Gettin’ Scrappy in Motown

After I tweeted Thursday’s plea for help out to the Twitter-verse, I was pleasantly surprised to get a few responses back from people who knew their way around midtown Detroit pretty well. Ultimately, David Lingholm from the Detroit Regional News Hub was nice enough to meet on Friday morning and share a little bit about the history and current goings-on of midtown Detroit. (Before I forget let me extend a special thanks to David and the News Hub for helping to set all of this up).

We met up at the Biggby Coffee on Woodward Avenue and headed out to the city. Our first stop was in front of the Whitney Mansion just down Woodward which was converted into a restaurant and bar roughly 20 years ago. The bar is said to be haunted by a former inhabitant of the mansion.

After giving me a small dose of Detroit’s history, David took me to the southwest where we got to see some of the small businesses that have taken hold in the area. Curl Up and Dye is an independent hair salon right on Cass Avenue. Around the corner, I got to see a new art gallery, a completely vegan restaurant, and a bakery that’s been in business at the same location for almost 20 years, despite many opportunities to move.

Willis Avenue turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of the tour, not only because of all the unique businesses opening up, but because of all the rehab work being done on existing residences. One side of the street was full of old houses that looked like they’d had quite a bit of work done recently. The other side was full of new lofts converted from old warehouses. As we turned up 2nd street, we passed by Mario’s, one of the oldest and best-known Italian restaurants in the city, and then Traffic Jam and Snug and Motor City Brewing Works, two of the more well-known establishments in the area. We then passed by the Bronx bar, midtown’s quintessential dive bar.

David, then walked me through the West Canfield Historic District, which he described as Detroit’s ‘Old Money’ neighborhood during the late 19th century. As we walked up Third Street, we saw more rehabs and new small businesses on our right, and some newer public housing on the left. Part of the recent trend (last 15 years) with public housing has been to build developments that integrate into real neighborhoods rather than tall high-rises that concentrate lower income families. This has been a national trend to create a system where public housing residents can be part of their much larger communities. Today Detroit has two public housing high-rises remaining and these cater mainly to the elderly and disabled.

Our final stops included cutting through a few building on the Wayne State Campus and heading to the Detroit Public Library, which features some really intricate 50s-era architecture on the inside. (The Detroit Public Library also currently features a really interesting exhibit on Mayor Archer’s tenure in office). Along the way, we got to enjoy some really nice views of the Renaissance Center (to the south) and the Fisher Building (to the north).

Finally, David walked me through Detroit’s only ‘Green Alley’ a project to make the city’s alleyways more environmentally friendly. A normal alleyway is typically raised on the outsides with a grate in the center so that storm runoff goes into the city sewer system. The green alley was crowned with a unique strand of highly absorbent grass on the edges that consumes the runoff water rather than letting it go into the city’s sewer systems. The grass is similar (or maybe the same) as the rooftop grass planted at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn.

It’s definitely nice to get a first-person view of some of the cool things I’ve been reading about in Detroit. Being a complete outsider, it’s often tough to match intersections with actual landmarks but I now have a good feel for what’s going on with the city respective to the areas that I actually know.

Although I spent most of my two days in Michigan feverishly trying to reconnect with old colleagues and friends, its always nice to make a few new friends and see a few new things.

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12 2010

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  1. 1

    I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. Let me know when you come back to town, we’ll go exploring the other side of Woodward and grab a brew at Motor City Brew Works!


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