Rating: NNNNNDetroit ? There are a few Torontonians who make trips to Detroit each year. These would be diehard sports.
Detroit ? There are a few Torontonians who make trips to Detroit each year. These would be diehard sports fans who follow the Blue Jays, Raptors and Leafs to away games in the Motor City. But it?s hardly surprising that, as soon as the last pitch is thrown or the buzzer sounds, they jump into their cars and head back up the 401, hardly lingering in Motown.
Let’s be honest: many people see Detroit as one of the last places they’d want to visit. Forty years after what was then one of the largest urban riot in the United States ever, the city in many ways remains blighted and segregated.
But to judge a city by its streetscapes is to judge a city short. And nowhere is that more true than in Detroit.
What other city has had such influence on the worldwide music scene? Motown, 60s and 70s rock, 80s pop like the Romantics and Madonna and 90s rock and grunge spawned performers like Kid Rock and the White Stripes.
Does urban devastation breed artistic inspiration? The Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau would forgive you if you thought so. That’s because its new slogan is “Detroit: Where Cool Comes From.” The bureau is pitching to young hipsters to come to the city for an “authentic” urban experience.
Europeans have long been making pilgrimages to the Motor City. The Motown sound has been particularly huge in Europe, a la the Commitments. But so have the antecedents of punk in the likes of the MC5 and the Stooges. And techno music, born here, is nowhere bigger than across the pond. The world’s largest techno festival isn’t in Amsterdam – it’s along Detroit’s riverfront every Memorial Day weekend.
Emily Schaller, who works for Pure Detroit, a merchandiser that specializes in Detroit-themed clothing and memorabilia (think an edgier Roots), says Europeans can’t get enough of the Motor City. “They love everything that says Detroit.”
The Tourism Economic Development Council’s executive director Jim Townsend says hip culture is almost the “unspoken DNA” of Detroit.
Music and the African-American experience are responsible for a lot of that, he says. The Motown Historical Museum and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History – the largest such institution in the United States – are located here.
And you can visit the Henry Ford Museum where you can see the Montgomery, Alabama, bus on which civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks (who later became a Detroit resident, natch) refused to give up her seat.
Part of your tour should include crossing 8 Mile Road (yes, the 8 Mile of Eminem movie fame) into mainly white and affluent suburban Detroit. There you’ll find clusters of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and galleries in places like Ferndale, Royal Oak and Birmingham.
Back in the city, you might wax romantically about Detroit’s gritty streetscapes, where some of the finest skyscrapers of the early 20th century still stand, partially filled or empty. Those buildings once sparked New York photographer Camilo Jose Vergara to propose that downtown Detroit be turned into a theme park for skyscraper ruins.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Detroit’s downtown is undergoing a revival, with new bars and restaurants, stadiums, casinos and one of the largest live theatre districts in the U.S.
At one time Detroit’s heads-in-the-sand administration balked at Vergara’s label. Now its tourism bureau embraces it.
Townsend admits that’s “a tension that we’re very cognizant of.” But, he says, “the best marketing plan is built around the truth.”
For more information, go to www.visitdetroit.com.