You Can Visit Detroit without a Car
Oh, and one thing before you head out,” my Airbnb host said to me as I got ready to walk to dinner. I wrongly assumed a warning was coming about safety. “Don’t be alarmed, but people are friendly here in Detroit. They will say ‘hello’ to you as you pass them on the sidewalk or even from the other side of the street.”
And she was right. After living in Chicago for 17 years, I’ve grown to know and love the Midwest’s easy-going friendliness, but Detroit was a step above. Sure enough, a few people nodded and said hello as I walked passed.
I haven’t been as excited about any destination in the last few years as I have been about Detroit. Seriously. This city is at once depressing, exciting, jarring, filled with disappointment and despair, and energy and excitement all at the same time.
From the Ashes
Detroit was built on the auto industry. And like many big cities, that industry has closed up and gone overseas where manufacturing is cheaper. In 1950, 200,000 Detroiters worked in manufacturing jobs; now, fewer than 20,000 do.
This city, that was built for a couple million people, now has just 700,000 people in a large area of 140 square miles – this was more than a 60 percent drop from a peak population of more than 1.8 million at the 1950 census.
There were complete areas where streetlights weren’t being powered, parks weren’t being mowed (unless the Lawnmower Gang came through) and city services, like the Detroit Fire Department, sometimes just let things burn to the ground because they didn’t have the resources to fight it (see this fascinating documentary, Burn, on more about that). The Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, declared a financial emergency for the city in 2013, appointing an emergency manager and shortly after that, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. At the end of 2014, the city successfully left Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy with all finances handed back to Detroit.
And…just a few blocks away:
I realized this was a different kind of place when I arrived in the Detroit airport and there was no ‘train’ to downtown, no express airport bus (“you want a bus? You can take local and change twice and get there in a couple hours”)…just taxis. Of course in the Motor City the only mode of transport was a motor vehicle. But there was a new shuttle system being tested out. It was a trial run, they told me. And it certainly was, I was the only one that showed up for a ride. It was like no one else knew about it…and they likely didn’t. A trial run of an airport shuttle service in 2014? Something that nearly every other city already has. But not this town.
This is a car town.
The motor city, built for cars, around cars and all about the car.
Even the former streetcar system was dismantled once the auto industry bought Detroit’s public transit system and made it all about buses and cars.
I’m excited about what’s possible here,” said my Scott, my Skoot Shuttle driver. “It’s like a blank slate”
Scrappy Detroit – America’s Comeback City
Sure there are problems. But there is also an undeniable energy here. Entrepreneurs are moving to Midtown and downtown to start businesses. Co-working spaces are rising up and coming together under the umbrella, Co-Lab Detroit. Prices are cheap, which leaves room for creative thinking and experimentation.
There is a lot going on. And the hope is these little changes will start to turn the tide for Detroit.
And there have been big changes too:
Mike Ilitch, the owner of Little Caesar’s pizza, now also owns the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings, and the historic Fox Theatre. The GM Headquarters moved downtown a few years ago. Quicken Loans also moved its headquarters here along with 4,000 employees in 2011. The company has since created thousands of new jobs and now has approximately 8,000 team members working downtown. Today, Dan Gilbert-owned businesses employ 11,500 people in the city and his Rock Ventures Group currently owns more than 2 million square feet of office space and 1 million square feet in parking spaces, gambling on the city’s eventual revival.
A bunch of renovation is underway. The Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel, was rehabbed and turned into a Westin and the the new Aloft Hotel opened recently inside the historic David Whitey Building from 1915, which had sat vacant for 12 years.
If you know a little of the “new” Detroit, you’ve likely heard of Slows BBQ, a hip little bar/restaurant serving up some tasty, messy grub in Corktown, what seemed like an oasis in a sea of ruins. I tried the Yardbird Chicken which was tender and tangy and came with mushroom, cheese, and bacon; not a light meal. Just down the block is Two James Spirits, the first distillery in Detroit since Prohibition. Two-year old Motor City Wine is a little wine bar plus shop and Batch Brewing Company is Detroit’s first nano-brewery which produces small batch, handcrafted beer in an intimate environment. And then just across the street from these new spots, is the majestic, yet crumbling former Michigan Central Station.
Getting Around Detroit Without a Car
I did not have a car in Detroit, so getting around was somewhat challenging, but not impossible. I do like to walk and while I didn’t feel unsafe say walking from Downtown to Corktown, which took about 30 minutes, there were just desolate stretches with basically…nothing — abandoned lots, highway overpasses (lots of highways here, naturally) and no businesses. It’s like there are these pockets of vibrancy separated by larger barren zones.
After dark, although my walk was about the same distance to my airbnb apartment, I was happy to see that Detroit has UberX, so I got a lift.
Construction is also underway here on the new M-1 Rail which will run up and down the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue starting from downtown with 12 different stops. A transformation is also underway the Globe dry dock along the Detroit River into a Department of Natural Resources Outdoor Adventure and Discovery Center. The one-of-a-kind facility will provide visitors with opportunities to see, feel, hear and touch Michigan’s outdoors with exhibits like simulated snow-mobiling, kayaking and fishing.
I took a tour with Show Me Detroit. They do a two-hour highlights tour and also do custom tours.
So many come and want to see ruin porn — I wanted to see it too; I wanted to see the good and bad and get a feel for the whole city — but now, there’s much more to Detroit.
We got slammed really hard, but we are bouncing back up,” said Kim Rusinow, the co-founder of Show Me Detroit. “We don’t hide our realities, but we want to give a balanced tour.”
Next time I return, I really want to do a bike tour with Wheelhouse Detroit as I do prefer biking through a city rather than driving through it.
And I will return. There’s just so much changing so fast and I loved the energy I felt there. It was palpable. I’m excited about Detroit; perhaps more excited than any other place I’ve visited in a long time.