- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Chances are, when you ask the average person on the street what they think of as Detroit, it will likely BE some combination of “cars, urban decay, RoboCop, Axel Foley.”

But the Motor City, which has certainly had more than its share of difficult times — as this past summer’s eponymous movie explained — has undergone a bit of a cultural renaissance, and now, in addition to old standbys like the Tigers and Motown Museum, the city offers fine dining spots, a world-class private museum collection as well as new breweries, distilleries and great food.

All of it within sight of Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River. Yes, this is the only spot in the Lower 48 where you actually drive south into Canada from the U.S.

While Detroit has often been cited as a punchline for urban blight, what I discovered over a weekend in Motor City made me rethink many of my own preconceptions about this often maligned, most misunderstood of American urbanities.

***

It’s a quick flight from D.C. to Detroit Rock City, and even though I’ve been in this airport many times before, it’s the first time I’ll get to go outside, for which I’m thankful (its Concourse A is so large it has its own monorail).

I’m met curbside by Deanna Majchrzak, media relations manager with the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, who is an expert on all things Motor City, and explains much to me as we drive away from the airport.

One of the city’s most famous sons was, of course, Henry Ford, who built an automobile empire right here on the shores of the Detroit River. But oh, Deanna says, there was so much more about Ford and his legacy.

Accordingly, our first stop is the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation (20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, Michigan, 48124, 313/982-6001). Upon first

hearing about it, perhaps I could be forgiven for thinking that this mammoth complex would warehouse little more than cars. While indeed, there are automobiles here by the dozen — including, but not limited to, the Lincoln in which JFK was shot and the bus whose seat Rosa Parks refused to vacate — Ford used his considerable wealth to scour the world’s treasures, much as contemporary William Randolph Hearst would do out west at San Simeon.

There’s also an interactive exhibit wherein you can basically put together an old Model T with the assistance of docents. It’s just hundreds of small tasks that, put together, make up a car — but at a much slower pace than on the assembly line. I screw on some bolts, but this is really a team-building activity that should rightly be done in a group setting.

In another wing, incredibly, is the Allegheny Locomotive, an old stevedore that was brought from Pennsylvania to Detroit, and the museum “expanded” to allow its entry. Both the engine and the widening of the warehouse to accommodate it are feats of engineering, and I’m duly impressed.

I also learn that, contrary to popular belief, Ford didn’t precisely have the golden touch as a young man. In fact, several of his automotive companies were utter failures until he perfected the assembly line with Ford Motor Company — the success for which would more than made up for the spectacular mistakes of his youth. Furthermore, he was also known for being sensitive to the needs of his workers, and worked with them on fair wages and safe working conditions. In fact, many of the staples of a workday we take for granted, such as the eight-hour workday, can be traced somewhat back to his policies.

I’m told it could take days or even weeks to see the Ford’s entire collection, but it’s time I don’t have today. Rather, Deanna and I venture outside to ride in a classic Motel T around Greenfield Village, which whisks us around 80 acres of property that hosts such domiciles as Thomas Edison’s relocated lab.

Since this place is all about stepping back into history, Deanna takes me for lunch at the Eagle Tavern, where workers dress in vintage 19th century costume and the menu offers food that one would have found prevalent in the Michigan of the 1800s. You sit family-style, enjoying long rectangular table seats with your party and strangers, which is meant to foster an atmosphere of conversation considering that America’s taverns were both the chatrooms and social media of their day. It was here where trade and business news were exchanged, doings of far-off places and politics were discussed and where gossip was passed over drinks — not so very different from today, in fact.

A staple food here is the savory noodles with sausage, greens, squash and mushrooms, which all comes in a stew. It’s hearty food, which was needed for the hearty folks who at one time lived in what was at one time the western frontier.

Our next step is the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, which is accessible only via bus from the Ford Museum. As we exit the bus, a docent ushers us into the ground-level exhibits, which offer a look back through a timeline of some of Ford’s famous vehicles. Inside the Manufacturing Innovation Theater, a sight-and-sound show brings the latest in audiovisual technology to a “multisensory” film that entails multiple screens, 3-D projectors and robots. It’s better to experience it than have me describe it, I promise.

You then take the elevator up to the observation platform on the top floor, where you can watch members of the United Auto Workers assemble the F-150. This is the very definition of Henry Ford’s assembly line maxim writ large in the 21st century, with computers and various other technologies guiding the workers as they piece together trucks seemingly by the dozens in an absolutely huge facility.

No photos are allowed of the assembly line, so just take a memory with your mind.

History is endemic to this part of the Wolverine State. As we drive from Dearborn toward central Detroit, Deanna tells me how the French were the first Europeans to come here, with Detroit itself settled in 1701 by French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (another name that lent itself to the automobile world). If I look carefully around town, she says, the iconic fleur-de-lis is visible on signage and on buildings, much as it is as in New Orleans 1,000 miles to the south.

As the United Stated expanded westward, the two-peninsula land the Indians called “Ojibwa,” meaning the land of many lakes — rather apropos given the state touches four of the five Great Lakes — joined the union as the 26th state Jan. 26, 1837, with Detroit Michigan’s cultural, economic and historical center ever since.

Not far from the waterfront, Deanna points to a sculpture, the “Giant Fist” of Joe Louis, erected in honor of the hometown boxing champ who also fought for racial equality. His name was also borne on the old Joe Louis Arena, the former home of the Red Wings before the newer Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. (A statue of Louis stands in the nearby Cobo Center convention space.)

Deanna drops me off at the Detroit Foundation Hotel (250 W Larned St., Detroit, Michigan, 48226, 313/800-5500), a lovely downtown spot steps from the Detroit riverfront. This is urban redevelopment par excellence, with a former fire station and wine cellar structure incorporated into the redesign of this property. My room is homely and comfy, with room-length windows that allow in sunlight and a desk for me to do what I do best: write.

After a quick rest, I meet Deanna and together we walk a mile through downtown to catch a late-season ballgame at Comerica Park (2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Michigan, 48201, 313/962-4000). It’s my 26th MLB ballpark, and I can’t help but hear Kurtwood Smith from “RoboCop” as I take a photo with the giant tiger statues out front:

“C’mon, Sal, Tigers play tonight! I never miss a game.”

In addition to hosting the Tigers, Comerica has fast become a foodie’s haven, what with all the options available at Big Cat Court, including “elephant ears,” a local dessert that I am told is to die for. Before dessert, however, and as we’re in Greektown, I select a dinner of gyro, fries and a soda.

It’s a great game, one that comes to the literal final out, and now that dark has descended over Comerica and downtown Detroit, it’s time to head out for a round.

As happens, friends of mine from L.A. are in town to visit family, so I Uber over to a cocktail bar in Ferndale called The Oakland (201 W Nine Mile Rd, Ferndale, Michigan, 48075, 248/291-5295), where craft martinis are on offer amid a dusky, hushed atmosphere that somehow reminds me of a speakeasy. Seated in plush chairs around a table, I chat with Jason and Jaime, the latter a Michigan native who has brought together old friends.

I have spent much time with this couple in L.A., but as my friend Geoff is fond of saying, it’s fun to see friends “out of context.”

After a few drinks, I bit my friends farewell and Uber back downtown, where I amble along the waterfront next to couples out for a stroll and various other wanderers like myself. Just across the Detroit River, a large maple leaf flag waves in the breeze, with this waterway all that separates myself from Canada. It’s been five years since last I was in the Great White North, but since I left my passport back in D.C., a return will have to wait for another day.

 

Saturday:

If there was one thing I was told I had to eat in Detroit, it’s the red velvet pancakes at The Hudson Cafe (1241 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan, 48226, 313/237-1000). Will I need sides with that, I ask the waitress? Her knowing smiles says it all.

And by god, when the stack of red-hued batter shows up, I’m certainly glad I didn’t. I mean, just wow. With cream cheese frosting and cocoa powder atop the stack, it’s like I’m having dessert for breakfast. I wish I could say that I got the better of this platter, but after only making a shark-bite-shaped dent into the pile of pancakes, I have to tap out.

So. Much. Sugar.

I’ll take the rest for a snack later.

In the past few years I’ve been to some of the great sites of music recording: Abbey Road in London; Stax and Sun in Memphis; FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

There’s one still outstanding, and it’s right here in Detroit.

Berry Gordy Jr. started Tamla Records in 1959 as a way to record black music at a time when much of Detroit — and indeed, much of the U.S. — was still segregated in both geography and in the arts. In 1960 Mr. Gordy changed the name to Motown, in honor of the Motor City.

The list of artists whom Mr. Gordy uncovered, sponsored and nurtured included Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Temptations and on and on and on. He moved the company west to California in 1972, where it would decades later become subsumed into the multinational media conglomerations.

While Mr. Gordy long since left behind the Detroit studios, the site remains at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Lasalle Gardens. Where it all started.

As you walk up to the Motown Museum (2648 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, Michigan, 48208, 313/875-2264) you see the facade of “Hitsville, U.S.A.,” preserved as close to the time of the recording magic as possible. For the tour you enter the unassuming old home, where you are met in the lobby by a docent who cheerily gives visitors like myself a quick study of the mid-20th century Detroit in which Mr. Gordy chose to take a chance on his future and his fortune. Our guide is both thoroughly knowledgable and has enthusiasm to spare, occasionally clapping her hands together to underline a particular point.

No photos are allowed in the museum, which is good in a way as it forces you to behold the music history about you. Exhibits abound, including gold records, various costumes worn by the likes of Michael Jackson and so many other precious artifacts.

Furthermore, our guide tells us that even the famous come to see this history. Beyonce, Smokey Robinson and many others have been here, our guide says, just to see and commune with their American history.

Downtown Detroit is hopping this evening, with sporting events and even a Kid Rock concert turning the city into a giant party. I’m in a bit of a mellow mood and thus go for a quiet dinner at Pho Lucky (3111 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan, 48201, 313/338-3895). The house special soup of rare eye round steak, cooked beef, meatballs, tripes and tendon does not disappoint, and I’m thanking my dear friend Spencer through the ether for introducing me to Vietnamese cuisine back when we both lived in Los Angeles.

Wandering the streets of downtown in search of a drink, I happen upon the appropriately named Whisky Parlor (608 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan, 48226, 313/961-3043), a rather funky upstairs spot that, perversely, has the feel of an underground basement juke joint.

This is not in any way a complaint.

While I peruse the menu in search of the lucky whiskey, a jazz quartet blares out sultry sounds by the front window. The Parlor boasts an absolutely outstanding collection of scotch, bourbon, Canadian and other offerings from across the whiskey world. The atmosphere here is top-notch, with the mixologists dressed in Depression-era getup, all but lending the joint the feel of a speakeasy.

As I stare into my whiskey, I mull over the adventures of the past two days, and how much different is this Detroit from either the punch line I recall it being in the ‘80s or the hyperviolent dystopia of the “RoboCop” universe. If anything, seated on a barstool with jazz musicians lulling me over a drink, I feel like I’m in some kind of a Mickey Spillane noir, except in lieu of danger all around me, there’s possibility and futures for both myself and this amazing city.

To learn more about Detroit, go to VisitDetroit.com.

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