Detroit is America’s great comeback story

Posted on September 14, 2016

You will feel the energy as soon as you get off the plane at Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s McNamara Terminal and make your way through an underground tunnel exploding with a colour-changing light and sound show.

The Light Tunnel uses LED lighting to illuminate glass panels with sand-blasted Michigan artwork in a dazzling, multi-sensory show that’s synchronized to an original score by an Ohio outfit.

“Welcome to Motor City,” the pilot said when we hit the tarmac.

“Welcome to Art City,” is what he should have said.

Something remarkable is happening here. The city is exploding with art and food and activity. Creative types are coming from all over to be part of the transformation.

At Z garage, an arty public parking garage downtown, each level was turned over to a different artist. This is the roof.
At Z garage, an arty public parking garage downtown, each level was turned over to a different artist. This is the roof.  (LIBRARY STREET COLLECTIVE)  

Stop being scared of Detroit.

The story here is no longer automobile industry collapse, decline, decay and blight. It’s about a glorious city that birthed the Model T and Motown, that’s coming back better, stronger, artier.

Let Kim Rusinow of Show Me Detroit Tours give you a guided bus tour.

“We’re a blank canvas at this point — we have so many opportunities to be creative,” she enthuses. “Detroit’s coming back and you’re going to want to come back again and again and again.”

There’s Midtown with the “eds, meds and arts.” That’s short for universities, medical centres and Sugar Hill Arts District anchored by the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Downtown fills up with passionate sports fans when the Detroit Tigers are playing Comerica Park or the Lions are at Ford Field. Next year, Little Ceasars Arena will give the Red Wings a dynamic home between downtown and Midtown and anchor a new sports and entertainment district called the District Detroit.

Also downtown is Greektown with its three casinos, but I’ll be taking the kids on the Detroit People Mover, with art in all 13 stations. It’s just 75 cents and you can stay on the single-track train loop as long as you want.

Culturally cool Corktown is fully hipster and home to the Detroit Institute of Bagels, Batch Brewing (the city’s first nano brewery), music destinations, such as the UFO Factory and Hostel Detroit, with its free walking tours.

Nearby, along Grand River Ave., it’s all about the street art and graffiti murals. Rebel Nell, Rusinow explains, employs disadvantaged women to repurpose these very graffiti paint chips into jewelry.

The Dequindre Cut, an art-filled walk/bike path, links downtown Detroit's waterfront to the Eastern Market neighbourhood.
The Dequindre Cut, an art-filled walk/bike path, links downtown Detroit’s waterfront to the Eastern Market neighbourhood.  (DETROIT RIVEFRONT CONSERVANCY)  

“Adaptive reuse” is a term everyone uses here.

The Globe Building, part of an 1860s-era riverfront complex that sat vacant for decades, is now the incredible Outdoor Adventure Center, created by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Inside the centre (the name is a tad misleading), kids experience the great outdoors indoors with hands-on activities, exhibits and simulators. They touch a “waterfall,” climb an “oak tree,” walk across a suspension bridge, “fish” from a boat and take a simulated trail ride on a real snowmobile.

Speaking of transportation, this city is moving beyond cars.

Marc Pasco from the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy walks us along the Dequindre Cut, a wide, paved pedestrian/bike path that links the riverfront with Eastern Market.

The Cut is photo central for graffiti, murals and a piece that’s part of the Detroit Institute of Art’s Inside/Out program that puts famous reproductions out for everyone to enjoy.

Call boxes and security cameras dot the path, just as Quicken Loans/Rock Ventures honcho Dan Gilbert’s corporate security force has more than 500 cameras downtown. It’s Big Brother to some, but a reassuring presence for others.

To see the city on two wheels, go to Wheelhouse Detroit on the waterfront for a guided tour or bike rental. Pick an iconic black Detroit Bike.

Motor City Brew Tours is an option for the 21 and up crowd wanting bus, bike or walking tours to celebrate Michigan craft beer at spots like Traffic Jam & Snug Traffic Jam & Snug (open since 1965, a brewpub since 1992) and Atwater Block Brewery’s downtown tap house.

“You learn about history and get rewarded with beer,” founder/beer author Stephen Johnson likes to quip.

Hungry? Start with the famous Coney Island hot dogs.

Exploring Eastern Market should be on everybody's Detroit to do list.
Exploring Eastern Market should be on everybody’s Detroit to do list.  (BILL BOWEN)  

Next, Punch Bowl Social will keep you fed, watered and amused with “old school” entertainment such as bowling, ping pong, shuffleboard and karaoke. In Eastern Market, Dave Mancini is well loved for Supino Pizzeria and now La Rondinella.

There’s a reason why Food Network Magazine put HopCat’s beer-battered Crack Fries sprinkled with cracked black pepper and sided by warm cheese dipping sauce on its Top 10 list. Resistance is futile. Besides, the Midtown brewpub has 130 all-Michigan craft beer taps.

Not far from HopCat at the rustic chic Selden Standard, executive chef/partner Andy Hollyday’s New American shared plates and craft cocktails are works of art.

Art of some form infuses virtually every Detroit moment.

It’s at Pewabic, a non-profit ceramic design studio that had a hand in the Detroit People Mover tile murals. Take a free, self-guided tour, meet the artisans and check out both hand-operated machinery and digital kilns.

Art is all over Eastern Market, “a playground for grown-ups” with multiple markets, food, vintage clothing and boutiques. The Red Bull House of Art is here, too, with exhibitions, lectures and a national residency program for young artists.

“I always had this feeling of Detroit having a ghost of a prosperous past, and when I got here it was still lingering,” admits Ian Kuali’i, a Hawaii-raised artist in residence from Berkeley, Calif. “Now I’m extremely hopeful for Detroit. As a complete outsider coming in, it’s pretty incredible.”

At the Russell Industrial Center, people such as street fashion designer Dana Keaton and studio glass artist Bill Poceta are finding affordable work space in a converted factory.

“We have a creative element and a musical element going on here that’s really phenomenal,” Poceta says. “We’re pretty pumped about the city.”

Poceta is old enough to have seen Detroit both falter and rebound. Same goes for Robert Sestok, who has lived in the once notorious Cass Corridor (now rebranding as Midtown) for 40 years.

J.J. Curis, left, co-owns Library Street Collective. She sits with artist Matt Eaton.
J.J. Curis, left, co-owns Library Street Collective. She sits with artist Matt Eaton.  (JENNIFER BAIN / TORONTO STAR)  

He bought four cheap lots for $18,000 (U.S.) and unveiled City Sculpture Park last year, full of his hulking welded steel sculptures. He opens the gates daily and will come talk art if you email him.

“It’s kind of a fun experience to have this and share this with other people,” says Sestok.

Downtown, in what was once the garment district, you can’t miss the trifecta of the Library Street Collective, the Belt and the Z garage.

Library Street is a cutting-edge modern/contemporary fine-art gallery. With Dan Gilbert-owned Bedrock Real Estate Services, it activated the public alley out its back door into an art experience full of murals and art installations called the Belt.

Surrounding most of the Belt is the Z, a 10-storey “park in the art” garage with a 3D-style façade and interior murals by 27 artists. Gilbert’s firm built this zigzagging garage and you can watch a short doc about it in the garage lobby after taking in the view from the roof.

“Art,” says Red Bull House of Art director/curator Matthew Eaton, “is the greatest unacknowledged asset that we have.”

By “we” he means the world, not just Detroit.

The city still uses the nickname Motor City, but “Detroit is now is becoming more and more known for its art,” declares Margaret Grace, manager of educational programming for the Heidelberg Project. “It’s an art city.”

The Heidelberg Project draws upwards of 300,000 visitors a year to one of America’s poorest zip codes for “open air art.”

Tyree Guyton has been taking a stand against decay, crime and apathy for 30 years and transforming the vacant lots and abandoned homes of his childhood neighbourhood into a “Ghetto Guggenheim” with discarded objects from everyday life.

A few neighbours, such as 60-something Otila Bell, have joined in. You can pay $1 to literally sign her “Yellowhouse” and help pay hot-water bills, install new railings and otherwise keep the century-old home standing.

You will hopefully run into the eccentric Guyton himself, who will now take his project apart “in a methodical way” and create something else to keep the world coming back to Detroit.

“It’s going to take every single one of us to change this city,” says Guyton.