Detroit’s culture and cadence have long been defined, respectively, by its now infamous car industry and its prodigious music legacy. Nearly every American genre shares its roots with Detroit’s musical traditions. From J Dilla and Marvin Gaye to MC5 and Derrick May, Detroit’s creative footprint spreads far and wide.
A city whose reputation often precedes it, Detroit seems to be in a constant process of revitalization. In recent years, the city has poured funding into the downtown neighborhood to bring residents back within city limits. The money went, in part, to new baseball and football stadiums and three new casinos. However, these places do not house the essence of this shrinking city. It is within the neighborhoods, music venues, and markets that you’ll find the real beat of Motown.
Detroit City Guide
Nicknames: Motown, Motor City, Rock City, The D
Population: In the metro, 4 million (give or take)
Up-and-coming corners: Woodbridge, Cork Town, Indian Village, and Downtown
Since 1977, residents of Cass Corridor have opened up their garages, set up tables, and come out en masse to participate in the Dally in the Alley. Always the Saturday after Labor Day, this daylong festival began as a back-alley art fair and has evolved into a multi-block party with handmade goods, local beer and food, and multiple music stages. Perhaps the real beauty of this festival is the diversity of its attendees; each music stage represents a different genre, from jazz and funk to indie and punk, hip-hop and house to country and bluegrass. The people that participate, both by vending and attending, will give you a feel for the diverse vibe of the city. Plus, the event’s proceeds go back to the community, benefiting the North Cass Community Union for projects like music scholarships for the neighborhood kids, maintaining parks, and supporting soup kitchens.
If you are looking for a full-tilt sensory overload, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (a.k.a. DEMF, and now known as Movement) has been banging eardrums since 2000. Held at Hart Plaza, part of Detroit’s International Riverfront, the festival is not solely a venue for techno; the DEMF bills everyone from DJ Godfather to Girl Talk. Also look for prolific acts like Afrika Bambaataa and hard-to-find stateside artists like Fat Freddys Drop.
One of most epic sights in Detroit is the beautiful-but-infamous Michigan Central Station. Standing alone in the Cork Town neighborhood, the 18-story neo-Classical structure has sadly become an icon of Detroit’s decay. Closed in 1988, the MCS had a recent brush with fame when it was featured in the movie Transformers. If you want to see it in all its post-Apocalyptic glory, we suggest getting there as soon as possible; on April 7, 2009 the Detroit City Council voted to demolish the defunct, vandalized beacon of urban history.
Another essential Detroit landmark is the Heidelberg Project. Army veteran Tyree Guyton started the Heidelberg Project in the Black Bottom neighborhood over 20 years ago, as a response to the neighborhood’s growing decay. The outdoor art project uses the street’s houses as a canvas – each structure is painted with bright, cheerful dots and salvaged items have been affixed to their exteriors. This constantly evolving must-see art project was created in a time when most people were afraid to walk through the neighborhood, even during the day. The street for which the project is named is a micro chasm of the paradigms of Detroit – one end provides a hopeful message to the community, receiving a few-hundred thousand tourists a year, while the other end still houses the time-forgotten homes Guyton sought to revive.
When you imagine a Coney Island Hot Dog you might think instantly of Coney Island, New York, but don’t be fooled. A popular variation of the Coney Dog finds its home in Michigan – some even cite Detroit’s American Coney Island as the original source. The secret is in the chili sauce: Detroit’s dog is served on a beef frank with bean-free all-meat chili, yellow mustard, and yellow onion; the New York variety is just a pork frank with your usual bean-and-meat chili. Among the ladies of VZ, our pick for the best Detroit-style Coney is the 24-hour Lafayette Coney Island. If you’re into travel DIY, pick up a Coney Island Kit at American Coney Island (right next door) and make your own!
If Lafayette is the queen of the Coney, then Slow’s Barbeque is reigning ruler of, well, barbeque. Located in Cork Town, Slow’s serves up traditional barbeque dishes and amazing mac-n-cheese. If you are of the vegetarian persuasion, fear not, Slow’s serves a great faux chicken sandwich.
If you are in the mood for something other than American food, head to Mexicantown and check out El Comal for amazing Central American dishes and live Mariachi on Tuesdays. And if you’re a foodie with extra cash to spend on a more “refined” meal, go to Iron Chef Michael Symon’s recently opened Roast for delectable wood-fired delicacies.
Detroit is known for its music and the kids here know how to party. Whether you are at a rock, hip-hop, or techno show, people will dance until well after the sun rises. A favorite for anyone who likes to boogie past dawn is Funk Night. Donned “America’s Best Party” by a Papermag online poll, the all-night funk-fest features two DJs playing wall-to-wall 45s with the occasional live funk band thrown in the mix. Do not miss this event, it is legendary.
Northern Lights lounge is a great place for themed nights with everything from Punk Night (with $1.50 PBR) to karaoke and “Michael vs. Prince” nights. At this diverse bar, depending on the day, you’re guaranteed to find something for everyone. They also have free shuffleboard and a cute ladies-only lounge worth checking out.
The Majestic Theater Center is an entire city block of entertainment. With two music venues (the Majestic and the Magic Stick), Garden Bowl bowling alley, and a pizzeria called Sgt. Pepperoni’s, you could spend the entire weekend here. The Magic Stick has hosted Detroit classics like the White Stripes, the Von Bondies, and Detroit Cobras.
Michigan’s largest rare and used bookstore, John K. King, is a massive undertaking, but a must-see while in The D. With over 750,000 titles in stock, use the highly knowledgeable staff if you don’t have three hours to roam through the stacks. You can find many a place to drop some dollars on Woodward Avenue – for the best local vinyl, hit up Peoples Records; or if you’re looking for award-winning “Rock and Roll Star” clothing, try Showtime.
If you are in Detroit on a Saturday, you must go to the Eastern Market. Since 1891, people from Detroit and the suburbs have flocked to the market to purchase everything from fresh bread and fruit, to plants, cheese, honey, and live chickens.