Only three short weeks ago, my other half and I were in the Motor City for a mini-vacation over an extended weekend. Our main reason for going was to see the S.O.S. Band in concert at one of the downtown casinos. (The band has still got the “Sounds Of Success”, by the way, and lead singer Mary Davis has never sounded better.) The concert was outstanding, but the big surprise (and it must be described as such) was how Detroit ended up showing me one of the best vacations of my adult life. I’m going with top-three.
I grew up a full hour north of here in Flint, which is not a suburb of Detroit, but it’s own city and a decent number of miles away. Due to its relative proximity to Flint, downtown Detroit just never seemed like a worthwhile destination. The D also seemed more than a little scary and dangerous when I was growing up, which is / was an unfortunate (but happily changing) perception. Even with downtown’s steadily building comeback, the Motor City has seemed to also maintain a healthy, earthy swagger that seems to stay true to its largely blue-collar ethos. Upper Manhattan it ain’t. I had last been back in the area for a friend’s Great Gatsby birthday party in July of 2014, when I got to experience legendary jazz nightclub Cliff Bell’s for the first time. I hadn’t been back to Detroit since.
This trip from several weeks ago (the first weekend of December 2016), however, had everything. We stayed in a luxury hotel off Grand Circus Park located in the gorgeous, newly renovated David Whitney Building, which originally housed offices. The holiday decorations were up, which added to the festive atmosphere, as did the hard-wired lights surrounding the beautiful, glass ceiling in the atrium lobby. Our room itself was beautifully appointed, and we had a third-story view of Woodward Avenue and nearby Tiger Stadium.
It was fun to walk around the Financial District, where there are many architectural treasures. The most impressive of these, to me, was the Guardian Building, originally constructed between 1928 and 1929. Its nickname is the “Cathedral of Finance”, and it is truly a crown gem in Detroit’s architectural heritage, inside and out.
We went to the Motown museum for a guided tour, which included being inside famed Studio A where many catchy, familiar and culturally significant hits were recorded. Marvin stood here? Diana sat at that desk? Stevie played that piano? Our tour guide, Peggy, had us even attempting to sing along to some of the best-loved Motown hits of the 60’s. I gave it the old, college try, but suffice it to say that I never would have been behind the microphone in that garage-turned-recording studio back then. Touring this museum was a highlight of this trip.
We ate delicious, authentic Greek food in Greektown, in a festive area right near the casinos. Opa!
In Campus Martius Park, there was ice skating, a nice American bistro, a separate pop-up bar, and a beautifully lit Christmas tree staged over the cascading fountain.
We shopped for Detroit-sourced gifts and clothes from local vendors in storefronts on historic “Merchant’s Row” on Woodward Avenue. We ate at great restaurants and diners, both old and new. There was easy public transit, including buses and the elevated Detroit People Mover train that encircled the main downtown area and mostly got us to where we needed to go without always needing to rely on taxis or ride sharing when we weren’t walking.
There was great nightlife. We hit some spots ranging from from true dives that were still rich and cool in their authenticity, to spots that were hip and chic. Friendly service and smiles abounded. My favorite locale was a little speakeasy decorated in a very eclectic style that sat next to a downtown synagogue. There was live jazz music coming from an energetic trio, and we later found out the nice gentleman who was sitting next to and talking with us was the owner. We seemed to make new acquaintances wherever we went.
This brings me to my next reflection on this trip – my excellent Detroit experience was also about the people. All different kinds of folks from all walks of life would talk with us, complete strangers, with some of them seeming barely able to contain their enthusiasm and pride in their city’s reemergence. There were moments when some of it almost seemed as if acted from a script from the Detroit Bureau of Tourism, but my lasting impression was that much of these momentary interactions seemed too sincere and off-the-hip to be fake. Judging by the still-straightforward demeanor of many people we encountered, Detroit seems to keep it far too real for that kind of foolishness.
As we were leaving town in our rental car, we passed the historic Fox Theater and stopped at a red light. There, appearing ever-larger in my rear-view mirror as it approached, was our subject car. With an unobstructed view, I was able to snap the title-shot (from which the above image is cropped) through the open driver’s seat window. It was as if Detroit was bidding us bye-for-now with an open invitation to come back.
It doesn’t really need to be stated yet again that the original Ford Mustang was one of Detroit’s (by way of Dearborn) major success stories, and that its styling still holds up over fifty years later is a testament to its timelessness. Like the Mustang, Detroit has been through some changes, but seeing this pretty, blue fastback was a fitting epilogue to a weekend that rekindled my love affair with the city that was once synonymous with car production – and a city of significant historic relevance for lovers of American cars, the world over. Bless you, Detroit, comeback city of America. Thank you. And we can’t wait to come back.
December 1-3, 2016.
- For reading on the ’65 Ford Mustang, here’s a piece from Paul Niedermeyer from 2014 Curbside Classic: 1965 Mustang – Freedom; Starting At $2368.
- Related listening from the S.O.S. Band: “The Finest” (1986).