“Why?” was the first question many people asked when I told them I was going to Detroit for a long weekend. It’s undeniable that the crime statistics and news reports are off-putting. However, if you know anything about Detroit’s glory days, you’ll suspect that there is still some duende in this city, and you’d be right. After a three days exploring what Motor City has to offer, here are my top picks for things to do in Detroit.
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In June 1896 Henry Ford test drove his first automobile on Detroit streets. A couple of false business starts later, and Ford established the Ford Motor Company with investors that include brothers John and Horace Dodge. Chrysler and GM followed as motor companies sprung up in and around Detroit. This was the birth of the auto industry and won Detroit the nickname “Motor City.” If you’re a car enthusiast, Motor City has to be on your bucket list. A tour of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant where the first Model T was made, is now an excellent museum containing a variety of early models and knowledgeable guides to tell you their story.
Detroit Industry Murals
Detroit Institute Art curator, Wilhelm Valentiner commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera (also known as Mr Frida Kahlo), to create a series of twenty-seven fresco panels. The theme would be Detroit Industry and take eight months to complete across 1932-33. The Ford plant in nearby Dearborn, Michigan served as inspiration for much of the frescoes contents. The murals are heavily skewed towards the auto industry and were paid for in part by Edsel Ford, son of Henry. The sometimes controversial artworks have been questioned and protested for accused Marxist, blasphemous and pornographic contents among other criticisms. They are also widely regarded as the finest examples of Mexican mural art in the U.S. Spend some time at the Detroit Institute of Art studying the narratives and symbolism within these panels and decide for yourself.
If you’ve ever sung along to Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Jackson Five or Smokey Robinson among countless other recognizable voices, then you’re already well acquainted with the Motown sound. In 1959, songwriter Berry Gordy Jr set out to establish a label that would give black artists a place in the record industry that they had long been denied. The Motown Museum is housed in Berry Gordy’s former abode which was also the label’s original home.
As the record label’s success grew, Gordy and his family purchased other homes in the street to accommodate different departments and purposes, until finally relocating to California in 1972. In 1985, Berry’s sister and Motown Senior Vice President Esther Gordy Edwards established the Museum which contains memorabilia and artifacts from Motown’s history. The building conjoins “Hitsville U.S.A” – the residential home where it all began, preserved in its home/office/recording studio configuration. Stand in Studio A, “the Snakepit,” where some of the biggest artists of the time recorded. If you’re a music fan and you’ve never seen “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” – it is time! This documentary is great prep for what you will see and hear at the Motown Museum. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed inside the building, so you’ll just have to visit and see for yourself.
Pure Detroit runs free tours of some of the cities greatest architectural gems. You have to see the Aztec-inspired Art Deco of the Guardian Building or “Detroit’s largest art object” – the Fisher Building for yourself, to appreciate the unique eclecticism and opulence of these landmark structures. Also, make sure you stop by the abandoned former Michigan Central Station. Though fast deteriorating, the beautiful details of its architecture shines through.
Art on the Street
Detroit isn’t the kind of place you want to go wandering off the beaten path in search of hidden murals on abandoned walls. However, with due caution and a little inside knowledge, there is some incredible street art within safe reach. I noted some particularly outstanding examples of wild style while in Motor City. Try the Z Parking Garage for hours of mural fun by the likes of Duende favourites Maya Hayuk and Tristan Eaton. The Z and its neighboring urban art gallery The Belt, are both located Downtown. Check out the streets surrounding Eastern Market for local Detroit artists like our new floral friend Ouizi. See a sampling of Detroit street art on this post.
Despite the naysayers and how it looks on paper, there’s a palpable undercurrent of city pride in Motor City and I can’t wait to see how it evolves over the coming years. Help this great city get back on its feet by finding some duende in Detroit.
Peace, love and inspiring travel,