You’re going to Detroit?! Why?
This was the most common reaction I heard when detailing my US travel plans to Americans. Occasionally I would meet someone more curious who thought it was a good idea, but they were few and far between. They wanted to go for the same reason I did: ruin porn – as it has become known – like this.
[An abandoned building in Detroit.]
So why was I going to Detroit? I was in Toronto for a conference and one of my friends who lives in Madison had said to me to drop by his place if I ever happen to be in the neighbourhood. Of course Toronto is miles from Madison (over a thousand kilometres worth of miles), but I tend to forget these details when poring over maps and connecting dots.
The easiest overland route from Toronto to Madison is via Detroit and Chicago. I have been to Chicago and was happy to have an excuse to go back, so this was the ideal time to visit Detroit.
Detroit – The Beirut of the Midwest?
There are no hostels in Detroit (apparently backpackers aren’t beating a path to get here), and the conveniently located hotels were well over my usual budget. The cheap chain hotels are in the outer suburbs, which is not an option if you don’t have a car (a prerequisite for living in Motor City).
As a last resort I had a look at Couchsurfing. I posted my Detroit travel plans and a woman from Indianapolis replied, inviting me to stay with her because “Detroit is like Beirut”. She didn’t know that Beirut is on my cities I want to visit list, so that just made me want to go to Detroit even more. Eventually a friendly Detroiter replied to my ad and offered a couch at his house.
Detroit is on the US/Canada border, with the Detroit river separating the city from Windsor, Canada. There is a special bus from Windsor that passes through immigration control, which turned out to be the least painful US entry point I have ever been through.
My host was at work so I left my bags at an accommodating hotel and began my urban exploration. I was slightly on edge walking around having had so many people advising me to be careful before my visit. I didn’t know if there were any invisible lines that demarcate good neighbourhoods from bad. With no maps to refer to or tourist office in sight, I just started wandering in any direction, which is my favourite way to discover a new city.
I didn’t feel unsafe, but there is definitely a weird vibe going on. It took me a few hours to work out what the problem was: there is very little retail in the downtown area. In a country that is wall-to-wall with franchised stores, I saw very few familiar brands.
At approximately coffee-o-clock I realised I hadn’t seen a Starbucks all day. I looked online and sure enough there are only two Starbucks listed in the downtown area: one in the Renaissance Building (where GM is headquartered) and one in the MGM Grand Detroit hotel/casino complex. Not that it’s a bad thing to experience a city without a Starbucks, but being used to having a Starbucks on every other corner in most US cities this just added to the apocalyptic feel to the quiet streets of Detroit. Of course the benefit of so few Starbucks is that it gives independent cafes a chance, of which there a are a few.
Whether the city likes it or not, Detroit has become known for abandoned grand old buildings. One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to see Michigan Central Station, which I had seen in a photo essay.
[Michigan Central Station]
The building is as magnificent as I hoped it would be be, but it’s fenced off with razor wire so you can’t just go in and look around like the photo essays suggest. Probably a good thing though as it would be an ideal crack den.
In the downtown area there are numerous buildings that are boarded up, waiting for a savior to restore them to their former glory .
[I <3 this building and I hope it finds salvation.] Meanwhile, the Broadway Cafe (one of the good indy cafes I mentioned) has taken matters into its own hands and is offering a free coffee to whoever purchases the building next door.
[Broadway Cafe and Wurlitzer Building.]
While “ruined” buildings like the old train station get plenty of attention, Detroit has an abundance of early twentieth century skyscrapers in various working condition. My favourite building in Detroit is the Book Tower, which was completed in 1926 and stands at 38 stories high. It is currently empty, but not (yet) ruined.
[Book Tower – Detroit]
Detroit reminds me of Downtown Los Angeles, another city which had a lustrous past and then went into a slow decline. I was surprised at how many of these old buildings still survive, like this cluster of buildings that can be seen at Capital Park.
[Capitol Park – Detroit]
One of the best kept is the Guardian Building, which is worth going inside for the opulently decorated foyer.
[Guardian Building – Detroit]
[Masonic Temple – Detroit]
Along with the lack of retail, another unsettling aspect of Detroit are the vacant lots. Whole city blocks that once had buildings are now car parks. While a clean, empty lot is better than a burnt out ruin, it’s still a reminder that all is not well here.
[An advertisement for an electric car – 30 years too late to save the local car industry.]
[The abandoned Hotel Eddystone building, surrounded by empty lots.]
The Comeback of Detroit?
[Can Ryan Gosling save Detroit?]
Since my visit, Detroit has become the biggest US city to file for bankruptcy. Urban renewal is an interest of mine so I follow news like this about cities around the world. My Couchsurfing host happened to be an urban renewalist as well so it was great to spend time with him and see the community activities he is involved with, while I got to ask nerdy questions about town planning, white-flight, and public transport. If I had stayed at a hotel I would have missed this insight.
I know some entrepreneurs who have moved here for the cheap rent in old buildings, and there is certainly plenty of old buildings for the hipster/artist scene to make a go of it.
[Detroit, you need hipsters more than you know.]
Detroit was up until 1950 the fourth largest city in the United States. It was an economic and population powerhouse. Going to Detroit is like watching a heavyweight prizefighter knocked out on the canvas, with the referee standing by counting to ten. I’m watching on the sidelines willing the city to get up. Maybe it will have a renewal like Downtown Los Angeles is experiencing. I wish it the best of luck.
My friend just moved to Detroit and she absolutely loves it. Another friend of mine really wants to move there because of the supposedly intensely creative art scene. There is a lot going on in Detroit and I can’t wait to visit, even though almost everybody tells me it’s terrible.
James Clark says
I am almost compelled to visit places when lots of people tell me a place is terrible. I guess I need to find these things out for myself.
Caroline Eubanks says
Wow I had no idea that there was such amazing architecture in Detroit! Thank you for enlightening me!!! I hope the city can be saved.
Hey James, another fan of Detroit here. Yeah, you do need a car to get the most of the city/region, although a bicycle on a summer day would do as well as the city is completely flat.
Detroit is like Beirut? It’s (Southeast Michigan) got a huge Lebanese population, making it like one of the biggest Lebanese cities if you count the population. If only I could get you to bring a few boxes of baklava back to Vietnam.
I’ve got some great memories of dancing until sunrise in the basement of that Masonic Temple (yes, a huge Gothic skyscraper being used to hold some of the best electronic music ever, another local specialty). Basically, there’s crazy stuff happening – but it’s happening underground, right under your nose!
James Clark says
Hi Tomo, that’s a good point about a bicycle as it would be easy to pedal around (as long as it’s in summer!) I went out one night with my host and it seems like there is lots going on that you just don’t hear about.
The Beirut comment was more to do with some Americans perception of Beirut being a war-torn city that is too dangerous to visit. I get some stupid comments as well from people when I say that I spend a lot of time in Vietnam.
It gives me some sort of bizarre feeling when I saw your pictures on the abandoned beautiful buildings. And as you mentioned at the end of your post, it was one of America’s greatest cities decades ago, but now the downturn spiral is going more appallingly than many people would have thought. Anyway, if I got the chance to visit Detroit, despite the negative comments, I would go in a heartbeat.
I would go to Detroit in a heartbeat too. I love visiting underrated places that other people dismiss. Sure, it may not be your typical tropical beach vacation, but I’ll pretty much guarantee there is something interesting to see anywhere you go. Glad to hear you had a good time while you where there.
I spent 3 months driving USA/Canada (Im from Tasmania, Australia) was in Detroit the day before it declared bankruptcy and found the buildings in Detroit beautiful and the people so friendly
Wish I had more time to spend there
Only place I felt worried was 8 mile pawn store car park
Hi James, I’m new to your site and really enjoying reading about your travel adventures and look forward to following along in the future! It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening to Detroit and i also hope the city can someday make a comeback. The architecture in Detroit is beautiful. I enjoyed seeing the photos of the city but I sure wish it was in better condition! Happy Travels!
James Clark says
Thanks for following along, Barbara 🙂
Awesome pictures. I can’t understand how is that possible to let such a magnificent building as Michigan Central Station turn into rubble. What a shame!
I too found Detroit a pretty fascinating place. Firstly, I’m an American so it was pretty weird for me to see a rather desolate downtown (St. Louis has a little bit of that vibe near the river as well). I was there last year for work, and yup auto related (training at the Chrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills). What I thought was most interesting of my time in Detroit was I almost had the vibe the the people who used to live in central Detroit just vanished. But the truth is they just moved out to the suburbs to start a new. And if you head out to the suburbs now, you’ll see a new sort of new city emerging with semi-urban centers popping up, some even have tall buildings (troy), It’s like people just gave up on the downtown.
James Clark says
Thanks Jeremy. Just from my brief experience it seemed like the action was in the suburbs. It’s a shame as there are plenty of nice buildings in the downtown area that would make great apartments.
Wow, great pics. It really has an atmosphere…what I have seen from the movies, I would be rather scared to visit some of Detroit’s neighbourhoods. I have even seen a blog about state paying you to live in some of the long abandoned houses in Detroit suburbs. Great post!
James Clark says
Thanks Adam. Yes there are some dodgy neighbourhoods but I didn’t dare venture there!
James – I have grown up in Michigan and spent about 40+ years here. Detroit has had some tough times and is definitely on the rebound. It is not the greatest city, but if you look at Michigan as a whole it is a great place to live. While there can be some gray months… I would argue that there is no better place in the US to spend a summer than Michigan. Check out some Northern Michigan towns like Harbor Springs, Charlevoix, Petoskey, etc.. and you will be amazed!!!
mario chacon says
Hey james, thank you for bringing out the good in detroit, they need all the help to get back up, we always hear the bad news and not the good, awesome pics!.
James Clark says
Thanks Mario, and all the best for Detroit!
I know this is an old post, but as a detroit resident I thought I’d give you guys an update on some of the pictured buildings.
Michigan Central Station – light renovation going on, the owner is Detroit’s Mr Burns and really doesn’t want to do anything with the building but the city made him install new windows and secure the lot.
The wurlitzer building has been purchased and is currently undergoing renovations to turn it into a boutique hotel. i’m not sure if the owner gets free coffee or not 🙂
The Book Tower has been purchased and is being renovated. Once it’s completed it will be a mixture of apartments, condos and retail.
The eddystone is still standing and will be renovated during the construction of the Red Wings new $650 million arena. The park avenue was removed for this project. The arena is the anchor of what is said to be a 50 block renovation that will add numerous homes, stores, and offices. In conjunction with this arena construction the city is building a light rail that will go from downtown through midtown up to the New Center area.
Many more projects are underway renovating existing buildings and building new. Downtown Detroit has come a long way in 3 years and appears to be on the right track.
and I almost forgot, the Metropolitan building (the one with the hearts) is also undergoing a renovation and will be turned into an “extended stay” hotel. It’s being developed by the group that turned the David Whitney building into an aloft brand hotel. Exciting times for Detroit residents!
There has been a hostel here since 2011. “Hostel Detroit” in Corktown.
Francina Boehnke says
Oh! I forgot to mention….I LOVE DETROIT.