Detroit: Rising from Ashes

I recently took a day to tour Detroit, Michigan by bicycle -- armed with my point-and-shoot and a desire to find out if what we've heard was true.  Was Detroit a wasteland?  Was it beyond help?  Was it artistic, scrappy, rising? (UPDATE: HERE is an artistic duo that seeks to re-invent Detroit ruins) What's the feeling on the ground in the Motor City?  I biked for about 5 hours, and was only really able to get a glimpse, but what I saw was:
this picture probably sums it up best . . . next to a completely bombed out crack den of an apartment complex -- Spaulding Court (slated, I understand, for renewal itself), a newly renovated house with a great backyard and cute little fence. . . a few blocks from downtown.  This kind of defiant reclamation, a sort of guerrilla gentrification, is what is exciting and inspiring about this Detroit renaissance.   (UPDATE:  Here's that complex's kickstarter PAGE and home PAGE.)

I started in the vicinity of Wayne State University (Michigan's only urban public research University) located in the Cultural District.  Here's the University's first building, Old Main, behind some massive new de/construction project. 
Demolition and construction seem to be not quite as prevalent as apathy and general decay, but change is happening.  

Still near the Cultural District, I passed the Masonic Temple, which is the largest Masonic Temple in the world, and boasts some pretty sharp neo-Gothic architecture . . . some of which was fashioned with George Washington's own tools (famously a Mason himself) brought in from VA for the job.  It opened in 1926, and houses the second-largest stage in the country (in the Main Theatre), a Scottish Rite Cathedral, a Ritual Tower and about 5 million other amazing nooks and crannies.  Those Templars are sneaky.  You know, our founding fathers were predominantly NOT Christians, but WERE Masons . . . Way cooler.  More after the jump . . .
From the Temple, I drove my bike downtown.  Here are a few shots of the more well-maintained city core:
Comerica Park (home of the Tigers since 2000)

The Fox Theater (1928) and Woodward Ave.

-- where I saw mah first B'way musicals as a kid.   Now you're probably thinking, "Look at all those magnificent brick streets!  So wide and lovely and car-friendly!"   You'd be right!  But look how empty they are!   This was taken around noon on a Monday, and I was basically popping wheelies in the middle lane.  Emptiness is the weirdest part of Detroit.  According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

Grand Circus Park
Oh, good.  Quicken Loans is Motown's new besty.

Campus Martius Park

The Spirit of Detroit - Marshall M. Fredericks

Sculpture/Public art/Fountainage in and around Hart Plaza . . . the go-to place for music festivals, art festivals, outdoor events, and general urban outdoor fun.

The new (and quite impressive) Rosa Parks Transit Center
... opened in July, and the $22.5 million "tented" spectacle at the corner of Cass and Michigan avenues is a three-story, 25,700-square-foot facility (owned by the city) which serves as a 24-hour central connection for Detroit Department of Transportation, SMART and Transit Windsor bus routes and the Detroit People Mover

MGM Grand
Some of the best maintained and landscaped buildings in Detroit are the casinos . . . I wonder where they get the money . . . 

Michigan Ave.
More empty street, mid-day

Tiger Stadium Gate 3
Where Tiger Stadium once stood . . . Corktown, Detroit.  Demolished fully on September 21, 2009 . . . It hosted the Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball team from 1912 to 1999.  And it was where I saw my first pro ball game.  First of . . . four, total?  How sad is that?  Temper your sorrow with the knowledge that I've only been to three "concerts" in the rock sense of the word.  In my life.

A little further into Corktown -- Detroit's oldest named neighborhood which came into existence following the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840's and the resulting influx of Irish families to Detroit -- we find some new, some old, some rotten, and some fresh . . . Like this 2 acre urban farm (Community Supported Agriculture) called Brother Nature . . . where the community can get fresh farmed produce almost year-round!

I'm so jealous.

Through a few more neighborhoods of "urban prairie" like this one -- whereon stood beautiful Victorians, and apartment buildings -- where now there is open green space, and on to deliciousness.

Slow's Bar-B-Q is one of "new" Detroit's gems -- an eat in, hang out, carry away all-purpose community-building establishment with delicious treats, drinks, and an awesome patio.

Then across the street, through Roosevelt Park to Michigan Central Station
 Newly planted trees, lone neighborhood home, and MCS in the background

Destroyed drive-thru bank blocks th destroyed Beaux-arts rail station

built in 1913 for the Michigan Central Railroad, was Detroit, Michigan's passenger rail depot from its opening in 1913 after the previous Michigan Central Station burned, until the cessation of Amtrak service on January 6, 1988. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest rail station in the world.

The Detroit Institute of Arts recently installed "framed reproductions of forty of its most famous works to the main streets and landmark outdoor spaces" of metro Detroit in celebration of the museum's 125th anniversary. Fittingly, they placed a reproduction of Frederic Edwin Church's massive Syria by the Sea in front of the ruins of the Michigan Central Station.

I see somebody's hidey-hole there on the right

From the depressing ruins of the great Michigan Central Station, it's just a quick ride to the reason for the ruination . . . the advance into the urban core of the dreaded automobile . . . or lack thereof.  .  .

Crossing from Corktown into Mexicantown, I bike over the Fischer Freeway . . . still not much usage on this artery, even on a weekday.  In the middleground, a new pedestrian bridge, in the background, the Ambassador Bridge.

On my way to the bridge's footings, I passed a ruined industrial park and poked around inside.

Keep in mind, we're less than a mile from the city's center, and Detroit's metro area is the 11th largest in the nation.  It's city limits, however, contain 40 square miles of vacant property.  Much of the "inhabited" property, though, is industrial.

The base of the Ambassador Bridge (to Canada)
This dude protecting the bridge is the creation of some auto-body shop or other
As I turned back toward downtown, I found myself trapped in the auto-only maze that is the Joe Louis Arena and Civic Center.   The home of the Detroit Red Wings, it's one of only three hockey arenas in the nation to NOT have a corporate name.   It really is a modern oasis in a sea of . . . well, okay, it's more of a pile of poorly-planned modernist aluminum in a sea of . . . what used to be a vibrant south side.  Here you see one two-story hold-out from a time when you could conceivably walk for a pint . . .

 I decided to take a break, shoulder the bike, and take a spin on the Detroit People Mover -- downtown's answer to the "why you got no public transport" question of the 1980s.  It moves anyone who's got 50 cents (or a delightful token) in a nice big circle around the downtown core.  Upside:  Public transportation
Downside:  Goes in a circle -- doesn't move the burbs to the urbs

 Some pix from mah loop:
Rosa Parks Transit Center from the People Mover

Station art

Abandoned downtown skyscraper

Underground parking topped with "ready to build" beams . . . but no building yet.

One of three film crews I saw at work in ONE DAY!  Pretty impressive.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries . . . in the Casino

The only two passengers I saw during my entire circuit.  They got out at the Casino.

Headed for the Renaissance Center
A bit about the legendary 7-building complex:
In 1971 it was begun -- at a anticipated cost of $500 million -- as a project to revitalize the downtown area (albeit entirely indoors and away from the HORRIBLE dirty dangerous streets).  The central hotel tower (opened in '77) remains the Western Hemisphere's tallest all-hotel skyscraper.  The "city within a city" concept proved more harmful than beneficial to the rebirth of the city . . . huh!!

Lobby of the RenCen . . . they should focus more on the CAR design, maybe

Still not a hell of a lot of traffic, you guys

the Detroit Princess with Windsor in the background

Cool view as we circle the Arena, and see the Ambassador Bridge

Never leave your car, never leave the building, you're on the MOON!
Once I got off the wonderous People Mover, I decided to head back out toward the residential and cultural rings of downtown.
This beautiful old theater is now a parking garage

inside, you can see the remnants of the glorious ceilings . . . but at least the SUVs sit in style.

Up the Cass Corridor, I biked  . . . past this historic beauty whose name eludes me  (UPDATE:  HERE it is, thanks Mari)

 . . . and these abandoned towers . . .

 . . . I stopped and got a sammy, and snapped mah ride . . .

Some postcarders of the cultural district
Detroit Institute of Art

Detroit Public Library
Then it was on into some of the most beautiful and hardest hit neighborhoods to see and fantasize about fixing up these gems:

Once a house on each lot, this is now truly Urban Prarie.

Michael and his prized ride
met this guy on my way back home . . . he let me take a picture of his car, for a smoke . . . he was polishing it in an abandoned gas station.
I want this building for my theater company.  Don't laugh.

Elizabeth, some veggies, and the future of Detroit
In a genious stroke of luck, as I was on the last block of my trip (cousin Mari's house is the brick one at center)  I met this gal who was casually harvesting from her plot in the community garden.  She was extrodinarily nice, and look at that FOOD!  nice.  This is the new Detroit.  Clean, community-driven, excited, natural.  It's a great place if you don't mind digging out some of your American Pioneer spirit.
My cousin Mari and her house.  Thanks to her for all the hints along the way!!


  1. Thanks for the tour. I've never been to Detroit.
    Now I have a sense of the city.

  2. I've been to Detroit a lot--even lived there, on Greenfield near McNichols, for a year back in the mid-60's, but this is a far better tour than any I've been on! Methinks Chad has yet another (tenth, twelfth?)potential career while he's getting his theater company going. Bravo for both the commentary and the photography!! (I don't have a URL or any of those other categories, so I just picked "anonymous" to get past the posting requirements--It's Aunt Mary...