A visit to Detroit is something to sing about
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“What up doe?”
For generations of Detroiters, that phrase has been a slang expression, used when meeting someone. On urbandictionary.com, it’s defined as “Detroit slang for ‘What’s up,’ ‘How are you,’ etc.”
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Writer Biba Adams, in a 2012 online article for AllHipHop.com, traced the greeting to drug dealers in the early 1980s, with “Doe” a homonym for “dough” or money. Through rap songs and the film ‘8 Mile,’ the phrase gained mainstream popularity.
“Now, it is just the standard Detroit greeting,” Adams quoted Detroit-based rapper, actor and film director Al Nuke as saying.
Recently, Detroit said “What up doe?” to me during a trip organized by Visit Detroit, the city’s convention and visitors bureau (visitdetroit.com). Letter by letter, here’s what I discovered during my enjoyable, comfortable and safe trip to the city:
World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, a Black man who grew up in Detroit and went on to post a 66-3 professional record in the early part of the 20th century. The “Brown Bomber” was a hero in the United States, especially in Black communities.
Louis died in 1981. Current tributes in Detroit include a huge sculpture of a punching hand at the corner of Jefferson and Woodward downtown, called “The Fist.”
There’s also a statue of Louis inside Huntington Place, the downtown convention centre formerly known as Cobo Hall. Near the statue is a display of one of the boxing gloves he wore in his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, who was representing Nazi Germany. The glove has been bronzed and is described as “The glove that floored Nazi Germany.”
W is also for Windsor, the Ontario city south of Detroit on the other side of the Detroit River. (And every time I hear the Journey hit Don’t Stop Believin’, that reference to South Detroit makes me think of Windsor.) Walking along Detroit’s pleasant Riverwalk, an award-winning strip of parkland next to the river, provides a lovely view of the Windsor skyline and Ambassador Bridge.
Hitsville U.S.A., the group of houses along West Grand Blvd. which were transformed, one by one, into the headquarters of the Motown music empire.
One of the buildings, at 2648 West Grand Blvd., serves as the Motown Museum (motownmuseum.org). The museum has reopened after being closed for renovations.
During the hour-long tour, enthusiastic docent Katie explained how Berry Gordy Jr. followed the example set by his parents, both of whom were entrepreneurs, in starting his own music business.
The highlight of the tour is a group “session” in the building’s recording studio, where we learned how to sing My Girl by The Temptations while performing dance moves at the same time.
Architecture, and Art Deco. Those who live in, work in, and visit Detroit are fortunate that many classic century-old buildings are still standing, with artwork to inspire and amaze in the areas open to the public.
Downtown, the Guardian Building (guardianbuilding.com) is a National Historic Landmark. The 40-storey building, completed in 1929, is striking outside, while the ground floor’s Promenade is so beautiful — with stained glass, sculptures and murals along the high ceiling — that it’s rented out for weddings and receptions.
In the New Center neighbourhood, the Fisher Building (fisherbuilding.city) also is a National Historic Landmark. It was completed in 1928 and has been described as “Detroit’s Largest Art Object.” On the ground floor, the ceiling is three-storeys high and is a work of art in itself.
Connected to the building is a recently renovated 2,058-seat theatre which hosts Broadway-style productions.
Tigers (and Lions, Red Wings and Pistons). Detroit’s major sports teams all play their home games in relatively new facilities within walking distance of each other just north of downtown.
T is also for twenty-nine, the number of men who died when the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in 1975.
In Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, he references “the maritime sailors’ cathedral” in Detroit where a memorial to the men was held. That building is the Mariners’ Church (marinerschurchofdetroit.org). The church’s building was dedicated in 1842 and moved to its present site in 1955. The building still serves as home to a Christian community.
Underground Railroad, the network of means by which Black people seeking freedom from slavery in the 19th century eventually reached British North America (Canada), where slavery was outlawed.
With Detroit so close to Canada, the city was an integral part of the Underground Railroad.
“The Gateway to Freedom” statue, just above the Riverwalk, serves as a powerful memorial, with a “conductor” pointing the way to Canada for a group of former slaves.
U is also for urban renovation, with older buildings being repurposed or renovated.
The historic downtown hotel currently known as the Westin Book Cadillac was the world’s tallest hotel when it was built in 1924, and has gone through multiple renovations over the years. It’s within walking distance of many downtown attractions and restaurants.
One part of boutique downtown hotel Detroit Foundation Hotel is “The Apparatus Room” — a former fire department building repurposed as a high-end restaurant in 2017. The restaurant’s name, and its high ceiling? It’s where the fire department’s apparatus was stored.
Public spaces. In addition to the natural surroundings of the Riverwalk, a more urban park is Campus Martius, in the centre of downtown. In the winter, there’s an outdoor skating rink, while in other seasons you can relax on a lounge chair. Dining options range from food trucks to the upscale Parc bistro, from which you can watch water spray from the Woodward Fountain. If your timing is right, you can catch a free musical performance.
Nearby is the Monroe St. Midway, a free-admission outdoor all-ages, all-seasons playground where games as simple as hopscotch or as challenging as life-size chess can be played. There’s roller skating in warmer months (and ice skating when it’s colder), basketball, miniature golf, and creative artwork.
P is also for People Mover (thepeoplemover.com), the light rail system which serves a number of stops in Detroit’s downtown area via a 4.6-km loop. It was shut down during the pandemic, but has reopened. For visitors, it’s a quick and inexpensive way to get to many of Detroit’s top downtown sites, such as the Renaissance Center and Greektown.
Another visitor-friendly public transportation option is QLINE (qlinedetroit.com), a streetcar which travels on Woodward Avenue from Detroit’s downtown to the Midtown and New Center neighbourhoods.
The Detroit Institute of Arts (and other nearby museums).
A visit to the DIA (dia.org), accessible via QLINE, can be a whole-day activity, with immense galleries on three levels. A room not to be missed is Rivera Court on Level 2. It’s home to the Detroit Industry Murals, created by Diego Rivera in the 1930s and designated as a National Historic Landmark. You could spend the whole day observing, and pondering, the meanings behind the depiction of the workplaces in the murals.
“Van Gogh in America” is a featured exhibit at the DIA until Jan. 22, with 74 paintings by the Dutch master.
Near the DIA are the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (thewright.org), the Detroit Historical Museum (detroithistorical.org), the main branch of the Detroit Public Library (detroitpubliclibrary.org), and the Michigan Science Center (mi-sci.org).
D is also for Draft, which the National Football League will conduct in April 2024 in Detroit. Events for fans of the 32 NFL teams will take place in Campus Martius Park and the riverside Hart Plaza.
On the walls, as in public murals and daring outdoor artwork.
The Belt (thebelt.org) is a downtown alleyway named for the former garment district in the neighbourhood. It is full of permanent and rotating art exhibitions, curated by the nearby Library Street Collective. Walking through the block-long alley, there might even be too much to look at, so slow down and take your time enjoying the creative displays.
There are many wall murals around Detroit to enjoy. One that stands out is “Music in Me (Detroit)” by artist Richard Wilson. It measures six metres by 20 metres, and shows a young woman examining record albums while wearing huge Old English “D” earrings. The Old English “D” is connected with Detroit through the baseball Tigers.
The Eastern Market (easternmarket.org), a huge farmers’ market which operates on Saturdays year-round and on Tuesdays and Sundays from June through September.
Various “sheds” house up to 225 vendors, selling fruits and vegetables, flowers, meats, soup, and baked goods. If you have access to kitchen facilities during your Detroit visit, try to come here early in your stay to prepare some meals.
Inside Shed 2 is “The Detroit Unity Bell,” a restored relic from Detroit’s Old City Hall.
E is also for entertainment, which you can find at Cliff Bell’s (cliffbells.com), a restaurant and jazz club just outside downtown. Except for a period between 1985 and 2006, the cozy venue has been open since 1935.
E is also for eat and drink.
If you like an amazing view of Detroit and Windsor, have a meal at Highlands Detroit (highlandsdetroit.com), which is on the 71st and 72nd floors of the Renaissance Center. (Tip: On nights when fireworks displays are set off above the Detroit River, this is the place to be!)
For East African food, go to Baobab Fare (baobabfare.com), which in February was named the top new restaurant in Metro Detroit by the Detroit Free Press. The food is great, and the backstory — owners Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba are refugees from Burundi, who opened their restaurant during a pandemic — is even better.
For a touch of Detroit history, try Bert’s Market Place (eatatberts.com) in the Eastern Market area. The complex hosts a number of distinct rooms — one with actual Motown gold records, one with murals celebrating Detroit’s Black legends, a banquet hall, a comedy club, and a bistro.
E is also for end, which this story does here. What up doe?
By air, the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport is about a half-hour drive from downtown Detroit. Toronto-Windsor travel is available, most conveniently by plane (Porter, Air Canada) and train (VIA Rail), with Tunnel Bus service from Windsor to Detroit set to resume on Nov. 27. By car, take Highway 401 to Windsor, then cross via the tunnel or the Ambassador Bridge.
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