By Glenda Winders
The recent decades haven't been all that kind to Detroit. With much of the automobile manufacturing industry moving out and shops and homes in the inner city being boarded up, it wasn't a place most people wanted to go for a vacation. But how that has changed! Lower property values meant that artists and entrepreneurs could move in and renovate, and neighborhood groups determined to stop their city's decline have joined forces, rolled up their sleeves and made Motor City once again a most worthy place to visit.
My husband and I were traveling with friends who shared our interest in seeing Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Art, so we made Midtown our base. From our hotel we could walk to the museum, where the 27 massive panels cover all four walls of the Rivera Court and are so detailed that we spent hours exploring their many parts. The commissioned piece was made possible by a gift from Edsel Ford, but when it was installed in the 1930s many patrons felt that images of hard-working men and machinery were inappropriate for an arts institution. Today it is a National Historical Landmark and considered the best example of Mexican mural art in the United States. Rivera thought it was his finest work, and we thought it was spectacular and definitely worth the trip.
Once we were able to pry ourselves away, we discovered the museum had a great deal more to offer — Egyptian, Asian, Native American and African galleries as well as exhibits of noted American and European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Mary Cassatt and Andy Warhol. Also not to miss were the decorative-art galleries filled with antique furniture and china.
With so much going on at the art museum we ended up spending the entire day there, and in the following days we found plenty more to do in our neighborhood. In fact, right across the street from where we had been the day before is the Detroit Historical Museum, which portrays 300 years of the city's history and doesn't blink when it comes to the not-so-pretty facts of the Underground Railroad and the 1967 riots. Interactive exhibits enabled us to experience the sights and sounds of those events and better understand their place in history. Other parts of the museum celebrate the city's sports teams and music, and one demonstrates how a car body is fitted onto a chassis on an assembly line.
Wanting to learn more, we headed next to the Underground Railroad Living Museum at the First Congregational Church, which sits on the site of an actual underground "station." Here actors portraying "conductors" led us through a warren of the original tunnels and past evocative dioramas to meet others who would help guide the way to freedom. Detroit was a major destination during the time between the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement, and reliving this piece of history was powerful on many levels.
The history museum had also made us want to learn more about the city's famous music scene, so off we went to the Motown Museum. Founded by Barry Gordy's sister, Esther, this is the home of Studio A, where musicians such as Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Supremes recorded their hit records. Visitors also see a musical film, walk through Barry Gordy's apartment and stop by the vending machine where Stevie Wonder's favorite candy bars were always in the same slot so he could find them.
Detroit is celebrating a restaurant renaissance, too, and one of the trends in this area of town is shared plates — an American nod to Spanish tapas that are small portions to share with friends. We were able to sample everything from short ribs with grits and carrots with pickled fennel at Chartreuse to vegetable carpaccio and charred octopus at Selden Standard. At La Feria we had actual tapas — chorizo, ham with smashed tomatoes and garlic, a vegetable medley with egg and much more. Along with their innovative menus, these hip new eateries also offer creative libations and casual ambience.
Because the centerpiece of our visit was the art museum, we booked rooms at the Inn on Ferry Street, where the owners have renovated several mansions into rooms and suites and appointed them with elegant antiques. The reasonable price included a fresh hot breakfast, but our favorite amenity was the shuttle that delivered us anywhere we wanted to go within a five-mile radius at any time and picked us up later when we were ready to come back. That meant we could enjoy some of those libations I mentioned and not have to drive.
In the end, we never made it out of Midtown except to drive across the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and have dinner at Fourteen on the 14th floor of the CIBC Banking Centre. Our window overlooked the Detroit River and the skyline beyond, with its lights coming up for the night while we ate our meal. We were glad we had thought to pack our passports.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.visitdetroit.com
Detroit Institute of Art: www.dia.org
Detroit Historical Museum: www.detroithistorical.org
Underground Railroad Living Museum: www.friendsoffirst.com
Motown Museum: www.motownmuseum.org
Chartreuse: www.chartreusekc.com (this will get you to the site for Detroit)
Selden Standard: www.seldenstandard.com
La Feria: www.laferiadetroit.com
The Inn on Ferry Street: www.theinnonferrystreet.com
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.