north of Ferndale is Royal Oak, with one of the most comprehensive and popular downtowns in metropolitan Detroit: Detour onto Main Street to find the center of the action. Choices include Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle, several hip coffeehouses and some run-of-the-mill bars that do brisk business on the weekends. But the best entertainment in Royal Oak may be the parade of extroverts who jam the streets and sidewalks on Friday and Saturday nights.
Alcohol can't be sold after 2 am in Michigan nightspots. Most of them close at that time, although a few remain open until 4 am on weekends.
Detroit's many ethnic cuisines reflect its diverse neighborhoods: Greektown in the heart of downtown; Mexicantown, a block-long collection of restaurants on the southwest side; Dearborn, with its large Arab-American community; and Hamtramck, a compact east-side neighborhood, with rich and hearty Polish cooking.
Detroit boasts a handful of restaurants (the Lark, Rattlesnake Club) that rank with the best in the nation. Some upscale restaurants give gourmet treatment to regional specialties such as tasty Great Lakes whitefish slathered in tangy Michigan cherry sauce. At the other end of the price scale are the Coney Islands—relatively inexpensive diner-style eateries that take their name from the chili dogs they serve. But there's more than gut-bomb Coney Islands at these places: Many have a Greek connection and serve gyros and Greek salads as well as a variety of burgers and sandwiches. They're found all over the metropolitan area, though we think the standouts of the Coneys are the downtown, side-by-side duo of Lafayette and American Coney Islands.
Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner, though many restaurants stay open until 11 pm or later on Friday and Saturday night.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one and not including drinks, taxes or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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