lost, for a little while

destination: detroit
March 17, 2011, 10:23 pm
Filed under: trips

The Guardian Building

Not being a native Michigander or big sports fan, I never gave Detroit much thought when I was growing up. I lived in my protective suburban bubble several miles north of 8 mile, and Detroit was just this place we never went to. It wasn’t until I went off to college, and the former mayor’s antics caused Detroit to be in the headlines more often, that I really began thinking about my own impressions of the city. At that point, said impressions were based on a couple Tigers games and one cringe-worthy class field trip that involved a hired coach bus driving slowly through dilapidated neighborhoods and a teacher narration that included, “And on the left is a crack house.”

But something about it all eventually sparked my curiosity, which only got stronger after I read the book Middlesex, set in 1960s/1970s Michigan — mainly Detroit.

Riots. White Flight. The juxtaposition of poverty with the surrounding wealth of the suburbs. The Fox Theater. The Fisher Building. Tiger Stadium (and then Comerica Park). Vernor’s. Better Made Potato Chips. Stroh’s ice cream. The Renaissance Center. The Big Three. The ups and downs of the manufacturing and auto industries. Henry Ford. 8 Mile. Eminem. Kid Rock. Kwame Kilpatrick. Dave Bing. The Book-Cadillac Hotel. The Ambassador Bridge. The list of topics goes on and on, but despite my curiosity and bits of knowledge, I remain a Detroit novice. So, I enlisted the help of my friend, Matt, to give a mini crash-course on the city’s highlights before once more leaving the area behind.

Matt volunteers every summer at Greenfield Village, an 80-acre section of land in Dearborn, Michigan that features genuine historic buildings and actors hired to depict life in the 19th century. Greenfield Village is part of the Henry Ford complex, which includes the Village, the Henry Ford Museum, a research center, and tours of the nearby Rouge manufacturing plant. As a proud member of the Lah-De-Dahs, an 1867 base ball team that plays for the Village, Matt’s got the hook-ups. Plus, he lists Detroit as number one on his list of “Things I Don’t Hate,” and currently works in the city. He was my guy for the job.

Our first stop was the Henry Ford Museum. Say what you will about Henry Ford, but his penchant for purchasing important pieces of history has led to a pretty impressive array of artifacts and iconic pieces. Some of the highlights:

The Wienermobile (Possibly only exciting to me)

The chair Lincoln was in when he was shot

The Rosa Parks bus

Also a favorite of mine, which I didn’t manage to get a good picture of, was a prototype of the Dymaxion House, an aluminum pre-fab house dreamed up by Buckminster Fuller (the guy who designed the Epcot sphere). It looks like a gleaming metal dome, and the inside is set up as a futuristic, space-saving structure that feels like a cross between The Jetsons’ home and my grandparents’ living room. The delightful guide inside was eager to have us push the different buttons and explore the hidden drawers.

Though the largest section of the museum, which houses the collection of automobiles, was closed for renovation, overall, it was a fun mix of exhibits and items. If you go, definitely take the time to ask the guide at the Rosa Parks bus to explain the different items on display, and how the bus was recovered from a corn field in the middle of nowhere. (Sidenote: Rosa Parks lived the last years of her life in Detroit and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery there.)

After hitting up the museum exhibits and gift shop, we had some time left to kill, so Matt drove us to the city itself for an impromptu tour of the area where he works and some of the major landmarks.

The Spirit of Detroit

An iconic part of the city, this statue gets draped with a jersey whenever the home team brings out a big win.

The Fist of Detroit

Built to embody the strength of powerhouse boxer Joe Louis, the 24-foot arm and fist is also said to represent “the heart, soul, fighting spirit, pride, and determination of the people of metro Detroit.” (Robert Graham, sculptor)

(Also: the Fist is featured in the opening credits of Hung, which takes place in Metro Detroit. Badass.)

The Guardian Building

This is Matt’s favorite; a crazy mix of art deco style with colorful designs reminiscent of Aztec and Native American patterns. At the end of the great hall is a mural of Michigan that features its major industries and a floating, Christ-like figure. It’s certainly not my style, but it’s also nothing I’d ever expect to find in downtown Detroit. Matt promised an awesome interior, and this certainly delivered.

I finished off my mini tour of Detroit with a later visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts with my mom — the current featured exhibit on fakes and forgeries was very cool and fun to walk through, and I love seeing some of my old favorites from previous visits.

I’m interested to see how the city will change, but my time for exploring Detroit has come to an end. Time to hit the road!

(I promise that my future trip recaps will be much, much shorter.)


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You finally know what the Spirit of Detroit is! I’m so proud.

Comment by Katie

You know that Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park are not the same thing, right? They actually coexisted briefly before Tiger Stadium finally got the wrecking ball treatment.

Comment by A Concerned Citizen

Have edited to make the wording more clear because, yes, I actually did know they were two separate things. Thank you, my oh-so-observant Detroit-fact checker.

Comment by lostforalittlewhile

Did you get to see Diego Rivera’s famous mural? One of my favorites. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit_Industry

Comment by Matt

Yessir! I catch it every time I go to the DIA. Managed to get some good pictures of it this time, too.

Comment by lostforalittlewhile

[…] The first thing I saw was a small house on stilts, and felt relieved that I was at least in the right place and not just blindly walking toward a Deliverance-type fate. Then the domes came into view, three large wooden structures with a deck running between them, all raised slightly off the ground. I flashed back to the Henry Ford Museum and the Dymaxion house. […]

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