This is the second and final entry in a series inspired by a short road trip through Michigan my wife and I took this past summer. For Part 1 click here.
We arrived in Detroit the same way we arrived in Suttons Bay: tired, hungry, and in an SUV built in Indiana by a foreign-owned company. We were staying at the Siren Hotel just downtown, and after we dropped off our car and our bags, we drifted into the neighborhood in search of food. Detroit bore the weight of COVID, just like everyplace else we had been. There were a few closed and vacant stores, and the People Mover was shut down. Despite the pandemic and the economic crisis the city had endured prior to it, there was some vibrance about Detroit. Ford Field, Little Caesars Arena, and Comerica Park were all within view, bringing fans of the Lions, Red Wings, Pistons, and Tigers -- and their wallets -- to downtown Detroit year-round. Stevie Wonder watched over us from the side of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts -- just one of the many pieces of public art we saw during our short stay.
That first night we wound up at a place reminiscent of Hop Lot in Suttons Bay. The Brakeman was an indoor beer garden with foosball, shuffleboard, and beer pong tables that served regional drafts along with cocktails. Hungry people like us could also get delicious chicken and biscuits from its adjoining neighbor, Penny Red’s. The Brakeman sold tokens at a converted ticket booth you would then use to pay for drinks, which was a little strange to me, and the inconvenience of it outweighed any novelty it initially offered. The tired, road-weary me would much rather have dealt with one point of purchase, but just like at Hop Lot, the good food and strong drinks would see me judging less and enjoying more as the evening wore on.
As we waited for our meal, we noticed a smart looking middle-aged couple at a nearby table wearing matching shirts: his reading “I have everything I need” and hers proclaiming “I am everything.” The music was a mix of 80s new wave and soul, but in my head I heard Marvin and Tammi singing “You’re All I Need to Get By” as I settled in next to Cecily. It was another sparkling pinnacle point sharpened by the time we spent without such moments during the pandemic’s peak.
We went back to the Siren, and finished things off with some perfect pie at Karl’s, a fifties-style restaurant housed within. The warm glow of these glittering bokeh scenes was too devoid of people for a Friday evening after a Tigers game. This was probably an indication of COVID’s lasting reach, but also of Detroit’s struggle to emerge from the chrysalis of what it once was. The automobile and the industry that spawned it transformed Detroit from 285,000 people in 1900 to over 2 million people at its peak in 1950. Since then, the city has lost 60% of its population and much of the auto industry.
Our hotel was symbolic of Detroit’s desire to invert its story arc. Before it was reborn as the Siren Hotel in 2018, 1509 Broadway was the mighty Wurlitzer Building. The musical instrument, jukebox, and radio manufacturer opened the building in 1926, and would remain its principal occupant for over 40 years. The building’s slow and steady decline at the hands of negligent, often absent owners started in the 70s, and by the time Ash Hotels got involved in 2015 the building was abandoned, falling down, and being gutted for parts. Ash did an amazing job of rescuing and restoring the building, while creating spaces that called people back to the city.
We were among those that heard the call. The Siren deftly mixes modern amenities in a building that has seen its former glory restored. Our room was comfortable, and well appointed, but one thing really stood out: this strange, faded painting of an old woman. Who was she? Why was her picture in our room? Would we manage to sleep (or to do anything else) with her eyes glaring from across the room?
When we woke up it was sleep - 1, anything else - 0. The old lady was a strict chaperone. I think both of us gave her dirty looks as we got ready for our day at the Detroit Institute of Art. This was the main reason for our visit. I had known nothing about this museum, but Cecily had wanted to see it for years as it was supposed to have a fairly formidable, world-class collection. Despite Detroit’s struggles, which must have impacted the museum, it still held many valuable pieces past the time when other museums were selling objects just to stay aloft. But first we needed coffee.
Ashe Supply Co. was a cafe and roastery just steps from the Siren, but it was closed during our visit as a result of COVID. We ended up at Madcap Coffee just around the corner. Madcap is based in Grand Rapids. It opened its Detroit location roughly a year before the pandemic hit, and it seems to be surviving, even though business was light when we stopped in on Friday morning. These dueling coffee roasters within easy walking distance of one another, and the many murals we passed moving between them says something about the level of gentrification in downtown Detroit. Indeed, a quick Google search shows at least seven coffee roasters (not just shops) within the Detroit metro area. Hipsters love coffee and street art! We took our coffee back to the hotel and texted the valet to bring our car about. The concierge at the Siren told us it would be easier to drive to the museum than it would be to try and catch a bus. As we waited for the car to come, we noticed an older couple trying to cram an awful lot of stuff into their Prius, including coolers, sleeping bags, and other camping gear. We got to chatting, and I learned that they were on a road trip, and that they didn’t want to leave things they obviously wouldn’t need at the hotel (like a camp stove) in their car at the garage because, “Well… You know…” Didn’t they get the memo? Detroit was hip and safe now. Couldn’t they smell the coffee?
We had a short window at the museum as hours were reduced due to COVID. Cecily was an art history major, and when we go to a museum, we GO to the museum, taking it all in, and there was a lot to see at the DIA. The museum features a broad range of work from highly influential artists, including Rodin, Rembrandt, Belini, Matisse, Van Gogh (including some iconic portraits), Warhol, Monet, Degas, Munch, Kandinsky, Cezanne, and Wiley. It literally has something for everyone. We started our visit by learning about Robert Blackburn and Modern American Printmaking. Blackburn was an artist and teacher whose presence served to bridge the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, and it was fascinating to learn about and celebrate the evolution of the man and his work. We would eventually move through the rest of the building as if on roller skates, making sure to hit the proverbial highlights.
Because we didn’t know if or when we’d be back again, we took our time with Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals. Rivera considered these frescos to be his masterpiece. I think they rival -- or at least parallel -- the Sistine Chapel (yes, I said it). Like much of the museum's vast collection, Rivera was lured to the city by Ford money, having been commissioned by Edsel Ford at the behest of museum director William Valentiner. The avowed communist and Henry Ford, the founder of industrial capitalism, had one thing in common: the belief in the God-like ability of technology to transform and transcend. Spanning 27 panels across four massive walls in the museum's Garden Courtyard, Rivera crafted scenes that would marvel and confound. He created a condensed, yet technically accurate ode to the work performed by workers at Ford's massive River Rouge plant, even depicting tourists who would come to the plant to see vehicles snake through its two-mile long assembly line. He praised the promise of a brotherhood of man united around industry while craftily acknowledging the commodification and exploitation of this labor under the watchful eye of an engineer whose visage is said to be a combination of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Industry's, and therefore humanity's potential for good or bad is seen in opposing panels on the North Wall dedicated to chemistry. The left corner sees the industrial manufacture of chemical weapons, while a beatific (and controversial) baby receives life-saving vaccines on the wall's right side.
My words or the pictures I took can't do Rivera's work justice, and the following video flattens its grandeur while giving you a sense of what Rivera accomplished. It's included here just to tease you. For a more comprehensive study of the murals, the cosmology Rivera created with them, and the controversy they generated, get your hands on Linda Bank Downs' Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals . Then go to Detroit, stand in that courtyard, talk to a docent, and breath it all deeply down.
While Rivera's murals frame and fix Detroit's former glory in plaster, another exhibit at the museum unintentionally channels the city's demise. Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950-2020 showcases the auto industry's creativity and innovation, and highlights the interplay between making art and making automobiles. The show features 12 iconic concept and production models from various Detroit auto makers, 36 works on paper highlighting the design process, and 7 pieces of artwork inspired by cars. As Cecily and I moved through the exhibit, we noticed a turning point where the designers reached for past glory by creating newer versions of classic models, like Ford's 2002 GT concept and its 2017 GT. This "drawing from the past," while, "looking to the future" continues to celebrate an industry that essentially abandoned the city it helped build, and in that abandonment ensured Detroit's fall from the hilltop. Continued labor unrest at the River Rouge plant was one of the reasons Ford Motor Co. decentralized its production process; which, over time, saw factories move further west and farther south. What remains of the industry and the city as a whole is a culture that, like the hotel we stayed at, screams the past into the face of a tumultuous present and an uncertain future. It is urban planning propelled by irony. The fact that we ended our final full day in Detroit at Cliff Bell's, a jazz club first opened in 1935, listening to another Diego Rivera -- this one an award winning saxophonist and composer -- was both wonderful and sadly fitting.
Car culture was perfected in California but it was born in Detroit, just as soul music was born in the Delta but perfected at 2648 West Grand Boulevard a few miles away from the Siren. Everything that made America great in that red, MAGA hat wearing sense could be seen in Motor City. During World War II Detroit was “The Arsenal of Democracy,” serving as the armorer for the Greatest Generation in its battle against Fascism and Imperialism. It also produced racism and redlining; redistricting and riots. The brotherhood the mural-making Rivera hoped industry would birth never emerged when this city was young and formidable. A place with the potential to be eternal became a punchline -- a dangerous city marked by disarray, damage, and disrepair. Detroit was largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy, and is America's most segregated. It was rightfully accused of violating human rights by the United Nations. 40% of the streetlights don't work, there are over 70,000 abandoned homes, and 25,000 vacant lots. I doubt we would let this happen to a city that has given us so much if it wasn't nearly 80% black.
Stephen Henderson said in the documentary The United States of Detroit that the city “is a place for the brave or the foolish… and maybe a little bit of both.” I always feel a bit foolish, and if the absence of fear equals bravery, then I guess I was brave during my short time moving in and around Detroit. I wish I saw more. I wish we had made it to Keyworth Stadium, where Detroit City FC is building a team and a fanbase from the ground up. I wish we had stopped by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative and bought vegetables raised by residents who cultivated crops on abandoned lots. It's clear that a new Detroit is coming. Whether it's one that accepts the wholeness of its past -- the rust with the chrome -- or simply continues to serve the part at the expense of the whole remains to be seen. This is true of America. Everything about this nation's past, present, and future is wrapped up in what I saw during my six days in Michigan, and what I learned about the places I visited after I returned home. It's all connected by the same gleaming alabaster thread that joins two Diegos through time and distance. I fell in love with Suttons Bay on a bike trail just as I embraced Detroit on two feet, and explored Michigan on four wheels. The thoroughfares of freedom carved out of the wilderness by our forebearers wind through places divided into shades of red and blue and black and white, They are cracks in our nation's foundation half-heartedly repaired with a three-fifths mixture of freedom, oppression, and denial. If Suttons Bay, Detroit, Michigan as a state, and America as a nation, can ever be truly great, we must own this foundation, tear it down, and start again.