March 21, 2019

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Motorless in Motor City

Switching up the power source on a jam-packed, whirlwind tour of Detroit

Minimalist Detroit Bikes with high-quality American Chromoly steel are produced at a 50,000 square-foot factory on Elmira Street in Detroit. The company’s storefront is located at 1216 Griswold St. (Photos by Leesa Dahl / Winnipeg Free Press)</p></p>

Minimalist Detroit Bikes with high-quality American Chromoly steel are produced at a 50,000 square-foot factory on Elmira Street in Detroit. The company’s storefront is located at 1216 Griswold St. (Photos by Leesa Dahl / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/3/2018 (362 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In less than a week I’ve taken in all the automotive history this revitalized town has to offer. By Day 4, I’m more than fired up about a pedal-powered tour through Motor City.

My three-hour “Near East Side” bike tour kicks off at Detroit’s busy, charming riverfront area, a nine-kilometre stretch along the navigable Detroit River.

I can see the shoreline of Canada from Wheelhouse Detroit, an open-air bicycle retail and service centre that’s owned and operated by tour guide Kelli Kavanaugh, an avid cyclist and longtime Detroiter, who opened for business in 2008.

Kavanaugh, 41, offers a variety of bicycle tours of old neighbourhoods in the former American powerhouse of automotive industry, a city that is currently undergoing a resurgence after the federal government bailed out the bankrupt city in 2013. Since then, city planners and investors here have been working to restore its lost prosperity. So far, they’ve managed to build a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art multi-purpose arena — Little Caesars Arena — in the downtown core, repurposed hundreds of vacant buildings, skyscrapers and warehouses, and constructed a 5.3-kilometre people-mover called the Qline.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/3/2018 (362 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In less than a week I’ve taken in all the automotive history this revitalized town has to offer. By Day 4, I’m more than fired up about a pedal-powered tour through Motor City.

My three-hour "Near East Side" bike tour kicks off at Detroit’s busy, charming riverfront area, a nine-kilometre stretch along the navigable Detroit River.

I can see the shoreline of Canada from Wheelhouse Detroit, an open-air bicycle retail and service centre that’s owned and operated by tour guide Kelli Kavanaugh, an avid cyclist and longtime Detroiter, who opened for business in 2008.

Kavanaugh, 41, offers a variety of bicycle tours of old neighbourhoods in the former American powerhouse of automotive industry, a city that is currently undergoing a resurgence after the federal government bailed out the bankrupt city in 2013. Since then, city planners and investors here have been working to restore its lost prosperity. So far, they’ve managed to build a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art multi-purpose arena — Little Caesars Arena — in the downtown core, repurposed hundreds of vacant buildings, skyscrapers and warehouses, and constructed a 5.3-kilometre people-mover called the Qline.

Detroit's brews and bikes

The fact that there are currently more than 322 kilometres of completed bicycle lanes in Downtown Detroit’s 360-square-kilometre area has not been lost to Detroiters like Mike Gill, an easygoing entrepreneur who decided a couple years ago that a party bike would add to the vibe being created in the city.

The fact that there are currently more than 322 kilometres of completed bicycle lanes in Downtown Detroit’s 360-square-kilometre area has not been lost to Detroiters like Mike Gill, an easygoing entrepreneur who decided a couple years ago that a party bike would add to the vibe being created in the city.

“The city has changed so much over the past few years that its renaissance opened the doors in people’s minds that downtown Detroit was a place that they want to experience — to work, to live and to play,” Gill says.

His merrymaking 15-seat, alcohol-friendly party bikes are equipped with impressively loud sound systems and adequate beverage coolers for pedalling revellers. They can be rented for two-hour pub crawls in and out of Detroit’s liveliest areas but on this night, our crawl includes the Temple Bar on Cass Avenue, Honest John’s on Selden Street, Stroh’s (Stroh Brewery Company was a Detroit brewery established in 1850 and is now owned by Pabst Brewing Company) and Bronx Bar.

The tours of the Downtown, Midtown and Corktown areas all start and end at Bookies Bar & Grille on Cass Avenue, a popular sports bar where you’ll find traditional American fare, plenty of large plasma televisions sets and a fabulous rooftop setting overlooking downtown Detroit. Bookie’s also provides shuttle service to and from the nearby Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions games.

Meanwhile, Detroit entrepreneur Stephen Johnson added bike tours to his Motor City Brew Tours in 2011.

The eight historically thematic Bike & Brew Tours include stops at several points of interest and end with plenty of beer and food at a nearby local brewery.

On his tour, as well as in his book, Detroit Beer: A History of Brewing in the Motor City, Johnson chronicles the history of Detroit’s beer production, including prohibition and the rise and fall of the city’s biggest beer breweries.

And to my delight, they’ve also put a fair share of cash into creating a safe, cycle-friendly infrastructure that Kavanaugh says is a benefit to both local commuters and visitors.

"There are currently over 200 miles (322 kilometres) of bike lanes, and we’re starting to see more protected, or buffered, lanes going in," says Kavanaugh, as she patiently fits our nine-member tour group with helmets and adequate bicycles.

Mine, a pink single-speed coaster with a lightweight aluminum frame, cosy couch saddle and a front basket is chosen for me by the store’s cautious and efficient assistant, Tony Ruacho, whose real job as "sweeper" is to keep the nine of us in unison and upright. He is also required to take care of any mechanical issues that might arise on the tour; but in reality, the cajoling Ruacho’s easy banter and keen knowledge of Detroit’s fascinating neighbourhoods are where his true talents lie.

Following Kavanaugh’s brief monologue on the importance of using hand signals — an ostensible rule of the road which should not, in any event, be diminished — we’re heading west along the gorgeous, revitalized riverwalk.

Here, we carefully weave through hundreds of costumed runners who, it would appear, are participating in a fundraising event, possibly a 5-km charity race.

It’s an easy pace for a veteran cyclist who spends a good part of her Manitoba summers pedalling to and from the newspaper’s office, an 11-km one-way trip along quiet residential streets and scenic parks. But all this clambering up and down curbs, manoeuvring between parked vehicles and pedalling up and down bridges along St. Aubin Street is arduous, so when we finally park our two-wheelers in front of a graffiti-tagged warehouse at the 43-acre Eastern Market I’m quietly relieved.

We scatter ourselves among the crowds for a quick walk-about of the historic commercial district that, on this day, is reeling with activity as thousands of Detroiters (45,000 people regularly frequent the Eastern Market on any given Saturday) eagerly try to get their hands on a wide variety of produce, meats and spices.

The scores of retail shops, restaurants and art galleries are all so alluring but we’re soon back on the saddle heading toward the market’s eastern edge. After a few minutes, we arrive at Gratiot Avenue and coast down an entrance ramp onto the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a former Grand Trunk railway line that stretches 9 km between Mack Avenue and Atwater Street.

Grafitti by local artists Hygienic Dress League is displayed along the revitalized Dequindre Cut Greenway. </p></p>

Grafitti by local artists Hygienic Dress League is displayed along the revitalized Dequindre Cut Greenway.

Rail service here culminated in 1995, and a decade later a 20-foot-wide, two-way paved path (one for cyclists, one for pedestrians) was constructed eight metres below street level at a cost of US$21 million. The lengthy revitalization project, which is bounded by walls of grass, shrubs and a few crumbling factories, offers access to and from many residential areas. Once inside, a number of emergency poles equipped with telephones keep visitors feeling secure while they stroll, cycle or enjoy a workout on a small outdoor gym.

The Cut is a peaceful urban escape that also features some of the city’s finest graffiti, a nice touch that fills the extended green space with an urban gritty vibe.

Tagging public spaces was once an integral part of Detroit’s historical landscape. Graffiti was, and still is, a socio-political statement as well as a form of self-expression during the city’s difficult economic downturn. Here, on the Dequindre Cut Greenway, the wall art is a vibrant blend of old, fortified and new. Many are inspirational words of wisdom or simply whimsical, colourful illustrations. Others, meanwhile, are masterpieces created by some of the city’s finest graffiti artists, including Hygienic Dress League, a husband and wife team — visual artists Steve and Dorota Coy — who decorate the Cut and the rest of Detroit with their profound, inspiring works of art.

Marc Pasco, director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, says he is overjoyed to see Detroit bouncing back with innovative ideas like the Dequindre Cut Greenway. He "did the auto thing" for years before the flourishing industry collapsed, taking with it more than half of the city’s population.

Since then, low startup costs and economic development initiatives have created an influx of American suburbanites and millennials, who arrive daily to start up IT businesses or work for trendy companies like Shinola, a watch assembly plant located within the historic Argonaut Building, formerly the General Motors Research Laboratory. (Shinola also assembles a line of shiny, high-end bicycles at its spiffy flagship retail store on Canfield Street.)

A fence on Heidelberg Street is covered in old, worn shoes.</p>

A fence on Heidelberg Street is covered in old, worn shoes.

They live in many of the city’s old repurposed buildings such as the low rise Wayne County Building on Randolph Street in the financial district — formerly the Wayne County administrative offices — or opt to pay US$700 a month to reside in a 290-square-foot micro-apartment inside the 38-storey David Stott Building on Griswold Street.

Or, they might choose to rent one of the 279 units available at the newly developed Orleans Landing here on the Dequindre Cut Greenway.

"For US$1,000 a month you can live in a one-bedroom or for US$2,800 you can have three bedrooms," explains Pasco, who is optimistic about the recent rise in Detroit’s population (now around 700,000), the decrease in unemployment rates and a downtown core that is 99 per cent full.

With that in mind, one might be inclined to compare the city’s current economy with that of 1955, an era when Detroit was reaping the benefits of a prosperous automotive manufacturing industry. But Pasco says this is unreasonable.

"The ‘50s are gone," he says. "So let’s move on and reinvent ourselves, continue with the path we’re on, the trajectory that we’re on and create a new glory era, or a golden age, if you will."

If you go

Detroit’s downtown skyline is seen from the sandy shore of Belle Isle Park where kayaking tours down the Detroit River commence.</p></p>

Detroit’s downtown skyline is seen from the sandy shore of Belle Isle Park where kayaking tours down the Detroit River commence.

WHERE TO STAY:

Aloft Hotel, 1 Park Ave.
The elegant and gorgeously restored Aloft Hotel inside the historic David Whitney Building is an easy walk to Little Caesars Arena and other downtown entertainment centres.
Go toaloftdetroit.com

 

WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:

 

WHERE TO STAY:

Aloft Hotel, 1 Park Ave.
The elegant and gorgeously restored Aloft Hotel inside the historic David Whitney Building is an easy walk to Little Caesars Arena and other downtown entertainment centres.
Go toaloftdetroit.com

 

WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:

Traffic Jam & Snug, 511 W. Canfield St.
Established in 1965, Traffic Jam & Snug, a lively restaurant, bakery, dairy and brewery in the Midtown area, is one of Detroit’s first brew pubs. An eclectic menu features a lovely Hawaiian Island salmon and many other made-from-scratch dishes, including their own homemade bread, cheese and beer.
Go to: trafficjamdetroit.com

Standby: 225 Gratiot Ave.
Tucked away in The Belt, a lively repurposed Downtown alleyway featuring restaurants, bars and art galleries, Standy boasts the city’s “best bartender” who regularly concocts a wide array of liquid delicacies such as the satisfying Unce Unce (named after a nightclub reverberation), a spicy blend of Cognac, Ancho Reyes and Mole.

Motor City Brewing Works: 470 W. Canfield St.
The first microbrewery in Michigan since prohibition, Motor City Brewing Works has been serving up quality brew since 1994. Good-natured barmaid Amy Abbott will cheerfully pour for you their flagship Ghettoblaster, an English-style mild ale that goes down cold and smooth, with a “clean biscuit flavour.”
Go tomotorcitybeer.com

Polonia, 2934 Yemans St., Hamtramck, Mich.
It used to be the Detroit Workingmen’s Cooperative, known as Russians, where Polish immigrants went to get a taste of familiar food. Now, animated owner Janusz Zurowski continues to serve up traditional Polish comfort food, including delicious beef goulash and potato noodles; Hungarian crepes; and czarcie jadlo, a jumbo pancake filled with mushrooms and gravy. Food Network’s Anthony Bourdain featured this cosy resto in a 2009 episode of No Reservations.

 

WHERE TO GO:

Third Man Records: 441 W. Canfield St.
Situated on the Cass Canfield Loop in the Midtown this unique vinyl record store was founded by Detroit native White Stripes’ lead singer Jack White. It’s trés cool and features a novelty lounge with an in-store performance stage, recording booth and vinyl record pressing plant with a large viewing window that allows visitors to watch the press runs in action.
Go tothirdmanrecords.com

Brush Park Historic District: Midtown
Once known as Little Paris, this neglected 22-block neighbourhood in the Midtown area used to be a haven for the city’s elite who resided in many of the Victorian-style homes, including the decrepit Mansard Twins on Alfred Street or the three Victorians on Adelaide Street, where the vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive, was filmed. Sadly, when the auto barons went east the Victorians, French Renaissance Revivals, Second Empires and Italianates were converted to rooming houses and the demise of Brush Park began. Five years ago, a homeowner couldn’t give a house away but when developer and businessman Dan Gilbert announced funding for the area last year, some of the architecturally stunning homes quickly became the most valuable real estate in the city.
This is where Nicole Curtis of HGTV’s Rehab Addict filmed the restoration of the 4,800 square-foot Venetian Gothic-style Ransom Gillis house, a Detroit landmark that was built in 1878 and had fallen into disrepair.

Outdoor Adventure Center, 1801 Atwater St.
Located near the riverfront in the historic Globe building — formerly a marine steam engine manufacturing plant — the engaging Outdoor Adventure Center provides an opportunity for visitors to learn about the outdoors, particularly from a recreational standpoint. Exhibits include several examples of camping experiences — a cabin in the woods, a yurt and tent camping — a two-storey treehouse, an interactive fishing exhibit, an archery range, a snowmobile simulator and other hands-on activities. Center director Linda Walter says they’re “ramping up their programs” to inspire, educate and connect with the community and hang onto the state’s public lands, which stand to be lost if left untouched.
“If no one uses them, then no one will care,” she says. “But there needs to be a reason to go outside, know what to do out there and enjoy it.”
Go to: michigan.gov/oac

Little Caesar’s Arena, 2645 Woodward Ave.
Detroit’s beloved Red Wings hockey team spent nearly 40 years playing home games at the now-defunct Joe Louis Arena on the banks of the Detroit River.
“The haggard old arena was tired and had no amenities to speak of,” says Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, Detroit’s premier marketer of sports and entertainment events.
So when Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch decided to build a new arena on a 50-block area where “nothing much had happened for 40 to 50 years” fans, developers and hockey players rejoiced when the 24,000 square-foot epicentre for sports and entertainment opened in September.
It has a seating capacity of 20,000 (21,000 when the Pistons are at home), seven clubs (the swanky Players Club is flanked by the home team’s and visitors’ entryway), restaurants, a 5,100-square-foot scoreboard, an outdoor plaza — Chevrolet Plaza — with a Jumbotron and "gondola" seating level suspended above the upper deck that offers a bird's-eye view of hockey action.
“The players love it. And they don’t want to leave,” says Wilson, adding team members frequently arrive a couple of hours early before practice to work out in the state-of-the-art weight room, run on the track, hang out in the modern kitchen or enjoy some cryotherapy.
The practice facility — situated 40-foot underground and accessible to the AAA Hockey Club and Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League — contains a 5,000-square-foot family lounge with a play area for kids.

Henry Ford Museum: 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, Mich.
One of the most important history museums in the country documents Ford’s impression of ordinary Americans and the way they lived, worked and imagined. It’s a fascinating collection of distinctively American objects, including Abraham Lincoln’s rocker from Ford’s Theater, JFK’s presidential limousine and the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Don’t pass over the Dymaxion House, a 1,000-square-foot aluminum-copper dome that was produced in 1946 to serve as an inexpensive, lightweight house.
Go to: thehenryford.org

Ford Rouge Factory: 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, Mich.
The Ford Motor Company has been building vehicles here along the River Rouge since Henry Ford was making the Model A back in 1913. Today, 3,000 Ford employees — equipped with ergonomic smart tools to reduce operator fatigue — at the 900-acre Ford River Rouge Complex produce no less than 1,250 F-150 trucks per day. That’s one “tough” truck built every minute.
Go to: thehenryford.org

Ford Piquette Avenue Plant: 461 Piquette St.

The Ford Piquette Avenue Plant opened in the Milwaukee Junction — a neighbourhood that was once at the core of Detroit’s auto manufacturing industry — in 1904. Served by its own railway line at the back of the factory, the three-storey plant was where Hendry Ford and his automotive workers assembled the Model T (Tin Lizzie).
Go to: fordpiquetteavenueplant.org

 

WHAT TO DO:

Kayaking
Tiffany VanDeHey, owner of Riverside Kayak Connection (4016 Biddle Ave., Wyandotte, Mich.), operates a two-hour skyline kayak tour that embarks on a sandy beach at Belle Isle Park, situated on the north side of the lovely Belle Island. Paddling downstream on the Detroit River in a kayak is breathtaking and takes you past the Detroit Boat Club, the oldest boat club in the U.S. then under the MacArthur Bridge, which was completed in 1923. Finally, at Sunset Point near the west end of Belle Isle, you can soak in the views of Ambassador Bridge, Canada’s connection to downtown Detroit, the General Motors Renaissance Center and other brilliant building in downtown Detroit.
Two-hour guided bicycle tours of Belle Isle are also available.
Go to: riversidekayak.com

For now, our two-wheeling trail is restricting us to the right side of a busy two-lane roadway as we say farewell to the quietness and safety of the Dequindre Cut Greenway and pass into the gentrified McDougall-Hunt neighbourhood on the city’s east side. We cautiously veer right past empty grassy lots, ramshackle buildings and abandoned homes and find ourselves at a bizarre outdoor exhibit by Detroit’s Tyree Guyton (tyreeguyton.com), a local painter and sculptor who developed his idiosyncratic environment as a creative response to ongoing blight and decay in the neighbourhood he grew up in.

A stroll down Heidelberg Street, which attracts more than 200,000 tourists a year, is like walking into an open-air art gallery that is sullied and has no decorum. It’s kind of like a neighbourhood garage sale gone astray. A leaning wire fence at its entrance is covered in hundreds of previously worn shoes (clearly a sentiment to the area’s lost souls) and the modest, clapboard homes along its length are painted in a splendour of colourful numbers and dots. Thousands of used, tattered items — doors, clocks, tires, appliances, furniture, clothes, televisions — are scattered on its sidewalks and boulevards, communicating subliminal messages of time spent and wasted.

The Heidelberg Project is said to be a powerful symbol of how a few communities in this recovering metropolis have ended up discarded. A post on the project’s Facebook page alongside an image of discarded television sets says: "Art can be a catalyst for positive change and help breathe new life into neighbourhoods that have been virtually forgotten."

It’s a hopeful way of thinking that might sadly be set aside in the next couple of years when the Heidelberg Project in McDougall-Hunt is dismantled and laid to rest, not unlike the fallen Civil War generals and other dead Detroiters who are buried at our next stop, the park-like Elmwood Cemetery, on the city’s east side.

Built in 1841, the 86-acre Elmwood Cemetery on Elmwood Avenue is a tranquil must-see stop, especially at a steady pace on a two-wheeler, which allows time to chat and learn about the history of this fascinating place.

Formerly farmland situated on the outskirts of Detroit, the tranquil non-denominational Elmwood Cemetery is presently a woodland of over 1,400 trees that represent more than 90 species. Kavanaugh says regular pruning of the black locusts, hawthorn, beech, willow, ash, American plum, domestic pear and other woody plants helps conserve the natural beauty of the grounds, which is splendidly enhanced by hundreds of statues and limestone monuments like the Gothic Revival chapel, constructed in 1856, and the Gothic-inspired gatehouse, built in 1876.

Recently, the cemetery, which also happens to be the final resting place of some of Detroit’s most distinguished people, became the city’s first accredited arboretum, a botanical garden of sorts that is similar to our final destination.

A brick building at Detroit'/>Motorless in Motor City
A brick building at Detroit's Eastern Market is tagged with extraordinary graffiti.
Leesa Dahl / Winnipeg Free Press<br>Shinola'/>
Leesa Dahl / Winnipeg Free Press
Shinola's glistening bikes are assembled at its flagship retail store on Canfield Street.
Detroit’s huge open-air Eastern Market on the city’s northeast side features hundreds of vendors.<br><br>
Detroit’s huge open-air Eastern Market on the city’s northeast side features hundreds of vendors.

Detroit city planners have even repurposed dark, dangerous alleyways into backdrops for art.<br>
Detroit city planners have even repurposed dark, dangerous alleyways into backdrops for art.
A house on Heidelberg Street is painted with colourful numbers.<br><br>
A house on Heidelberg Street is painted with colourful numbers.

As we zip past Earthworks Urban Farm, an urban agricultural site on Meldrum Street in the near east side neighbourhood, Kavanaugh is quick to point out that it’s only one of 1,400 urban gardens and farms found in and around the city that sprouted from swathes of vacant land.

Kim Rusinow, owner and operator of Destination Detroit Tours, adds that the city’s increasing economic challenges and declining population also compelled community developers to begin to think critically and collaboratively on ways to address the abundance of vacant land.

"We viewed vacant land as an opportunity, not further demise," says Rusinow, who offers extensive tours of Detroit, including Downtown, Midtown, Eastern Market, Greektown, Corktown and the riverfront, as well as special places like the Heidelberg Project and Grand River. "We brought a better understanding of how the vacant land repurposing might be used to better life in the communities through jobs, healthily food and sustainability and improving the overall way the community looks and feels."

And like the partially constructed Inner Circle Greenway, a 42-kilometre non-motorized loop that Kavanaugh says will be completed in the next few years, Earthworks Urban Farm will continue connecting Detroit neighbourhoods, communities and people.

leesa.dahl@freepress.mb.ca

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