Ask someone to share the first word that comes to mind when the word “Detroit” is uttered.
You’ll probably get a wide variety, but my guess is that most will not be positive.
“Ugly.” “Dirty.” “Frightening.” “Bankrupt.”
And those would have been the words that came to my lips before I visited this city on the banks of Lake St. Clair. For Detroit is a heavily industrial city that has been decimated by a number of factors and in 2013 was even forced to file for bankruptcy.
But that would have been before I’d been given a chance to fully understand the uniqueness that is Detroit. Here is a city where the car began, where music bubbles up from the city streets, where people pay tribute to the city’s industrial might and where gorgeous red-brick homes line the streets.
It’s gritty, it’s loud, it’s powerful and it’s exciting.
Today if you asked me to word-associate with “Detroit” I’d respond: “Fascinating.”
What’s led me to change my opinion of this thrumming metropolis? It’s a whole host of things, the same types of things that make this city a wonderful destination for travelers willing to be open-minded about Detroit … willing to allow the city to transform their stereotypes.
Let’s start with the first, the reason I was drawn to Detroit this particular trip – its historic connection to industry and the energy of working men and women.
I came here to hunt through the world-class labor archives at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library for a book I’m writing. While there, I discovered the city’s connection to its labor history that is part of Detroit’s allure.
Monuments to labor dot the city and labor-related art appears as murals on buildings and images hanging on gallery walls.
The most impressive may be Mexican muralist Diego River’s powerful “Detroit Industry” frescoes painted in the early 1930s on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Another such mural, this one by Walter Speck, adorns the wall of the Reuther library.
On the city’s west side in Dearborn is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, where visitors learn how Ford and his workers conceived of and built the first automobile. Nearby, Ford’s River Rouge Plant, can be toured and pays tribute to the fact this was the world’s first integrated auto assembly plant.
Giving voice to the fact that all was not always well for laborers, plaques outside the River Rouge Plant describe how union organizers were beaten here in 1937 while distributing union pamphlets to plant workers.
Similar conflict is commemorated in Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery, which holds the graves of five unemployed workers who were shot and killed while peacefully demonstrating in front of the River Rough plant in 1932. Their graves are marked “His Life for a Union.”
The Detroit Historical Museum tells more stories of industry in the city.
It also relates the complex story of race in Detroit, a tale that began with the Great Migration of blacks from the South during Jim Crow to the current time. Today it’s a city in which over 80 percent of its residents are black.
Although the story involves heroics – such as the role Detroiters played in helping escaped slaves make their way into Canada – it also includes the difficulties faced by black residents. Those racial problems culminated in the Detroit riots of 1967 and the Algiers Motel tragedy in which three black teens were beaten and killed by police.
All the horrendous details are recorded in the Detroit Historical Museum.
But, the historical museum is only one of a complex of museums near Wayne State University that range from the Detroit Institute of Arts, ranked ninth best art museum in the United States by Yelp, to the Michigan Science Center to museums as eclectic as the Hellenic Museum of Michigan and the African Bead Museum.
All in some way pay tribute to yet another facet of this complex city – its relationship with music and emerging artists. In fact, a small wing of the historical museum is named the Kid Rock Music Lab, after the Detroit native of the same name, and explores the city’s musical roots.
From these streets also came Bob Seger, Madonna, Sonny Bono, Aaliyah, Bill Haley, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Glenn Frey, Grand Funk Railroad, the White Stripes, and on and on. The musical genres that have benefitted from Detroit’s contributions range from gospel to funk to rap.
But the most remarkable of all may have been the stable of musicians made famous by Motown Records. Their names and their songs have become an indelible part of worldwide culture.
Aretha Franklin. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The Spinners. Diana Ross and The Supremes. Marvin Gaye. The Temptations. Michael Jackson and the The Jackson Five. Stevie Wonder.
Detroit’s Berry Gordy and his recording studio turned them all into stars and along the way made Detroit synonymous with good music. Gordy bought up and transformed eight houses just north of downtown in the 1960s to produce the now-famous sound before moving the studio and record label to Los Angeles in 1972.
Today the Motown Museum allows visitors to explore the beginning of the music in its two-building complex, even encouraging visitors to sing along with a few bars of “My Girl” in the very studio – Studio A — in which The Temptations recorded the classic.
But industry, museums and music are only a very few of the things the Detroit of today has to offer. There’s a stunning river walk along the Detroit River, a reignited downtown, classic homes that are being refurbished and a sense everywhere that Detroit is being resurrected.
So, if you’ve never visited Detroit – even if you’ve never even considered a trip to this northern city – now might be the time to do it.
Your stereotype of this industrial Michigan city might just be ripe for a change.