It’s almost transcendental walking into Rivera Court, the area that houses one of Mexican-muralist Diego Rivera’s critiques of industrialism dedicated to the Ford Motor Company. It’s overwhelming, daunting, terrifying, enlightening, and all-to adumbrative. The mural was commissioned with the help of Edsel Ford and was completed during the height of the Great Depression, a time when political and social unrest was taking place throughout Detroit. Rivera’s Marxist themes are incorporated throughout, and it became quite the controversial piece of art. And as with most controversial pieces of art, it attracted people from all over, as many as 10,000 a day. For free, you can rent an iPad that guides you through multiple thematic layers of the work.
Nearby is another brilliant museum that is a revolving door of contemporary talent. Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD) is a massive gallery space that features exhibits by both mainstays in the contemporary art scene as well as students and newcomers. The Ruth Ellis Center, which provides safe space for LGBTQ youths, holds their annual gala here, showing the museum’s support for the community. After browsing the exhibit, the cool kids take up a seat at Café 78 where hipsters sit with coffees, local beers, and cocktails. A new menu by SuperHappySushi allows guests to linger longer.
Ditching the establishment, The Heidelberg Project has become a goto open-air oddity that comprises a street filled with the works of Tyree Guyton who began this whimsical, dystopian outdoor sculpture park three decades ago. Guyton is often seen sitting outside, happy to answer any questions about his work. He uses everyday, discarded objects that he’s given new life to with a fatalist sensibility that, ironically, makes visitors smile. Take for example the “TV screen” that’s an open frame with Heidlberg News printed on it. Nearby is an empty chair and a 90’s Barbie makeup head, the landscape behind is a field of more of Guyton’s creations of rusted car parts and pieces of metal strewn throughout. Big changes are coming, “a new era” according to Guyton who has announced Heidlberg 3.0, but what that means for the current works is unknown.
Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, is often seen as one of the area’s hippest centers. A building boom resulted in brand-new condos, restaurants, and an infrastructure that supports a growing Millennial population who shop at the boutiques, farmers’ markets, and dine at the outstanding restaurants.
I meet Michael Chetcuti and his partner Kyle Evans. Both guys are involved in many projects, and they are an integral part of the business community throughout Michigan. “We have been welcomed here developing our wine and hop brands, Baia Estate and The Michigan Hop Alliance,” Chetcuti tells me at Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina, a restaurant he’s part owner in. Over freshly made pizzas, and, of course his wine (Baia Estate), the two mingle comfortably with the locals. From old-Detroit moneymen to young ladies who used to work for them, the two have an effortless charisma as they navigate the revolving-door dining room.
Lucky for me, the guys take me out for a night on the town in Royal Oak. Our first stop is Pronto! a compact bar with a small dance floor and an outdoor patio that is relaxed and super-unpretentious, and a nice way to end a night. The guys though, are in the know, and they want to check out a gay bar that recently opened called Temple Bar (next to the Masonic Temple) back in Downtown. Once you’re buzzed through the door, you’ll have a unique time at this well-designed and hip spot.
Late night, too, it’s time to take the challenge. In Detroit, you’ll need to pick between Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island. These two hot dog shops, located next to one another, both make their hot dogs California-style, which is a Greek immigrant creation that involves a meat sauce and onions. I recommend taking the challenge both tipsy and sober, it definitely affects your taste buds.
If you prefer a healthier dinning option, Detroit has been named one of the best places in the country to be vegan, and its shining culinary star is Detroit Vegan Soul. Located on a tree-lined street filled with small boutiques and restaurants in Detroit’s West Village, I meet with Kirsten Ussery, who runs the front of house, and her wife Erika Boyd who is the mastermind behind the delicious vegan soul food. I’m in disbelief over the tempeh catfish, and I’m curious about the couple’s road to owning a vegan restaurant.
“We’ve learned a lot over the years, from physically opening this store to our recent expansion with a second location,” Ussery says.
As a home vegan cook, I’m curious, too, how she gets her burgers to stick together. “Lots of trial and error,” Boyd laughs as she eats up her plate of food.
Detroit’s revival can be easily seen in the area known as Corktown, its historical streets have become home to a young middle class. The development of a 66,000-square-foot Quicken Loans Technology Center to serve as a data center and office complex for Detroit’s growing tech sector has aided the area’s rapid redevelopment. Pop into DittoDitto bookshop and Eldorado General Store to shop for gifts at the well-curated vintage shop and enjoy brunch at Gold Cash Gold where they serve modern preparations of comfort classics (gin-cured lox) and see why the neighborhood is known as the Brooklyn of Detroit.
Down Michigan Ave., a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shop called Woodward Throwbacks occupies a space along a row of dilapidated storefronts. An adorable couple transformed the store into their dream business. Kyle Dubay and Bo Shepard built it, reimagining the space as a funky, raw boutique-style store. Using their money to furnish it, they painstakingly renovated the spot. Now, they have a home base to sell their wares, including bar products made from reclaimed lumber found throughout Detroit. They hope to expand their store, putting a café/bar to create their own throwback community along Michigan Ave.
This sort of innovation from Detroit’s urban decay has also launched other creative endeavors like at Rebel Nell where a team of former lawyers found that they can repurpose fallen graffiti into vibrant pieces of jewelry, all while helping to employ, educate, and empower disadvantaged women. Using a super-secret technique of taking collapsed works of graffiti and polishing the material into a marble-like stone, the women then turn it into earings, cufflinks, necklaces, etc. The women get paid above minimum wage, become educated in financial literacy, take empowerment classes, and receive day-to-day support.
Sitting on the rooftop deck of Brigg’s Detroit, a gay-owned, allare-welcome sports bar in Downtown Detroit, I watch the busy streets below. Motor City’s roadways are packed with workers leaving the towering Renaissance Center. A People Mover shuttles passengers through the hectic post-work scene. Boats sway in the Lake, while a diverse group of men in suits and ties begin to cram into the bar. This vibrant urban scene shatters misconceptions about modernday Detroit. It’s a scene of a city that’s blossomed once again, the Detroit Tiger, “America’s Comeback City.”
Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney, 1 Park Ave. Tel: 313-237-1700. This renovated historical building makes for a fun boutique stay in the heart of Detroit. Rooms from $150. www.starwood.com
Trumbull and Porter Detroit, 331 Trumbull Ave. Tel: 313-496-1400. Fomerly The Corktown Inn, the Trumbull and Porter Detroit Hotel has worked with local artists, design staff, and merchants in Detroit to create funky design hotel. www.trumbullandporterhotel.com
Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, 1114 Washington Blvd. Tel: 313-442-1600. Westin has completely rennovated the historic Book Cadillac in the heart of Detroit, showing just how far the city has come since the recession. www.bookcadilacwestin.com
American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island are competing hot dog shops sit side-by side where residents like to argue that whichmakes the best. www.americanconeyisland.com, www.facebook.com/Lafayette-Coney-Island
Bigalora Wood-Fired Cucina, 29110 Franklin Rd., Tel: 248-750-2442. Located in Royal Oak, this partially gay-owned Italian restaurant serves fantastic, authentic Italian. www.bigalora.com
Detroit Vegan Soul, 8029 Agnes St., Tel: 313- 649-2759. This lesbian-owned vegan restaurant is wracking up accolades for its innovative take on soul food classics using local products and masterful techniques. www.detroitvegansoul.com
Sister Pie, 8066 Kercheval Street, Tel: 313-4475550. This bakery has fantastic fresh and seasonal pies and coffee. www.sisterpie.com
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Tel: 313-833-7900. This world-renowned institution has a massive collection of art that spans centuries. Of special note, is the Diego Rivera mural. www.dia.org
The Heidelberg Project, 3600 Heidelberg St., Tel: 313-974-6894. This open-air installation-art experiment is a whimsical and fantastical experience. www.heidelberg.org
Keep Growing Detroit, 76 E Forest Ave., Tel: 313757-2635. This farm located in the middle of Downtown is a great example of Detroit’s revival in action. Visitors can sign-up to volunteer and experience the farm. www.detroitagriculture.net
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave, Tel: 313-832-6622. This non-collecting contemporary art museum presents exhibitions and a see-and-be-seen café/restaurant. www.mocadetroit.org
DittoDitto Books, 1548 Trumbull Ave. This unique bookshop is great for one-ofa-kind books and gifts in Corktown. www.dittoditto.org
Eldorado General Store, 1700 Michigan Ave., Tel: 313-784-9220. This boutique in Corktown has an eclectic mix of unique gifts and home ware. www.eldoradogeneralstore.com
Pewabic Pottery, 10125 E Jefferson Ave, Tel: 313-626-2000. Famous pottery made in Detroit. Visit to see the men and women at work, the displays, and the gift shop. www.pewabic.org
Rebel Nell is a Detroit-based social enterprise that empowers women, creating Graffiti Jewelry from chipped paint and offering support for its workers. www.rebelnell.com
Brigg’s Detroit, 519 E Jefferson Ave., Tel: 313-656-4820. This gay-owned sports bar has a great view of Downtown. www.briggsdetroit.com
Pronto! 608 S Washington Ave., Tel: 248-5447900. Pronto! Is a full-on café in the day, but transforms into a fun dance party at night, with a large, popular outdoor patio. www.facebook.com/Pronto-Video-Bar
Temple Bar, 2906 Cass Ave., Tel: 313-832-2822. A new gay bar in Detroit where you get buzzed in and a jukebox has some amazing tunes. www.facebook.com/temple-bar-detroit