It goes without saying that Detroit is a city with a bad reputation. “The D” has received (far) more than its fair share of negative media, a place seen more often as a punch line or a ready example of America’s economic woes than as a fun family travel destination. And to be honest, it is a curious place. Decades of out-migration have left many of the fabulous Art Deco skyscrapers downtown—erected during headier times for the auto industry—as empty hulks, buildings that you can see straight through from one side to the other. The city core on a weekday morning has little of the hubbub you’d expect for a city this size—no commuters rushing to work, no street-meat vendors, no cabs disgorging sales reps late for their next meeting. My childhood memories of Detroit are of my father telling my sister and me, in a rather urgent tone, to lock our doors, lest the derelicts in the dilapidated neighbourhood outside gain access to our car before we could get on I-75 and zoom south to Florida.
But let there be no mistake—this is a city that has a lot to offer visitors. Although a fact largely unheralded by the media, Detroit is home to world-class museums and galleries, top sports teams (where prime seats are available for a steal), interesting and accessible ethnic neighbourhoods, excellent bars and restaurants. “This is a great city with lots to do. You just need to know where to look!” one store clerk enthused to me while ringing up my purchase, unbidden by tourism reps, or anyone else.
And Detroit is getting better and better, in large part because this is a city of believers. Like that store clerk, many random citizens I have spoken with readily extol the virtues of their great city. And they’re spending the dollars required to make change happen, adding more than 2,000 hotel rooms downtown in just the last year and a half (including the Westin Book Cadillac, recently restored to its original 1920s splendour), redeveloping parks and public spaces, and doing their best to get the word out that Detroit is back. Spending six days here in the Motor City, I’m seeing the changes firsthand.
Locals have taken to calling Detroit “Renaissance City.” During a walking tour of downtown on my first full day here, I was introduced to the Spirit of Detroit, a large monument that includes the city and county crests and a large man made of bronze. Fittingly, the statue was getting a touch-up. Behind the main monument, the city crest announced Detroit’s motto, written after the great fire of 1805: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, or, translated from Latin to English, “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” The city is well on its way, and, as I hope to illustrate in the next couple of entries, there are plenty of reasons for you and your family to consider spending a few days here.
—Tim Johnson, CF‘s contributing editor and world-traveller