It’s hard these days to bring up Detroit, Michigan these days without it being the unfortunate poster child for the portion of America that has experienced considerable decline over the past generation. The deindustrialization of the United States, spurred by increasing international competition and only sped along by trade agreements that incentivized the movement of manufacturing infrastructure overseas was felt the hardest in the American Midwest.
The center of this region’s industrial heartland was Detroit, setting a course of events in motion that would see this bustling metropolis shed more than half its population, from 2 million people in the 1950’s to around 700,000 souls in the present day.
Despite all the cities’ problems with a decimated tax base, visitors that exercise a measure of traveler’s common sense will very likely have no problems when dropping by Detroit. The city oozes musical talent, as it was where the Motown sound originated in the 60’s and 70’s, it was also the birthplace of techno, and today, it possesses one of America’s most influential hip-hop scenes.
Entire neighborhoods have fallen over the years, but they are slowly being replaced by urban farms and artist collectives. While there are signs of decay almost everywhere you look in Detroit, a new collective identity is evolving here day by day, and as a traveler, it is supremely fascinating to observe these shifts in person.
While this cities’ economic economic infrastructure has eroded significantly over the past generation, the old wealth made over the past century is still apparent in cultural venues like the Detroit Institute of Arts.
With more than a billion dollars worth of art spread over one hundred galleries spanning topics ranging from Egyptian art to more modern and contemporary works, people that appreciate fine visual creations will spend a good chunk of a day exploring the halls of this institution.
If your artistic interests lie in the area of alternative and outsider art rather than the more conventional displays contained within the Detroit Institute of Art, then the Heidelberg Project is well worth your while. Started as a protest against the rapid disintegration of former soldier Tyree Guyton’s East Detroit neighborhood, it has expanded over the years to paint various houses in mood-lifting patterns and colors, as well as holding various pieces of modern/post-modern art.
Is music your thing? If so, starting at Hitsville U.S.A is a must, as this recording studio stands as a museum to the days when Detroit was at the epicenter of the music world, with its distinctive Motown sound dominating the airwaves.
Studio A recorded countless hits, and contains many gold records that their clients earned. Other sights worth seeing here is a working 100+ year old Steinway piano, as well as a fedora hat and studded glove donated by Michael Jackson.
Detroit is still pumping out the hits in the present day, so don’t be shy … ask a local about where the best local techno and rap shows are playing during your time here. As far as techno goes, this city is where the genre was born, and its annual festival (Movement Electronic Music Festival) is not to be missed if you are an EDM fan. If you love hip hop, try and witness the intensity of a rap battle in person … it will be like nothing else you have seen or felt before in your life!
Sitting in the middle of the Detroit River is Belle Isle State Park, one of this cities’ most prized green spaces. Operated by the state in recent years due to the cities’ cash poor status, the condition of infrastructure here has been improving in recent years, but the nature that surrounds you here will make a trip here worth it almost immediately.
In addition to the wild space on Belle Isle, the Belle Isle Conservatory will impress you with its manicured gardens, and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum will fill you in on the surprising maritime history of the Great Lakes (including the raised wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald).
While Detroit has definitely seen better days, the downtown architecture has passed the test of time, standing up despite less than perfect maintenance via many of them being abandoned. The Art Deco styled structures will make for many classic photos, but among them, be sure not to miss the Fox Theatre (still open for performing arts shows), the Fisher Building, and the Guardian Building.
As much as we like to promote the positive aspects of Detroit’s character, it is impossible to deny that the city has been in constant decay for more than 40 years. Nowhere is this more apparent or ironic than at the Packard Automotive Plant.
Home to one of General Motor’s most important and productive automobile factories in the early 20th Century, it closed in 1957, roughly marking the start of what would be a continuous detooling of Detroit’s industrial infrastructure. Today, it has been stripped apart from its former proud state, making it a symbol of the punches this city has taken over the years. Take pictures, but do not trespass onto the property, as years of deterioration have made this structure inherently unsafe.