Back to the Motor City

June 15, 2018


Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Maybe you can go home again.

Last month I travelled to the Detroit area, where I grew up, for a nephew’s wedding. And lo and behold, I rediscovered the city of many happy childhood memories, but a city that had been afflicted with poverty, crime, and blight since the 1967 riots.

For the past 50 years, Detroit certainly wasn’t a tourist destination. Instead, this lovely city of broad boulevards, Art Deco edifices, and electric streetcars morphed into an unlovely, burned-out ruin that saw its population dive from 1.8 million residents in 1950 to 700,000 in 2010—a drop of 61 percent.

Even Motown Records, the sweet sound of the once-vibrant Motor City, decamped to Los Angeles in 1972. Five years ago, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

For the past several decades, I thought often about the Motor City. It was where my father took me to watch the Detroit Tigers play in the old Corktown section of the city. It was where we watched Thanksgiving parades on Woodward Avenue, bundled up against the cold as colorful floats and Santa Claus drifted by. And it was where my mother and grandmother took me shopping at the wondrous J.L. Hudson Department Store that had an ENTIRE FLOOR devoted to nothing but toys.

Motown 5
Motown 5

During the past several decades, though, whenever I went back to Michigan to visit family and friends, I rarely visited downtown Detroit. It was a sad place.

Today, however, a renaissance is taking hold in the Motor City. I had been reading about this for the last few years and wanted to see for myself. So, my brother and sister-in-law kindly took me on a tour.

There are still sections of the city with vacant lots and boarded-up homes. But there is a brisk energy in many parts of “new Detroit”, with growing numbers of young people moving into recently built condominiums and frequenting fancy boutiques (such as the flagship store of Shinola, with its pricey watches, bicycles, and leather bags) and pubs and restaurants in nearby hip neighborhoods.

The heart of downtown, where Hudson’s department store used to be, is thriving since Quicken Loans moved its headquarters downtown in 2010, bringing 11,000 jobs and breathing new life into the economy. And the Hudson’s building, which was demolished 20 years ago, is being reborn as a massive multi-use complex of hotels, shops, residential buildings, and offices. (And, it is hoped, at least one toy store.)

There are the stunning Art Deco buildings that are getting facelifts and will eventually be repurposed in a variety of ways. These edifices were built in the early 20th century when Detroit was the industrial capital of the United States, but many were abandoned during the past 50 years as the city continued to deteriorate.

No longer. If you love Art Deco, rush to see some of these structures that are being restored to their former glory. This includes the Wurlitzer Building, built in 1926 to house pianos, jukeboxes, and organs, now a boutique hotel. And, there is famed architect Albert Kahn’s splendid Fisher Building, a 30-story wonder featuring limestone, granite, marble, and a gorgeous barrel-vaulted arcade. Opened in 1928, it had 600 bronze elevator doors, 1,800 bronze windows, and a gilt-tile roof.

There is the worldclass Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as dozens of open-air art projects scattered throughout the city. The best part is, you can see a good bit of new Detroit by hopping on and off the Q-Line, a streetcar system that opened in May 2017.

Finally, there is Hitsville USA, the birthplace of the Motown Sound and now the home of the Motown Museum. It looks exactly like it did during Motown’s heyday, right down to the telephone switchboard, reel-to-reel audio tapes, and pull-out-knob candy machines.

On our tour, visitors from France and Brazil joined our Michigan contingent. Iconic photos and some sparkly outfits worn by The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, and other Motown recording artists were abundant. Best of all, the tour ended in Studio A, the amazingly small room where the Motown songs were recorded. And you’re invited to sing along.

In December 2017, the Motown Museum announced plans for a $50 million, 50,000- square-foot expansion to include “interactive and immersive education and entertainment experiences,” a theatre, and state-of-the-art exhibits. It will be built around the current space.

Apparently, there ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ for the new Detroit.

Jan Collins 2021-circle-crop

Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).