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Top Ten Things To Do In Detroit
Is Michigan’s Henry Ford Museum a Detroit side trip, or vice versa? While the answer might be a matter of pride to the folks in Dearborn and Detroit, for the visitor it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference as long as you see parts of both places.
After writing about the Henry last week, it’s time to focus on the ten things worth doing when you visit what the kids call “the d.”
1. Meet the people at the Detroit Eastern Market. Grazing a food market on vacation can be exasperating, since if you’re flying home you can’t gracefully (or legally) bring many of your favorite perishables with you. But the Detroit Eastern Market is obviously more about the food for the thousands of locals and visitors who stream through the Saturday market.
During my sojourn with Pure Michigan and the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau a few Saturdays ago, a gentle bearded guy slowly threaded his way through the market, redirecting the attention of all passersby to his large “Make Me Governor” sign. (Does he plan on running for governor? Yes, he said, one day.) I also met 91-year-old Lawrence Zienert, who began selling eggs at the market while Calvin Coolidge was president. What makes it worth showing up at the market week after week? “The people,” he told me. And after meeting Zienert and the future governor of Detroit, I can begin to understand why that’s true.
2. Take a guided walk downtown. While it’s easy enough to pick up factoids from a blog, it’s more satisfying to learn from a local like Jeanette Pierce of D:hive, an organization that cultivates talent and entrepreneurship in downtown Detroit. Pierce likes the city so much that she turned her wedding into a semi-public event in downtown’s Campus Martius Park. The center of the park is the point of origin for the city’s modern street system and – speaking of factoids – is also the precise point that 8 Mile Road is eight miles from.
3. Find meaning in found art on Heidelberg Street. Twenty-six years ago artist Tyree Guyton began harvesting discarded objects from Detroit’s streets, creating found art that he used to transform two impoverished blocks in East Detroit. Today what became known as The Heidelberg Project continues to inspire the community and visitors from around the world.
Colorful artwork festoons the lawns, trees, and in some cases houses. If you have children, take a second to explain what they’re looking at – for instance, that the pink car half-buried in the grass represents the death of the auto industry. Or try asking your kid what she thinks the polka dots mean on the outside of the Dotty-Wotty House (pictured). If she doesn’t get it, the simple explanation – that Guyton meant the multicolored dots to symbolize the diversity of people of all kinds – will be thought-provoking enough for the kids to remember long after you all get home.
4. Grab a seat at Comerica Park. Weekend Tigers games may be pretty well sold out by now but for these next few glorious months of baseball season it’s entirely possible to snag seats for the skyline ($5), bleachers (from $15), and other sections. It’s worth a walk around the lower concourse to see the memorabilia in the stadium’s hall of fame and if you’re traveling with kids, every Sunday Tigers home game is Kids Day, which means free rides on the park’s Ferris wheel and carousel and, weather permitting, a run of the bases after the game. One plus about Comerica is that it permits a perfect view of the Detroit skyline, a delightful distraction if your team is losing.
5. Help out at an urban farm. Its one-and-a-half acres yield organic foods used in the meals at Detroit’s Capuchin Soup Kitchen, but Earthworks Urban Farm also seeks to educate the community about gardening, in part through a Growing Healthy Kids program that imparts lessons about nutrition and sustainability to kids 5-11. Both local and out-of-town volunteers are also welcome to plant and weed in the gardens during select Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year.
6. Pay your respects to Hitsville, USA. You’ll spy a glass case with a hat and sequined glove once belonging to Michael Jackson and will likely be impressed by the gold record-covered walls, but the appeal of a Motown Museum stems not from its memorabilia, but from the museum’s guides, whose genuine respect for Motown history makes the information come alive. For instance, when neighboring homeowners complained of the noise emanating from Studio A – the famous garage-turned-studio where many a Motown hit was recorded from 1959 -1972 – Motown bought the homes away from the complainers. Another highpoint is a documentary that takes you on a musical journey of Motown history. Photography is not allowed in the museum, which is just as well. It’s the kind of place where you just need to be quiet and pay attention.
7. Rent a bike on the Detroit RiverWalk. Guided neighborhood bike tours (as well as bike rentals, including helmets) are available through Wheelhouse Detroit, but you are free as I did to rent a bike solo (rentals from $15 for two hours) and coast along the riverfront and surrounding neighborhoods on your own. As biking often does, it beats walking, and with all due respect to the Motor City, it’s a nice break from riding around in a vehicle.
8. Have yourself a slice of vinegar pie. On the grounds of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village stands the Eagle Tavern, originally a stagecoach stop situated on the main road between Detroit and Chicago and notable today for serving up classic food from the ‘50s – the 1850s, that is. Frankly you can skip right to the pie, specifically a $4 slice of vinegar pie. Firm, somewhat sweet, but assertively vinegary, this is precisely the kind of peculiarity that would wow the judges on Food Network’s “Chopped” and I predict could be the next big sweet-and-sour thing in restaurants that serve food from this century.
9. See Diego Rivera’s masterpiece murals. You’ll encounter more than a hundred galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts but the undisputed draw here is the courtyard with Diego Rivera’s 27-panel Detroit Industry mural. The jaw-droppingly stunning depictions of laborers and the new technologies that shaped Detroit will take your breath away, more so when you consider that Rivera knocked off this commission in 11 months.
10. Taste-test rival Coney Island dogs. Comparing the chili-onion-mustard-topped hot dog at American Coney Island to the version served immediately next door at Lafayette Coney is admittedly the one “Just do it to say you did it” item on this list. After American opened in 1917, two of the Keros brothers reportedly bickered and one of them opened Lafayette next door. Today the rivalry between the two joints seems far more good-natured than the debate that exists between loyal fans of each place. Who has the better hot dog? After trying both I honestly couldn’t tell you, because in both cases the onions – as good and crunchy as they were – overpowered the taste of the chili and the dog. But that’s my opinion. Head over to Lafayette Street and find out for yourself.
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