Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Native Detroiters Lauren Hood and Adriel Thornton offer an insider’s view on visiting Motor City.
Travel Like You Live Here is a series in which wonky locals show CityLab around their home turf.
“People say ‘Detroit is dead’ or ‘Detroit died.’ I can look back and know that that was never the case,” Adriel Thornton said. “Detroit never died. It might have gone to sleep for a minute, but it never died. The people and the energy just would not let it.”
Native Detroiters like Thornton and his lifelong friend Lauren Hood are central to this work of shining light on the many ways their hometown is vibrant. Thornton is the marketing and community outreach manager of Mogo, the city’s new (and quickly growing) bikeshare program. For many years, he has also been an event producer, and has had his hands in all manner of community events throughout the city. Hood is the co-director of Live6 Alliance, a nonprofit that works on neighborhood revitalization in the Livernois and McNichols corridors of Northwest Detroit, where she was born and raised.
For some Detroiters, a recent wave of development has caused anxiety about the future of the city, and the qualities that make it feel like home. “You don’t want [your favorite places] to be Columbused,” Thornton said. That is, you don’t want to lose your seat at the bar to some high-flying out-of-towner. But Thornton also admits that tourism might be the perfect solution to growing the economy, while also allowing Detroit to keep its charm. “I think it’s different when you have visitors from out of town and [can] take them to the cool spots… For me, that’s the best of both worlds. Detroit could benefit a little more from those tourist dollars, which could sustain people without changing the character of the city.”
Between them, Hood and Thornton know Detroit like a book. Here, they share their tips for how to enjoy Motor City the way a local would.
When it comes to getting to know the city, “If you want to see things that are really interesting, I’d say you have to pull back the layers and get out of the museums,” Hood said.
One easy way to do this is by taking walking tours. Both Hood and Thornton recommended the Black Scroll Network (14161 Penrod Street). Led by the local historian Jamon Jordan, the organization gives neighborhood tours throughout Detroit focusing specifically on the African-American history of the city, which is 85 percent black. The Detroit Experience Factory (123 Monroe Street) also offers walking tours.
Thornton also suggested taking a trip to Belle Isle Park, which sits in the Detroit River between Detroit and Canada. According to Thornton, the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of land acts as a sort of historical snapshot. Belle Isle was designed in the 1880s by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City. The island is packed with relics of the past, like the lavish Detroit Yacht Club (1 Riverbank Road), built in the 1920s and still open today, and the once-roaring Belle Island Children’s Zoo, which closed in 2002 but still stands abandoned in the middle of the island. Other attractions include the Belle Isle Aquarium (900 Inselruhe Avenue)—which, built in 1904, is the oldest aquarium in the country—and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (900 Inselruhe Avenue), which is a beautiful place to go jogging or read a book in the summertime.
Despite Hood’s warning, the city is replete with museums that do provide immersive experiences. Thornton recommends the Charles Wright Museum of African American History (315 E Warren Avenue), which has a number of exhibitions highlighting the history and accomplishments of African Americans in Detroit and beyond. The “Still We Rise” exhibit, for example, walks a visitor through replications of the streets of early-1900s Detroit, when black residents were key players in the city’s booming economy.
The Motown Museum (2648 West Grand Boulevard) also offers this sort of real-life historical experience. The museum documents the rise of Motown by staging exhibits in a pair of houses, where groups like The Temptations and Jackson Five recorded their music, took lessons in etiquette, and had their costumes fitted. Detroit was the birthplace of electronica, too, and music-loving travelers can also visit the Techno Museum (3000 East Grand Boulevard)—if they can find it. The museum is unmarked, in a building called Submerge, and tours are available by appointment only.
A lot of artistic production happens far away from the biggest-name museums and galleries, Hood said. “The institutions like that have been so down on the people that people have been like, ‘Screw that, I’m making art over here.’” The Oakland Avenue Arts Coalition (8326 Oakland Avenue) documents the legacy of the North End district, which was a hub for early automobile manufacturing and home to many jazz clubs and locally owned businesses. The current population is now only 10 percent of the district’s peak population, in 1950. Their work includes the North End Urban Expressions Art Festival called The Healing in late August, which includes a variety of visual and performing artists, as well as various other neighborhood events designed to uplift and heal the community infrastructure.
Thornton couldn’t say enough about Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles (19345 Livernois Avenue) in the Northwest quadrant of the city. Weekend brunch-goers can expect an hours-long wait, but Thornton says the Southern classics, such as shrimp and grits, or a number of chicken and waffle pairings, are well worth the wait.
For noodles, Hood and Thornton recommend Ima (2015 Michigan Avenue), a new Japanese fusion restaurant in Corktown owned by Michigan native, chef Mike Ransom. “I feel like there’s a little dose of love in every bowl,” Hood said.
Spectacles (230 E Grand River Ave) is a Detroit classic for urban streetwear. The mom-and-pop style shop has been around for as long as both Hood and Thornton can remember—owner Zana Smith opened the downtown store more than 20 years ago. DJs play there often, and native Detroiters have long viewed the store as central to city life. “That’s where people used to go to find out where the cool parties were,” Hood said. For Thornton, Spectacles captures something essential about the character of the city around it. “It really exemplifies the Detroit entrepreneurial spirit of ‘gotta hold on no matter what; I’ll fight you to the end,’” Thornton said. “But it’s still really inclusive. I really like what she’s got going on over there.”
The Saturday farmers market in the Eastern Market district has long been a Detroit staple, too—for 125 years, to be exact. Visitors can stop by year-round to peruse more than 225 vendors in the covered stalls for produce, flowers, art, and the like (2934 Russell Street).
The all-ages venue El Club (4114 Vernor Highway) hosts both national acts and local bands at their Southwest location. “You’d be hard pressed not to find something you like,” Thornton said. If you’re looking to get down to Techno in its home city, TV Lounge (2548 Grand River Avenue) is a safe bet. Thornton also suggests the weekly Slow Jams series at Woodbridge Pub (5169 Trumbull Street), where DJs spin soul and funk records from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. on Monday nights.
If you happen to be visiting in September, Thornton suggests marking your calendar for Dally in the Alley, Detroit’s largest annual music and art festival. Located in the Cass Corridor district, the nonprofit festival offers a day of live music, visual arts, food, and beer, all to raise money for projects in the community. “To me, it is the most Detroit festival,” Thornton said. “The mix of people—young, old, black, white—it’s really an amazing thing to see.”