You’ve seen the headlines: “Record Bankruptcy for Detroit” on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in 2013, “THE MOTOR CITY GOES BUST” screamed USA Today.
As the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, Detroit was down … but not out.
Few cities suffered more from the Great Recession than Michigan’s biggest, but The D is finding its footing again and visitors are coming back. On cruises of the Detroit River they gawk at a skyline punctuated by some 90 skyscrapers being rehabbed by a wealthy entrepreneur. They find new hotels, shops, breweries and restaurants. More than 100 drinking and dining spots debuted since those headlines spelled doom in 2013 and continue to open on average of one a week.
And The D isn’t done yet. A multimillion-dollar hockey arena for the famed Red Wings will open in 2017 in the 50-block District Detroit multiuse development. A light-rail line, set to debut in April, will connect downtown with re-emerging neighborhoods. Attractions are springing up along formerly downtrodden streets and the riverfront. At least two tour companies will take you through the city and tell its comeback story.
You can feel the energy here. Human nature roots for the underdog. We cheered Rocky Balboa and our beloved Chicago Cubs.
The D is having its Rocky and Cubby moment.
Rising from the ashes
Detroit has been here before. The Midwest’s oldest major city burned to the ground in 1805, a catastrophe memorialized on its city seal behind its iconic “Spirit of Detroit” statue outside its municipal center. Two Latin phrases translate as “It will rise from the ashes” and “We hope for better things.”
To rebuild Detroit, Judge Augustus Woodward used the street plan for Washington, D.C. — based on Paris — and Woodward Avenue became its main thoroughfare with neighborhoods radiating in spokes. Prophecy is proving true again as block after block sent reeling from the recession comes back through more than $11 billion invested in development projects.
To see the difference these billions make to visitors, start where Detroit started, at the river. Frenchman Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac walked ashore around the dawn of the 18th century and founded a settlement on what he called “le detroit,” meaning “the strait.” The Frenchman had it right; the Detroit River isn’t a river at all, but a fast-moving strait connecting Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.
It’s also the city’s front yard, one that had become a heap of rubble before a public/private partnership targeted 5.5 miles of riverfront for the Riverwalk. Nearly four miles of this ribbon of parklands with paved paths, public art, fountains and a 6,000-seat amphitheater have been completed. You can join locals walking or running its length, taking in the view of Renaissance Center, the tallest building in Michigan, and the Canadian coastline across the river to the south. Yes, in a quirk of geography, Canada is south of the U.S. here.
The Riverwalk’s Rivard Plaza has a carousel with a mermaid and creatures native to the river. Rent a bike at Wheelhouse Detroit in the plaza and pick up paths through Michigan’s first urban state park with wetlands, a marina and a lighthouse. A detour on the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a paved route on a former railroad bed, leads almost two miles from the Riverwalk to the Eastern Market. One of the nation’s oldest and largest operating public markets recently expanded and continues to thrive with food stalls, shops and entertainment.
The heart of Detroit, its central business district, has become a housing hot spot with 99 percent occupancy and waiting lists for condos and apartments in its rehabbed buildings. Visitors are flocking back, too. Hotels are seeing their third consecutive year of record occupancy.
One example of this turnaround: the Book-Cadillac Hotel. It became one of the city’s top hotels when it opened in 1924 but quickly fell to ruin after it closed in 1984. Twenty years went by as thieves stole copper pipes and chandeliers, vandals spray-painted graffiti and shattered windows. Mother Nature played havoc in its Grand Ballroom sending ornate plaster crashing to the floor. A $200 million reconstruction brought the Italian Renaissance building back with luxury condos on the top floors and the Westin Book Cadillac on the bottom.
Covering just one square mile, downtown Detroit has plenty of big-city amenities to lure you: more than 150 bars and restaurants and the largest theater district in the U.S. after Manhattan with 13,000 theater seats in a two-block radius. Chief among these is the landmark Fox Theatre, opened in 1928 as a movie palace and restored as a 5,000-seat performing arts center.
You’ll also find three — soon four — professional sports teams downtown: Tigers baseball, Lions football and Red Wings hockey. And the Detroit Pistons basketball team just announced it will move from the suburbs into the new home for the Wings in the Detroit District, a 50-block redevelopment straddling I-75 linking downtown to the Midtown neighborhood. The $627 million Little Caesars Arena will seat more than 20,000 when it opens for hockey season next year and will share the space with the Pistons.
But the District isn’t all about sticks and pucks, hoops and bouncing balls. It will have entertainment venues, restaurants, shops, residences, a 350-room hotel and a piazza almost as large as New York City’s Rockefeller Center with a community ice rink below ground.
The QLine light rail service will run right through the District when it starts rolling along Woodward Avenue in April connecting it to downtown and Midtown.
Tourist information: Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, visitdetroit.com/
Detroit Experience Factory:detroitexperiencefactory.org/
Show Me Detroit Tours:showmedetroittours.com/_index.php
Where to stay:
Westin Book Cadillac: (313) 442-1600, bookcadillacwestin.com/
Greektown Casino Hotel: (313) 223-2999, greektowncasino.com/hotel/
Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center: (313) 568-8000, marriott.com/hotels/travel/dtwdt-detroit-marriott-at-the-renaissance-center/
Where to eat:
Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails: chartreusekc.com/
Sister Pie: sisterpie.com/
Gold Cash Gold: goldcashgolddetroit.com/
Slows Bar BQ: slowsbarbq.com/locations/corktown/
Third Man Records: thirdmanrecords.com/
Beautiful Bridal with Keasha Rigsby:beautifulbridalwithkeasha.com/
Detroit Artifactry: detroitartifactry.com/
Detroit Denim: detroitdenim.com/
Detroit is the New Black: detroitisthenewblack.com/
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