Last week was my first trip to Detroit. As an urban designer and person who thinks about cities most of his waking and dreaming life, it seems absurd that I have not visited a place that has become a living laboratory for urban reinvention. It is even more ridiculous when that city is less than a six-hour drive from Louisville… a fact that I don’t think I realized until just recently. Chicago is a similar distance and I’ve been driving to and from there since I moved to Louisville in 1997.
Before going on, I’d like to stop a second and recognize the importance and privilege I have to be plugged into a national network of urbanist friends who can give a quick rundown of what to see and where to stay when visiting a new city. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to know someone from the city I’m about to visit, but in this case, Mike Lydon’s recommendation to stay in Corktown was spot on even though he lives in Brooklyn. Nate Hommel’s challenge (from Philly) to find and get a photo next to the Joe Louis sculpture, led me to be more aware of my surroundings and pay attention to the quirkiness of the area. Adam Hedgespeth’s extensive lowdown on interesting places (from the barber seat at Derby City Chop Shop) helped round out a plan for a quick three-day visit to the Motor City.
For more than a decade I’ve heard about the “ruin porn” aspect of Detroit. People flock to the city to take photos and document the decay of a major American metropolis. However, I did not witness the famed deterioration of the city. Granted I was only there for an extended weekend, and more than 10 years after the Clint Eastwood/Chrysler “Its Half Time America” Super Bowl Ad, highlighting the revival efforts that were already underway in Detroit at that time.
Most of my time was spent in Corktown, Midtown, Eastern Market and Downtown, which are a very small fragment of the sprawling metro. Over the course of more than 14 miles of walking, I did see the aftermath of building removal, large swaths of vacant land where there surely were homes, shops, warehouses and other structures in a not too distant past. It was a bit bizarre to see pockets of great streets with amazing restaurants and shops, like small oases between large empty expanses. These voids were somehow different from the asphalt parking lot expanses between buildings around the urban core of Louisville. They were more like fallow land waiting to be cultivated rather than more permanent civic cemeteries where culture and life has passed on.
I first noticed these vacant plots as my city exploring comrades, Chris and Cooper, and I settled into a great Airbnb on Wabash Street, just off of Michigan Avenue in the Corktown neighborhood. The historic duplex was on a quiet street packed with homes for a single block, but surrounded by grassy fields where homes once stood. The owner of the Airbnb we stayed in had a lot of great historic and just plain interesting objects and images around the home. One of my favorite decorations in any Airbnb I’ve stayed in was the historic Baist's Survey Map of Detroit specifically of the Corktown neighborhood in the entryway that made it pretty clear how dense the built environment once was just outside the front door.
When we ventured out for dinner on Friday night, I was happy to see the main commercial corridor had protected bike lanes along Michigan Avenue, a major corridor (90 ft wide) radiating west out from downtown. The bike lanes are positioned between the curb and the parked cars creating an ever-changing physical barrier of parked vehicles between the cyclists and the travel lanes. I really wish we would use this model for our bike lanes in Louisville. It just makes too much sense to use the parked cars to protect the cyclists rather than put them between the traffic and parked vehicles. Make use of the environment you have.
Speaking of bike lanes, we happened upon the Dequindre Cut, a 2-mile bike and pedestrian greenway that runs north from the waterfront east of downtown Detroit. Opened in 2009, the pathway repurposed a sunken rail line of the Grand Trunk Railroad. In most places the line is 25 ft below grade, built in the 1920s by the railroad company to avoid vehicle and pedestrian conflicts. Though I didn’t have a chance to ride the corridor while I was there, apparently there are some great murals on walls scattered along the 2-mile stretch.
Back when Louisville was at the cutting edge of the local food movement, I had dreams of the Louisville Gardens becoming a massive food hall. Don’t get me wrong, Louisville still has an amazing local food scene, but a lot of other cities across the country have caught up and it is less of a differentiator among our peer cities.
Whenever I can, I try to check out the local food halls in other cities. Places like the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or Findlay Market in Cincinnati are great places to see the local food movement and to people watch. On Saturday, we visited Eastern Market, one of the largest historic public markets in the country at 43-acres, becoming the primary local market in 1891, with multiple enclosed and open air shed structures for vendors.
It was 32 degrees outside, but yet there were still an impressive number of food vendors and other retailers selling their wares in the enclosed sheds. There was also an incredible meat hall, Gratiot Central Meat Market, at the southern end of the market complex, serving up every kind of meat and seafood you could want. I don't know that I have ever experienced a bigger meat market. Seems like there is a good joke there related to Phoenix Hill Tavern, but I digress.
We will definitely have to come back in the summer when the market is in full swing. It seemed pretty evident that the market was serving as a catalyst for new businesses surrounding it, revitalizing and building out the district. A lot of boutiques and interesting storefronts can be found radiating out from the market.
While we are on the subject of shopping, the areas we visited had some great local stores and restaurants. There was definitely a strong sense of Detroit pride on display, similar to the way Louisville felt seven or eight years ago. I’m not sure why it seems the local pride in Louisville has waned a bit. Perhaps it is just the after-effects of the pandemic. We could also really use a big, bold, transformative project to recapture the city’s imagination. In any case, this is about Detroit, so I’ll have to ponder the perceived lackluster local love for Louisville some other time.
Corktown was a great place to stay, as it had a lot to offer, so much so we were able to walk to most of the great places we ate at during our stay. A quick shout out to Mercury Burger & Bar, they had one of the best chicken sandwiches (Cowboy Chicken Sandwich) I can remember eating. If you like Detroit-style pizza, you won’t want to miss Grandma Bob’s Pizza. I also want to say that the bartenders and people in general at The Last Chance Saloon were super-friendly and welcoming, they made you feel like you were at your favorite neighborhood watering hole.
I also try to set a little time aside, whenever visiting a new city, to check out the local record shops. We stopped in Peoples Records, where you can get lost in their selection. They were connected to a nice coffee shop and decorative plant store, a symbiotic retail situation I hope to see more of. A great example of this in Louisville is the new The Breeze Wine Shop & Coffee Bar connected to the Canary Club of Louisville. Also had a chance to visit Third Man Records in Midtown and see their record pressing facility.
I feel like another strong sign of civic pride on display in a city is through its public art. There are murals adorning the walls of every place we visited, from alley galleries along residential neighborhood back streets, to the sides of mid-rise buildings downtown. I would consider Philadelphia the gold standard when it comes to city-wide mural programs, but places like Cincinnati and Detroit have noticeable contributions. The colors and variety of styles really transform what, in some cases, are fairly ordinary places. The murals also help create or define a district's character, like what can be found in Eastern Market.
The murals weren’t just on the walls, there were a couple places with pavement art, adding a pop of color and making walking over an interstate a little more inviting. Lighting goes a long way in making a place more interesting and feel safer as well. The entire late-night walk from Corktown into Downtown along Michigan Avenue was improved by the fact that there was good pedestrian-scale lighting and on the light poles hung colorful light banners leading you into the city.
There were also a number of great traditional pieces of art like the iconic “Spirit of Detroit” sculpture (main image of this post) often used in city branding and the Joe Louis memorial “The Fist”, as well as folksy sculptures and functional street art dotting the landscape like what appears to be a bull and possibly a smoker grill in Corktown.
Pop-Up Event Space
In the heart of downtown is what appears to be a surface lot that was converted into a pop-up event space called The Monroe Street Midway. There were a lot of activities for kids; bumper cars, hill slide, puck-putt (a version of miniature golf where you use a hockey stick and puck instead of putter and ball) and an arcade. It was refreshing to see a city actively catering to families in the urban core. Looking at Google maps, it appears that this space had a pop-up drive-in theater before its current iteration. Across the street was an outdoor ice rink at Campus Martius Park that looked like a popular place that reminded me of a large skating rink I had seen in downtown Milwaukee a decade ago. One of the benefits of having cold winters.
I’ll end this city explorer trip to Detroit with a little about the streetcars. People roll their eyes when I start talking about streetcars. I get it, streetcars have an expensive up-front cost, you need a density of riders to make them pencil out, and they have limited coverage among just some of the reasons argued against them. I still strongly believe that a well thought out streetcar line brings a lot more to a city than simply another mass transit option. Firstly, they have to be thought of as an economic development tool as much as a way to move people. But that debate can wait for another day.
Detroit's transit system is pretty interesting. The three mile-long streetcar is called the QLine, I think named after Quicken Loans who, before they became Rocket Mortgage, was one of the big corporate funders of the line. The system opened in 2017 and apparently has six streetcar vehicles that run continuously along Woodward Avenue from Congress Street to West Grand Boulevard with approximately 15 minute headways.
I think the transit stops are pretty nice looking and seem pretty functional as well. At the moment the streetcar is free to ride and apparently has been since they restarted after the pandemic lightened up. From some quick research, it seems ridership was in the 3,000 per day early on, but post pandemic the numbers are about 2,285 a day as of the latest figures from September.
Aside from the streetcar there is the very unusual Detroit People Mover that opened in the late 1980s. This elevated tram system runs a single 2.94 mile loop around downtown, weaving in between the skyscrapers. There are 13 stations in the system that were planned to carry 67,000 people a day, but the most it carried in a single year was 2.46 million riders back in 2015, and I saw a figure that approximately a quarter million people rode the tram in 2020. For as long as I was walking around downtown, I only spotted the vehicles twice, and I was too slow on the draw with the camera to catch them. That said the elevated track looks pretty space age with its elegant curving lines above the street. Assuming downtown Detroit is suffering from remote work like Louisville and other cities around the country, it would make sense that ridership has plummeted for all modes of transit in an office-heavy urban core.
I'm looking forward to returning to the Motor City. There is so much we can learn from other cities and meeting people trying to make their corner of the world a better place. You can only see so much in a few days and about 14 miles of walking, but it definitely helps to have some adventurous friends to explore new cities with.