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Why It's Time to Visit Motor City

Although struggling in recent decades, Detroit still offers experiences you expect from a world-class city.

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Corktown, next-door to Midtown, draws young people with its plentiful loft apartments and hipsterati hot spots like Slow’s Bar BQ and the Sugar House. Literati-leaning Fellows recommend John K. King books, a four-floor warehouse of used books—the most complete bookstore I’ve ever had the pleasure of browsing apart from New York’s Strand and Portland’s Powell’s.

Stirrings of revitalization can also be felt  nearby in Southwest Detroit—an immigrant haven that registers the lowest family income of any area in Detroit but nonetheless shows many signs of a thriving community.  Roughly 40 percent African-American, 40 percent Latino and 20 percent white, it’s home to active community organizations, small businesses, ethnic restaurants, intact historic neighborhoods and a walkable commercial district along Vernor Highway that would please Jane Jacobs. 

Hamtramck, an independent city enclosed by the North side of Detroit, once a bastion of Polish immigrants is now a racially diverse community favored by Bangladeshis, Arabs, Bosnians, Albanians and young people of all backgrounds, according to Fellow Tom Habitz, who bought a bungalow there.  You’ll find great Bangladeshi food at Aladdin, exquisite crafts and imports (plus a treasure trove of polka recordings) at the Polish Art Center and live indy rock at clubs scattered throughout town.

What About the Ruins?

You wouldn’t go to Athens or Rome without seeing the ruins, and neither would many visitors to Detroit.  The city’s industrial freefall and corresponding plummet in population (from 1,850,000 in 1950 to 700,000 today) has resulted in some spectacular scenes of devastation—painstakingly documented by photographers in a new genre dubbed “ruin porn.” 

The two best examples are: 1) Michigan Central Railroad Depot, an imposing 18-story train station on the edge of Corktown where every single pane of glass is busted out; and 2) the Packard Plant, a 3,5000,000 square-foot auto factory by eminent architect Albert Kahn on East Grand Boulevard, which was abandoned in 1958 and later made musical history as the site where techno music gained popularity at raves in the late 1980s. 

Dancing in the Streets

Less than four miles west on Grand Boulevard is an even more world-renown musical shrine —a modest frame house where Berry Gordy lived on the 2nd Floor and superstars like Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Four Tops recorded a stream of hits downstairs.  It’s a religious experience to enter the small Motown Records studio with the original Steinway piano, Hammond B-3 organ and furnishings. You can see the dining room table that served as the company’s shipping department, the couch where Marvin Gaye sometimes slept after all-night recording sessions, and the desk where a receptionist named Martha Reeves greeted visitors. The same Martha Reeves who later sang one of the most memorable odes extolling the sheer exuberance of city life:

Summer's here and the time is right

For dancin' in the streets

They're dancin' in Chicago

Down in New Orleans

Up in New York City…

Philadelphia, PA

Baltimore and DC now

Yeah, don't forget the Motor City

(Can't forget the Motor City)

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas got it right back in 1964— anyone who truly savors urban life can’t forget the Motor City.

Jay Walljasper is editor of OnTheCommons.org, a news and culture website devoted to recognizing the importance of the commons -- those things that belong to all of us -- in modern life.
 
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