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Seeing Detroit with Appreciation

October 30, 2017 • By

I’ve heard the words, “Detroit is coming back,” since I was young. My parents are native Michiganders with my mom hailing from Allen Park outside of Detroit and my dad from Flint. I grew up listening to stories of Detroit’s grandeur. My maternal grandparents played as children under the Ambassador Bridge and my mother referenced happy times shopping at the famed Hudson’s department store, attending shows and eating at Detroit’s best restaurants.

Fantasy Aisle, Renaissance Center in Detroit home to GM and the Marriott. The tallest building in Detroi

Renaissance Center in Detroit home to GM and the Marriott. The tallest building in Detroit

Anyone with a Detroit connection talked of great plans for the city’s revitalization one day and the rest laughed and conceded it would never happen and so became the running joke among natives and transplants for decades. People would brag about the enormous potential of the city situated on the Detroit River and rave about the busy international crossing between the United States and Canada, yet Detroit steadily declined with developers and loyalists awaiting its upswing.

Fantasy Aisle, Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad at Hart Plaza

Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad at Hart Plaza

Many believe Detroit’s economy started to decline in the 1950s with the automobile industry struggling but the turning point occurred in July 1967 when Detroit experienced one of the worst race riots in the country. My dad, a member of the Michigan Air National Guard – Battle Creek, was activated during the riots. Still short a summer class to graduate, the Guard called him to service in Detroit. He admits he didn’t even know how to carry a gun (and didn’t) but went to work with the Michigan State Police. He said, “There were a lot of prejudices going on,” and recounted a story of how the team he worked with chased a man who broke into a store and stole televisions.

When I was a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing, my roommates and I made the hour-and-a-half trip to Windsor, Canada where the drinking age was 19. One time I recall driving and making a wrong turn to reach the Ambassador Bridge. My roommate, familiar with Detroit, became alarmed and instructed me to start speeding and to run through red lights. We were in a “bad area.”

Until recently, my history with Detroit conjured negative connotations and I avoided visiting. I heard whispers of Detroit’s return and remained doubtful. That changed last week when I stayed in Detroit for the first time in 20 years. I won’t say, “It’s back,” but it is on a positive road to recovery evidenced by the countless construction cranes spread across the city. Detroiters and Michiganders alike are excited and proud with good reason.

Fantasy Aisle, RiverWalk along the Detroit River

RiverWalk along the Detroit River

It’s worth a day or two to explore this comeback kid with a plethora of nicknames –Motor City, Motown, Hockeytown, Renaissance City. I woke up at sunrise to a blustery clear day and grabbed my sneakers for some exercise along the RiverWalk, (Detroit International Riverfront), a 51/2 mile path stretching from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle. I walked east for an hour before turning back finding lots of locals and tourists shared the same idea. It’s easy to rent a bike, roller blade or relax on many of the park benches. There are sculptures and art pieces, seasonal restaurants and state parks lining the path and restored landscaping enhances the experience. Detroit is a walkable city even with all those cars.

In need of coffee, I turned my sights on Woodward Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Detroit. The area is flush with businesses relocated from the suburbs. The likes of Starbucks, Shake Shack and Potbelly further affirm my belief that the “new Detroit” would not be recognizable to people who left years ago.

Fantasy Aisle, Central United Methodist Church

Central United Methodist Church

Armed with caffeine, I sat for a bit people watching at the Campus Martius Park. Workers were busy converting the public area from a summer hot spot with volleyball and music to a winter wonderland with ice skating and hot chocolate. I continued along Woodward shocked by the modern buildings and impressed with the detail that has gone into preserving the heart of the city.

I snapped pictures with my family in mind hoping to show them the changing story of Detroit, a resurgent city with growing opportunities. “If you build it, they will come,” ran through my head and I was overwhelmed with happiness for my friends who stayed local and weathered the storm. It’s thrilling to witness the transformation firsthand.

Fantasy Aisle, Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team

Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team

All of Detroit’s sports teams play in a few block-radius along Woodward. The Red Wings(hockey) and Pistons(basketball) play at Little Caesars Arena (I appropriately named it the Pizza Palace), with the Tigers(baseball) and Lions(football) across the street at Comerica Park and Ford Field respectively. My dad used to drag my brother and I to Pontiac for the big Thanksgiving Lions game at the Silverdome. It is a brilliant idea to relocate all the sports teams in one place. Now families and friends can spend an entire day eating and drinking while rooting their favorite team onto victory.

On a recent trip to Detroit this summer, Suzette Loving, who left home after college for job opportunities, walked Woodward Avenue from the river to the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum –in awe. She explained going alone by foot was not a good choice a few years ago. I sensed pure joy in her voice when she talked about all the revitalization.

“If I didn’t have a family, house and great job, I could move back,” she said. That is quite a sentiment from someone who lived in San Francisco, Chicago and Denver.

Joining me in Detroit, Suzette passionately pointed out new buildings and speed walked me along Woodward Avenue, then to Greektown and back around the Michigan Opera House and straight into a hip coffee shop, the Roasting Plant –a trendy place not found in downtown until now. I witnessed the hope and possibility through her eyes as she summarized her childhood and early adult years in the places that remain — A bar here and restaurant there. Her endorsement of Detroit is an understatement.

“Seeing people coming together and in some cases taking a risk to invest their business in the city is even more inspiring.  Probably my favorite part, though, is the sense of pride the community has resurrected.  The pride was always there but now it is outwardly visible – people have their chin up and heads held high.  You can feel that,” said Loving.

Fantasy Aisle, Car that drove John F. Kennedy's when he was shot. On view at the Henry Ford Museum

Car that drove John F. Kennedy’s when he was shot. On view at the Henry Ford Museum

While it’s not located in downtown Detroit, a visit to the Ford Rouge Factory and Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn about a 15-minute drive from the city is highly recommended. My maternal grandfather was one of 8,500 students who graduated from the Henry Ford Trade School in the 1930s and I’ve always maintained an affinity for the car industry, which provided a source of income for relatives on both sides of my family. The Museum highlights stories of American innovation, trailblazers and explorers with plenty of educational exhibits for everyone. I particularly enjoyed the Presidential Motorcade and the Civil Rights and suffragist displays.

Fantasy Aisle, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Founder of Detroit in 1701 for the French

Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, Founder of Detroit in 1701 for the French

My trip to Detroit sparked many inexplicable emotions in me. As I gazed at the Ambassador Bridge in the distance, or posed with a statue of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac with the GM building in the background, I relived the stories my grandparents used to tell me. I didn’t walk in their exact steps but they were present. I celebrated their history and their sacrifices and triumphs. They would be beaming with anticipation of what is to come for Detroit.

When I told my 95-year-old Great Aunt (my only family member living from her generation) about my experience, I asked her if she missed Detroit, she responded, “I would be very pleased to go back and see.”

Fantasy Aisle, Ambassador Bridge of Detroit River connecting Detroit, USA to Windsor, Canada

Ambassador Bridge of Detroit River connecting Detroit, USA to Windsor, Canada

Activities of Interest

Browse Monet or visit with an Egyptian Mummy at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

Watch a game or concert at Little Caesars Arena, Comerica Park, Ford Field

Hang out with friends at one of the many sports bars

Gamble with some fun money or sample a taste of Tzaziki in Greektown

Take in some exercise or fun in the sun on the RiverWalk

Fantasy Aisle, An art deco building in the heart of Detroit, Center for the performing arts

An art deco building in the heart of Detroit, Center for the performing arts

See a production at the Fox Theatre

Eat eat eat and then shop shop shop at Eastern Market

Sing the hits of yesterday at the Motown Museum

Spend a day exploring Belle Isle located in the middle of the Detroit River (off limits for many years)

Set sail on the Detroit Princess Riverboat

Eat and explore the Mexican history in Detroit at Mexicantown (SW Detroit)

Get out of Town
Visit the Ford Rouge Factor for a Tour

Take in history at Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village

Local Restaurant Recommendations
(Note: I ate at Apparatus and Townhouse.  Local and foodie Rhiannah Luedeke provided her favorites)

Apparatus in the Detroit Fountain Hotel – Upscale, trendy dining experience.  Great halibut and strong wine list

Wright & Company -Try the craft cocktails and the Burrata Toast and Seared Bay Scallops

Fantasy Aisle, Best Burger Ever at Townhouse in Detroit, Michigan

Best Burger Ever at Townhouse in Detroit, Michigan

Townhouse – Quite possibly the best Hamburger on the planet.  For small plates, don’t miss the Cauliflower and Truffle Fries

Craft Work – Try the Ratatouille and Fried Chicken.  Fun hipster vibe in a casual atmosphere

Tokai (Formerly Katoi) -Menu changes frequently but notable dishes include the Ox Tail, Spare Ribs and Cauliflower

Vincentes – Located off a hidden alley with artistic graffiti and little bars  Try the Mejillones Al Citrico and Cuban Style Paella.  Stay for the salsa dancing which starts around 10 PM or 11 PM

la Dolche Vita – Hidden gem.  In summer, enjoy a beautiful garden with a string quartet. Who needs Italy?

Huron Room

El Barzone – A mix of Italian and Mexican food. Owner is Mexican and studied fine Italian in NYC before coming to Detroit

Parc

Green Dot Stables – Creative sliders

Selden Standard – Beef Tartar won’t disappoint

For more ideas, check out Detroit Eater

Where to Stay?

Detroit Fountain Hotel – a boutique hotel converted from a former firehouse.  Great location

Fantasy Aisle, Detroit Foundation Hotel, a former firehouse now boutique hotel

Detroit Foundation Hotel, a former firehouse now boutique hotel

Westin Book Cadillac Downtown

Greektown Hotel and Casino (dated)

Atheneum Suites Hotel (dated)

For more information…

To read more about Detroit’s Comeback:

Americas Comeback City – The Rebirth of Detroit – Forbes

Taking Back Detroit – National Geographic

On the Detroit Riots:

Detroit (based on the July 1967 riots)

History of Detroit Riots

“Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies” — Edited by Joel Stone
(Wayne State University Press)

“The Detroit Riot of 1967” — Hubert G. Locke
(Wayne State University Press)


History, North America

Visiting the Queen City of New York

July 24, 2016 • By

When I first visited Buffalo, New York in 2001, it was February and I hated it. I complained ad nauseam. It was cold, dark and dreary and I vowed to never return again but I was in L-O-V-E and needed to hide my disdain. I failed.

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Spot Coffee on Delaware in downtown Buffalo

The city was certainly not any colder than Chicago, my hometown, but I found reason after reason to dislike the Queen City. Starbucks and Ann Taylor had yet to arrive and I couldn’t walk to any shops or bars. The downtown was desolate and by comparison to Washington DC and New York City, it was small and boring. As New York State’s second largest city, I expected more.

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Delaware and Chippewa Streets are the main hub of downtown Bufalo

While I wouldn’t rush to move to Buffalo (and to be clear I have no reason to contemplate such a move), I stand corrected. Buffalo has grown on me. I have returned a few times for work mostly with my head lowered and my countdown clock going strong but on my last visit I finally figured out that the people are the driving force behind Buffalos’s allure.

Buffalonians are proud and hearty people.

They reflect on the positives the city has to offer rather than the negatives and the proof is in their relentless efforts to bring economic opportunities to the region. Buffalo has been fighting its way back to greatness since the demise of the Erie Canal at the end of the 19th Century. Similar to other Rust Belt cities, the decline of manufacturing stunted Buffalo’s growth and much of the population abandoned downtown for nearby suburbs. That is changing as more and more Buffalonians young and old come home to the City of Good Neighbors.

On a recent trip to Buffalo, I decided to explore the city from the perspective of a traveler. Why visit Buffalo?

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Buffalo Lighthouse on Lake Erie

It’s a city with two professional sports teams, a beckoning lakefront and a rich and interesting history. It serves as the gateway to Niagara Falls and the Canadian border and there is plenty to see and do.  A short 15-minute drive for Buffalo Niagara airport will land you right in the center of activity.

Buffalo will satisfy every craving whether it’s an architectural tour at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House and his Fontana Boathouse or a stop in Elmwood Village to marvel at the Victorian style homes or maybe a visit to the Silo City Grain Elevators for a chance to go back in time.

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Canalside and the walkway to the Buffalo & Erie Country Naval and Military Park

If the Queen City is on your destination list, then definitely carve out time to visit Canalside and listen to locals buzzing with excitement. I braved the overcast skies and flurries *(yes it’s possibly in late spring) to find out for myself if the area lives up to the hype. I hopped on the NFTA Metro Rail, which runs along Main Street and is free downtown. It dropped me at the end of the line at Erie Canal Harbor Station and I fumbled my way around until I realized everything seemed shiny and new.

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Anchor at the Naval and Military Park in Buffalo

Canalside is a redevelopment project that once served as the western terminus of the Erie Canal. It is now a lively area with restaurants, bars, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park and the reconstructed Commercial Slip that once formed a boundary of the Canal District. It’s a great spot to grab a drink or bite to eat and learn more about the city’s past.

I sampled a 716 Kölsch style beer brewed by Flying Bison Brewing Company at Liberty Hound and swapped stories with the bartender originally from Chicago and a White Sox fan.   When I explained to him my recent re-discovery of Buffalo, he insisted I cross the street and investigate the offerings of HarborCenter, a hockey themed complex with rinks, restaurants and hotels. I wandered through 716 Restaurant and thought if only New York City had a sports bar like this place, I might actually follow the Yankees.

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One bite into Beef on Weck from Charlie the Butcher and I am hooked

No visit to Buffalo is complete without biting into something delicious so save room for Charlie the Butcher’s Beef on Weck sandwich served with mustard and a pickle or the Anchor Bar’s original Buffalo Wings and secret sauce. If you are like me and enjoy a sweet tooth, then Watson’s and their chocolate-dipped sponge is the place for you.

This time I departed Buffalo with only one disappointment: No Uber.  New York State has not granted a license  to the company and Buffalo definitely needs it. Rent a car and explore anyway.

Check out Travel & Leisure’s Here & Now Article from May 2016, Boom Time for Buffalo for more restaurant ideas

What to see on your visit

Discover Chippewa Street for beers and bites

Buffalo Harbor Boat Cruise on the Miss Buffalo II

Examine modern and contemporary art at Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Cruise the Erie Canal

Watch a Buffalo Bills football game, Sabres hockey game or the catch 9 innings with the Buffalo Bisons, Minor League Baseball team

Stare in awe at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House Complex

Wander Canalside

Admire the ships at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park

Take the kids to the Buffalo Zoo (third oldest in the United States)

Explore the neighborhoods of Allentown and Elmwood Village

Learn about a time in history at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site

For more tour information, contact Explore Buffalo by email or phone (716) 245-3032