For awhile now, Detroit has made news for the wrong reasons. Bankruptcy, “ruin porn,” residents maintaining public parks because the city just wasn’t – the list goes on. In the past several years, however, the story has been changing, just like the city.
Detroit’s recovery, dubbed “America’s great comeback story,” may be a morbid curiosity to reality TV audiences waiting for failure, but that recovery is real – palpable in the city itself, particularly when you talk to people who have lived in Detroit for decades. Yes, there are still boarded-up buildings downtown, but occupancy rates in renovated apartment buildings are so high there’s a waiting list. Things are happening in Detroit, and there’s no time like the present to go and see for yourself.
1. Detroit’s Renewed Maker Culture
Although the auto industry isn’t the invincible giant it once was, Detroit is still a city of manufacturing – and this includes an increasingly large population of individuals and small companies participating in the city’s growing maker scene.
One of the more well-established examples is Shinola – a Detroit-based maker of luxury watches, bicycles and leather accessories since 2011 – but there are countless other makers in the city bringing manufacturing back to Detroit on a small scale.
A huge, unused warehouse in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood has been transformed into Ponyride – a collection of studios for artists and entrepreneurs who can rent spaces for a fraction of what it would cost in other cities. Detroit Denim creates handmade jeans, Smith Shop makes custom jewelry and architectural metalwork, Floyd makes furniture and Anthology roasts coffee – just to name a few of the makers at Ponyride. Tours of Ponyride are available every Wednesday at 2pm. You can also get into the maker spirit this summer at Maker Faire Detroit, July 30-31.
Check out Detroit’s fantastic art scene while you’re in town.
2. For a Taste of Both Old and New Detroit
One of the classic Detroit culinary experiences is a taste test between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, located right next door to one another on Lafayette Boulevard. Choosing a favorite gives you an army of instant allies in Detroit (and possibly good-natured enemies, depending on who you’re talking to), so beloved are these institutions which have been serving up coneys (hot dogs covered with chili, yellow mustard and diced onions) since 1917.
For a more well-rounded menu, head for the Traffic Jam and Snug. The rambling, family-friendly restaurant has been open since 1965, was Michigan’s first brewpub, is still the state’s smallest licensed dairy and makes all their beer, bread and cheese in-house.
Then jump into the 21st century with brunch at Dime Store, opened in 2014 in the old Dime Bank Building where (once upon a time) you could open a savings account for 10 cents. The owners are Detroit natives who returned to their hometown after years away to play “a small role in the resurgence of a great American city” – they’re just part of the food movement in Detroit, which has seen more than 77 restaurants open since 2013.
Call well in advance for a table at Detroit’s hottest restaurant, Selden Standard, named Restaurant of the Year in 2015 by Detroit Free Press and in 2016 by Hour Detroit Magazine. Try for lunch if dinner is full, and marvel at this laundromat-turned-chic-restaurant producing some of the city’s most interesting and delicious dishes.
Another top-notch dinner option is Chartreuse, opened in Midtown Detroit in the spring of 2015 and already named 2016’s Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press. The name of the restaurant informs the cocktail menu and décor, but it’s the excellent food that leaves the biggest impression.
Both Selden Standard and Chartreuse make use of another culinary feature of the new Detroit – city-center community gardens. A few of those abandoned eyesore plots downtown have been turned into vegetable gardens brimming with life. Some feature art installations, some have weekly public markets, some are even used for yoga classes. Check out Lafayette Greens for a great example, especially in summer when the garden is in full swing.
3. To Ride Through the City on Two Wheels Rather Than Four
Motor City is still car-centric – summer in Detroit means a whole host of auto events, including the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix IndyCar race and a classic car show at Greenfield Village called Motor Muster – but every Monday, bicyclists claims Detroit’s streets as their own.
The weekly group ride is known as Slow Roll, and every week the route changes. The pace is easy so everyone can participate, and the varying routes keep it interesting. Slow Roll can attract as many as 3,000 riders on a given Monday, so it’s a great way to see different parts of the city and meet lots of local bike riders.
4. Two National Independence Days at Once
Detroit sits at a bend in the Detroit River, across which you can see Windsor, Ontario, in Canada. (What you may not know just by glancing across the river is that Detroit is actually north of Windsor.) The two cities – and, by extension, countries – are close enough that a joint fireworks celebration has been going on for more than 50 years to mark both Canada’s and the United States’ independence days.
With Canada’s holiday on July 1 and the USA’s on July 4, the joint fireworks display is held annually on a Monday in late June (this year, it’s June 27). It’s a huge production, with fireworks launched from three barges in the middle of the river and enormous crowds celebrating on both sides. On the Detroit side, the big show follows a weekend-long festival called River Days, with music, rides and games.
5. Detroit Just Opened the World’s Largest Penguinarium
Maybe you didn’t know that “penguinarium” is a word, but if you’ve spent any time on Facebook recently you might have seen video from the opening of Detroit Zoo’s brand new one.
The most adorable parade of penguins walked the blue carpet from their old home to the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, where a 326,000-gallon aquarium will house more than 80 penguins. The new penguinarium officially opens on April 18.
6. For Bragging Rights
Intrepid travelers love being ahead of the curve and visiting places before they’re overrun. Yes, Detroit was once a shining city on a hill (so to speak), one of the wealthiest in the country. That was a century ago, and the shine on today’s Detroit needs a bit of polish.
Travel media has been touting Detroit as “the next big thing” for a number of years, but it seems relatively few travelers have heard the clarion call. Tourism is increasing, but visitors can still get a piece of the “we went to Detroit before it was popular” pie.
What’s more, after one trip to America’s great comeback city, chances are very good that you’ll be hooked. The enthusiasm of Detroit locals is undeniable, and there’s something magical about watching change happen right before your eyes.