So when my friend Helen and I told people we were taking a trip to check out Detroit everyone told us we were crazy. You will get shot in the street they said. You will get mugged they said. White tourists don’t belong there…the whole city is full of crime and shootouts. Why on earth would you go there? Don’t go out after dark…you will certainly get killed. Even a person who had travelled to North Korea for a holiday (really?!) warned us against going there.
Whilst perhaps this was a little unnerving we were not to be dissuaded. So an Aussie and Brit (both living in Canada) hopped on an overnight bus from Toronto to Detroit via Windsor and our adventure began. An overnight Greyhound does not provide the best sleep and we encountered the rudest customs official to date at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel but soon we found ourselves in Detroit early on a Thursday morning.
Hungry we decided to venture to iHop for breakfast (nearby our hotel that was partly booked due to its close proximity to said pancake house). Cab? No. Let’s just get a bus. So close to the border our Canadian cell phones provided enough reception to check Google maps. We sat for more than an hour at a bus stop waiting for an elusive 25 bus. None came when three should have. After a few Lamborghinis and more than a few sketchy characters drove by (some more than once) we decided to venture closer to downtown for better public transport options.
With the assistance of a bus driver we found a main bus stop and also lost phone reception. There were a number of buses we could catch so we waited along with about 20 other folk patiently and then less patiently. No buses came. Finally we decided to ask a local and risk revealing our obvious foreignness. Upon asking a man about the bus situation he proceeded to tell us that the buses did not run on a strict timetable and the number of buses that came depended on the number of ones that ‘were not broken’ that day. Basically you just wait until one comes and there is no other option. This was one indicator of city’s financial misfortune. This amusing gentleman also proceeded to tell us that he was on his way to meet his brother in law ‘Benny Napoleon’ who was running for Mayor. Did we want a pamphlet?
After a bus finally came we made our way to iHop walking down a side street that could only be described as having the appearance of a ‘crack den.’ Fortunately said street was short and we found ourselves in the safety of an iHop booth with bottomless coffee and endless calorific meal options. Afterwards we made our way to our hotel (chosen by Helen) that was classic and grandeur and situated at the beginning of the Detroit Riverwalk. Here Detroit began to class it up.
The Detroit Riverwalk runs along the waterfront to downtown and has a view of Windsor. It is a $315 million dollar upgrade that occurred in 2008. It was not paid for by the city and it is not the reason they are bankrupt. It was actually paid for by businesses in the city including Dan Gilbert one of the founders of Quicken Loans. On a side note: he is also buying up office buildings in downtown Detroit and bringing workers back to the city. It was a beautiful walk complete with ponds, statues, swamp land, an outdoor concert venue, a lighthouse and a sign for an outdoor Toni Braxton concert (is that how she solves her money problems?)
The downtown of Detroit is quite nice with clean streets, nice roads, statues and great architecture. They have a monorail ‘People Mover’ that provides limited transport in a circular formation around the centre (including a stop called Times Square that is as far removed from the NYC Times Square as one could imagine). There is an MGM Casino, a Greektown with fabulous food and its own casino and the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium decorated with beautiful, giant sandstone tigers. They also soak up some Canadian culture with a Tim Hortons or two.
We caught a bus uptown to visit the Motown Museum (which is the original studio where Berry Gordy founded his Motown music label) and took a walking tour with a local that included architecture and other fun facts. One fun fact being that 8 Mile Road (made famous by Eminem) is called such because it is 8 miles from downtown. It is also the border that signifies the end of Wayne County and a step into the more dodgy areas. Before heading to the bus station our hotel driver was kind enough to circle around the magnificent train station ruins and offer some other interesting tidbits about the area. We also had the fortune of seeing the Transformers 4 movie set (because apparently downtown Detroit doubles as Hong Kong?).
Aside from the public transport system being the worst I had experienced thus far in the US (Nashville being a close second) Detroit was a great place to visit. The downtown area was clean and felt safe and people were friendly and helpful. There was definitely a lot of culture, food, shopping and other things to do. It might be considered a fallen city at the moment with the end of auto boom, societal problems and city bankruptcy but there are people with money and opportunity around that are looking to make the city prosper (and more than a few lambo/Maserati owners…where do they safely park those?). Detroit is not what you’d expect…it was a pleasant surprise and definitely a great place to visit! I listened to 8 Mile Road and Welcome to Detroit City fondly on our drive out through the tunnel. See a sample of photos below.