Where can you find a vibrant and creative city, with glorious architecture, great music, terrific restaurants, inexpensive accommodations, plus an art museum that rivals the best that North America has to offer?
Yes, you heard me, Detroit. Last fall, when some of my friends heard that I was planning to visit the city, they said, “Be careful.” They’ve heard all the bad press: Detroit is purported to be a city in a death spiral, a grim urban hell hole, plagued with out-of-control crime and — if you listen to the scaremongers — a place to meet desperadoes who will steal your car at gunpoint and leave you for dead in a heap on the sidewalk.
First off, let’s get some perspective on the crime issue. There are bad guys in every major north American city. Detroit has high rates of crime, most notably a bad record for Violent Crime, but there are other cities that far outrank it in some of the other leading categories. For example, if you want to get robbed or have your car stolen, your best bet would be Oakland, California.
The word that kept coming to mind as I walked around town? Vibrant. Not grim as I had been told to expect. Not at all. On the contrary: Detroit is a fascinating and lively city, populated with friendly, resilient people.
Both my visits to Detroit were a blast. I say both because I went back for a second time to visit the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA), which I missed on the first visit and absolutely had to go back to see it.
The Diego Rivera murals are, of course, stunning as well as the collections of artworks by American artists Audubon, Cassatt, Church, O’Keeffe, Rothko, Whistler, Wyeth, Wyatt and Warhol to name just a few plus important pieces by Van Gogh, Bruegel, Tintoretto, Picasso, Matisse, van Eyck, Rembrandt, Poussin, Cezanne, Degas, Rodin, Manet, Monet, Gauguin and much, much more.
As an aside: the DIA collection,valued at more than one billion dollars, is one of the best in on the continent, . Worth far more than the sum of its parts though, as a collection itself, it is a rich story of USA history and heritage, and as such, is a state and national treasure. If the collection were ever to be even partly sold off to satisfy creditors, it would be an incredible and everlasting shame. If the state of Michigan is smart, it will move mountains to prevent such a travesty from ever happening. To this pair of Canadian eyes, Michigan is incredibly lucky to have the beautiful jewel that is Detroit.
While in Detroit, I never once felt scared or threatened, although I locked my car and tucked my iPad under my sweater on the passenger seat. I do that in Toronto too. I drove all over the city, and while I admit there were a few spots I bypassed because they looked a bit sketchy, there were many more that felt normal and safe. I was fascinated to see, on so many streets, derelict shells of houses beside beautiful, well-maintained homes.
And some people have interesting approaches to creating curb appeal. Abandoned buildings and factories abound beside examples of the finest architecture you will see anywhere in the Midwest. Detroit is incredibly beautiful even in it’s shabbier places:
The graffiti is the finest in the world and I do not say that tongue-in-cheek. The street artists in Detroit have done the city a huge favour. The graffiti is abundant, vibrant, splendid, artful and a joy to look at. (I hope the city preserves this particular aspect of its urban heritage.)
The city and its denizens are proud. And for good reason.
The Eastern Market is hands-down the best market I have ever visited, with over 250 vendors offering fresh local produce and wares.
And did I mention Detroiters are friendly? I dropped a small handful of change while at the market and no fewer than three smiling strangers swooped down to help me pick it up.
But wait! There’s more! There’s the flat-out gorgeous Detroit Public Library. Interesting museums The zoo. Belle Isle State Park, a free and lovely island green space connected to the mainland by a bridge. I could go on and on, and I do to anyone who asks. Detroit rocks, my friends.
Everywhere I looked, construction and repair was in progress. Workers in hard hats. Demolition companies clearing derelict houses and buildings. With so much newly freed-up space, there is plenty of development opportunity. Downtown parking is mostly free or downright cheap — unheard of in many other cities. More importantly, there is abundant space for young families to come and build a new home, on a sweet-sized lot, on a leafy tree-lined street. Existing fixer-upper homes are full of charm and good bones. And they are affordable.
No jobs, you say? Detroit is arms wide open for business. Anyone with a little roll-up-your sleeves grit and determination can make a go of it. The city is a dream come true for a young entrepreneur who wants to start a business. There’s office space, warehouse space, land for sale. Taxes are relatively low. Infrastructure? All there. Yes, the old girl needs some shoring up but when this city roars back to life — not that I think it ever really died — in my humble opinion, it can’t miss given the tremendous spirit of the people who live there. Investors take heed.
Yes, one of Detroit’s biggest problems, I think, is bad PR. Let’s stop focusing on the bankruptcy issues and start looking at what Detroit has on the positive side of the balance sheet: first and foremost, it has a lot of great people — some newcomers and some settled in from generations back — filled with vibrancy and spirit and a willingness to work hard to rebuild their city.
I chatted with locals whenever I had a chance. Every person expressed the same refrain: I love Detroit. I love living in Detroit. This is my home and it is the best city in the USA.