Nearly every American city was built around some form of industry or manufacturing.
And as technology advanced, industry grew, and workers flocked to these areas to build homes and grow their families – a common story in the history of our nation.
But with great prosperity comes the possibility of great failure, something the residents of this once booming American city understand all too well.
If there’s one invention that helped explode the growth of our country, it is the automobile. This new mode of transportation could take people and resources much farther than ever before.
Our entertainment and culture and the very landscape of our nation has its roots in the development of the automobile. Our very livelihoods often depend on one thing – having a car.
And no American city has a deeper kinship with the automobile than Detroit, Michigan.
In its early days, Detroit had all the right stuff needed to become a center of the developing industrial nation.
The Detroit River could provide power and a means of shipping goods and people, there were natural resources, proximity to the Great Lakes, and steel and coal mills not far by rail.
While the city’s early days of manufacturing were not centered around automobile production, it was the ideal spot in which to do so as everyday citizens really started buying cars in the 1920s and ‘30s.
While every industry took a hit during the Great Depression, Detroit kept an even keel – and there was no stopping its growth as we entered into the Second World War and its prosperous aftermath.
From the end of the war in 1945 until 1960, more than 30 car companies built plants in and around Detroit.
Men were returning home looking for jobs, couples were building little homes and starting families. The population exploded, making Detroit the fourth largest city in the U.S. at the time.
And like all bustling and prosperous cities, more people came to work and live, suburbs expanded on its outskirts – and life was good.
But as we see throughout history, change is inevitable, and the mighty often fall.
Automobile plants were seeing more and more labor unrest in their unionized ranks.
Technology was changing the way factories could do business, often streamlining processes and causing them to look for cheaper and easier ways to build– often out of the city.
In 1973, (ironically the year I was born in this great city), the oil crisis, interest in foreign cars, and government mandates on fuel were starting to put a chink in the armor.
Foreign and domestic competition was fierce, the industry was changing, and more and more factories closed up shop and moved elsewhere.
We all know what happens next – over the years people lost jobs, businesses lost customers, prosperity faded away more quickly than it had come, and the once great city was crumbling and out of hope.
That’s never the end of the story…
After some very, very dark days of shuttered storefronts, boarded-up homes, areas of extreme poverty, and an exodus from the city, Detroit has been working to rise from the ashes.
Bolstered in part by the city’s bankruptcy in 2013 (yes, bolstered, because once the crippling debt eased, plans to reinvent began), a bailout (which many politicians and ordinary folks alike were not happy about) and the passage of Right to Work laws the same year (finally), some of the major industries like Ford brought in a new wave of workers.
Then-Governor Rick Snyder said at the time, “I know many will see this as a low point in the city’s history. If so, I think it will also be the foundation of the city’s future—a statement I cannot make in confidence absent giving the city a chance for a fresh start, without burdens of debt it cannot hope to fully pay.”
And while there were – and are – many factors at play, and things are nowhere near the way they were during the city’s golden years, things are improving. It’s a large-scale work in progress.
And the good news is, there has been a major effort to rebuild on the city’s heritage, its history, and its culture.
Fundraising efforts and a rallying cry to interested private donors have brought about some pretty impressive transformations. There’s a widespread effort to bring old and new together in order to create a great place to visit.
In 1997, a 300-billion-dollar project broke ground in the city. Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers (be nice), opened to the public in 2000.
Not just an ordinary ballpark, Comerica boasts a carousel, Ferris wheel, water park, museum, and lots of family-friendly entertainment.
The Detroit River Walk was completed in phases and is comprised of 3.5 miles of parks and walking trails where the river and city skyline can be viewed and appreciated.
There are festivals and music year-round, or you can sit and watch the water and the boats and ferries shuttle back and forth.
Don’t forget to visit Belle Isle, a state park island (hence the name “isle”) right in the middle of America and Canada. Its offerings include plenty more trails, an aquarium, conservancy and more.
And if you squint, you can see Canada across the way, eh?
Like any big city, there is plenty of amazing food, including a few traditional favorites. You have to try a famous Detroit Coney, and there are a couple of places to do so.
Ask a local and they’ll tell you about some bad blood and some pretty good hot dogs. Greek immigrant, Gust Keros, opened a little hot dog stand on Lafayette in 1914.
He was so successful that he opened a permanent location on the street in 1917, and the American Coney was born. Gust was a good brother and wanted to bring his sibling, Bill, to the U.S. to take part in his American Dream.
But, brothers will be brothers… Bill Keros thought he could do better and opened up his own Coney dog place right next door. What a jerk.
He named it Lafayette Coney, and the two stand side by side to this day. Most people in Detroit are very loyal to one or the other, sometimes even dividing families and friendships over whose is the best.
And, of course, there’s the history…
No great city is without its museums, and Detroit is no exception.
The Detroit Institute of Arts is housed in an incredible Beaux-Arts building on Jefferson Avenue, and has undergone several expansions and renovations, the most recent completed in 2007.
The DIA rivals other big-city art museums with its collection, events, and conservation lab. Walk the galleries surrounded by the great Impressionists, Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Self Portrait, and an incredible Medieval and Renaissance collection.
Its centerpiece is perhaps the 27-paneled fresco depicting Detroit’s auto workers by Diego Rivera. This Mexican artist (along with wife, Frida Kahlo) broke barriers in the art world and are both celebrated at the DIA.
Diego’s Detroit Industry is definitely an experience in itself and has inspired many contemporary artists all over the city as murals pop up on nearly every corner.
By no means graffiti, these murals express the soul of the people of Detroit – their struggles and their successes.
There’s also the Detroit Historical Museum, plenty of nods to the city’s automotive past, and a little place honoring another of Detroit’s claims to fame – Motown.
The Motown Museum – aka Hitsville, U.S.A. – is where it all started.
It was the original home and recording studio of Motown founder Berry Gordy, and there’s plenty to learn about the groundbreaking performers who inspired our culture and music for all time. Michael Jackson, anyone?
Detroit may not be your idea of a top travel destination, but it’s my kind of place. With its artsy vibe, musical heritage, and a wealth of culture, there’s something for everyone.
And, yes, there’s plenty of stuff for the car enthusiast. This is still the Motor City, after all.
The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are not far, and well worth the trip. Plus, you can tour the Ford Rouge Factory – a great place for a woman to drop off her husband so she can go do artsy stuff. Not that I’d do that.
Detroit – and all the cities and towns trying to recover from hard times – needs you. They need you to visit and spread the word for others to do the same.
Detroit’s long-time residents are still rebuilding and recovering, and that may be the best part of this city.
Its vulnerability and perseverance makes it a pretty special place indeed.