After my explorations of Windsor I had about an hour and a half to explore Detroit on my own before my scheduled driving tour of the city. With its impressive 20th century architectural heritage, Detroit had long fascinated me and I was going to take the next four days to explore this city up close.
Windsor provides a fabulous view of Downtown Detroit’s skyline
One of the buildings making up Detroit’s skyline that has always captured my imagination is the Michigan Central Depot, an imposing 18-story former Beaux-Arts railway terminal that dates back to 1913. Somehow railway terminals have always held this aura of excitement and mobility, connecting people with far-away places. Although now long out of use, sadly run down and fenced off, I wanted to see the beauty of this magnificent building first-hand. I located it right away on my map and drove there to see it up close. This imposing and gorgeous building has been empty since 1988 when the last Amtrak train departed from here, and the ravages of time and human vandalism have taken their toll. Neverthess, The Michigan Central Depot remains a gorgeous component of Detroit’s skyline and is a must-see for any architecture fan. Even in its current condition, it is easy to imagine the former glory this now defunct transportation hub.
The faded beauty of the Michigan Central Depot
After my first exposure to Detroit’s magnificent architecture, I drove across town to Belle Isle, a 982 acre (4 km2) island park in the Detroit River, east of downtown. It features a variety of attractions: the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the beautiful James Scott Memorial Fountain with three levels of water displays and numerous sculptures designed by famous architect Cass Gilbert. The island is also home to the Dossin Great Lakes Musum which highlights maritime history; and every year the Detroit Indy Grand Prix is held on Belle Isle.
Looking at Downtown Detroit from Belle Isle
I drove back downtown for my meeting with Jeanette Pierce, co-founder of Inside Detroit, a non-profit organization that runs the Detroit Welcome Centre and provides numerous thematic tours of Detroit and sells various products created by local Detroit artists. Jeanette is one of the most vocal proponents of Detroit and started to show me several destinations along Detroit’s eastern waterfront.
Jeannete Pierce, my local expert
Along the way Jeanette told me a bit more about herself: together with her friend Maureen Kearns, Jeanette founded Inside Detroit in 2005 with the intention of introducing locals and out-of-towners to the city from an insider’s perspective. Maureen and Jeanette offer various custom tours and outings to get to know the city which connect participants not just with the city’s history and architecture, but also with pubs, bars, theatres, art galleries and other cool city hotspots. Some of the tours are targeted to locals to show them how to get the most of living, working and playing in the Motor City. These two entrepreneurs have even come up with a concept for a Detroit Scavenger Hunt that leads participants all throughout Downtown Detroit in search of information.
A sampling of Detroit skyscrapers
Obviously I could not have found a better local expert and urban enthusiast than Jeanette Pierce, so off we went on our driving tour of “the D”, one of Detroit’s nicknames. Heading east from the downtown business district, we made stops at Stroh River Place, a 25 acre mixed use campus development that brings together business amenities and upscale housing. All along Jeanette gave me an overview of Detroit’s history and background. Further east we made a stop on Belle Isle, Detroit’s urban island park.
The gorgeous James Scott Memorial Fountain
Located as an island in the Detroit River, Belle Isle is connected with the mainland through the MacArthur Bridge. One of the highlights is the stunning marble James Scott Memorial Fountain which was designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert in 1925. James Scott was a controversial entrepreneur who left $200,000 to the City of Detroit to create a fountain in his name. From here we embarked on a slow drive past the major sights on the island, including the Belle Isle Casino and the Nancy Peace Brown Carillon Clock. On the north side of the island we stopped to have a look at the Detroit Yacht Club which began in the late 1870s. The imposing present-day clubhouse had cost more than one million dollars when it was opened in 1923.
View of the multi-level pools of the James Scott Memorial Fountain
After our brief introduction to Belle Isle we started a slow drive through Indian Village, a historic neighbourhood that features beautiful mansions from the early 20th century. Many of the mansions were designed by prominent architects such as Albert Kahn or Louis Kamper for wealthy Detroit citizens. Immediately adjacent is the West Village Historic District which features many Victorian homes, apartment buildings and row houses.
The Detroit Yacht Club
From upscale Indian Village we drove into a more working class area that featured many run-down houses. Since the 1950s the City of Detroit has experienced an extensive decline in population, as the advent of an extensive highway system led many urban residents to move into the outlying suburbs. As a result, large numbers of residential houses and apartment buildings were abandoned and demolished in order to curb crime. What is left behind is a phenomenon called “urban prairies”, large stretches of empty grassland in the middle of the city that often remain unused.
The community garden next to the Gleaner Food Bank