A Christmas Fantasy: 36 Hours In The Detroit That Might Have Been

December 22, 2013, 11:49 PM by  Bill McGraw


‘Tis the season of magical thinking, so this is a thought experiment: What if Detroit had evolved a bit differently, and instead of attracting the attention of the world for its epic failings, the city was considered a sophisticated -- albeit troubled --  metropolis known more for its hot entertainment district and its canal communities than its $18-billion debt?

And it had a relatively balance economy.

Detroit was not predestined to become the nation’s biggest city to declare bankruptcy. It was not predetermined that it would devolve into a dystopia where streetlights and prompt police response are considered luxuries. There were other possibilities. 

The following is not a news article; it is a parlor game of sorts – a re-imagining of Detroit. It is a description of a city that does not exist, but a city that could easily have existed in 2013 if just a few historical moments had produced slightly different outcomes.

Our re-imagined city is not a radically different place. It wouldn’t be logical to recreate Detroit as a North American Paris or London, or even New York or Los Angeles. Becoming a global city was never going to happen. But it’s intriguing to wonder what Detroit would be like if just a few turning points in its history had veered slightly in a different direction, if a few decision-makers had made different decisions and if the collective imagination of the millions of people who have lived in Detroit since 1701 had come up with solutions that would have better stood the test of time. 

The platform for this thought experiment is The New York Times’ “36 Hours” feature in the Sunday Travel Section that gives   readers tips for spending a weekend in interesting places around the world. The Times' "36 Hours in Detroit" ran May 5, 2011. 

Notes at the end of the story will explain some of the historical twists mentioned in the text.

Suspend disbelief. This where the fantasy begins:

36 Hours in Detroit

Detroit is one of the nation’s quirkiest cities. It is a faded manufacturing giant with empty factory districts, favela-like slums and sharply defined inequality. It also has vibrant commercial, government, entertainment and residential neighborhoods that form a wide arc around the old downtown.

Like a small and funky Chicago, Detroit is jarring mixture of smart restaurants and soup kitchens; million-dollar condos and squatter colonies; classic bookstores and neon-framed check-cashing outlets; and football Saturdays and dog-fighting Friday nights.

The city’s dizzying 20th Century included the auto industry's rise and fall, the expansion of government and education and the flourishing of Detroit as a global center of music. Each year, the city attracts millions of tourists who are drawn to the bright lights and bustle of the Cass Corridor and the edgy nightlife of Paradise Valley.

A word about safety: Crime has long been an issue in Detroit. Areas mentioned in this report are generally safe and well-patrolled, but Detroit is strictly segregated by class, and there are areas that lack regular police presence and are guarded by neighborhood militias, to varying degrees of success.

4 p.m.
Touring the forts.

Travel back to when Detroit was a lonely wilderness outpost. The city has not one, but three well-preserved fortifications that date from the city’s French, British and early American periods.

Fort Lernoult, the larger of the two downtown strongholds, sits on a hill along modern-day Fort Street, overlooking the Detroit River.  Fort Pontchartrain is a few blocks below, hard against the water. Visitors can walk through the graceful Georgian structure that was Fort Lernoult’s British officers’ quarters and look into the fort’s stone powder magazine and guard towers.

Inside Fort Pontchartrain, along Rue St Jacques and Rue St. Louis, are replicas of the wooden homes of French habitants, Ste. Anne’s Church and the Indian Council House, which has been converted into a museum that illustrates the lives of Detroit’s 18th-Century native residents.

At the foot of Livernois Avenue in Southwest Detroit sits Fort Wayne, a pre-Civil War installation built to guard against an invasion from Canada that never happened. Maintained by the Wayne County Park District, the three forts are staffed by employees dressed in period costumes. 

6 p.m.
2. Cocktails in the parks.

Like your drinks with a side of history? Parts of Judge Augustus Woodward’s early street plan of grand circles and stately boulevards in hexagonal units extend for two square miles, giving downtown a complicated grid but also the feel of Charleston and Savannah, with a series of tree-shaded squares and abundant statuary. Outdoor cafes and bistros dot the avenues that connect the parks. Both the Grand Circus Café and Boombas in Marvin Gaye Square offer an afternoon-long happy hour, featuring locally produced beer and craft cocktails.

7:30 p.m.
The statehouse 

The state capitol building, on the northwest edge of downtown, sits in one of the less interesting areas of downtown, but it might be worth a visit for its restaurant and bars. While catering to legislators and lobbyists, many of the Capitol Park establishments have been around for decades and can be a trip back to a time of white-jacketed waiters, Old Fashioneds and big bands.

10 p.m.
4. Music

Paradise Valley, east of Grand Circus Park, is a remnant of the ghetto that was home to most of Detroit’s African American population from World War I through the 1950s. The former ghetto is now a gentrified and integrated area of 100-year-old frame houses, small shops and gardens. But its south end, along Hastings Street, retains the bebop atmosphere of blues and jazz clubs that recall the John Lee Hooker era.

Not to be missed: The Berry Gordy Music Museum. The founder of Motown Records did not forget the Motor City when he moved the company to Los Angeles in the early 1970s; he remained a significant benefactor. The museum he financed pays tribute to all of Detroit’s homegrown melodies: soul, rock, techno, rap, blues, jazz and even country. Gordy’s Motown Museum is across town on W. Grand Boulevard.

10 a.m.
5. Outdoor shopping

You don’t have to buy fresh corn or Michigan asparagus at Eastern Market to have a good time. The market, on the northeastern edge of downtown, is more than a century old and remains the largest outdoor farmers’ market in the country. It’s ringed by small shops, antique stores, restaurants, bars and walkable neighborhoods.

A bike path known as the Dequindre Cut, below grade on the market’s east side, sits on an old rail bed and connects the Detroit River and suburban Birmingham, 14 miles to the north. A smaller farmers’ market runs on weekends nearby at Chene and Ferry, a former Polish neighborhood that now is filled with residents who work at the University of Michigan.

12 p.m.
6. Water taxi!

Travelers can experience the history of American mass transit by moving around Detroit. It might be the Motor City, but it’s served by a crazy-quilt system of buses, streetcars, two subway lines, and even a fleet of bicycle-powered rickshaws. The Detroit River Ferry System is a tourists’ dream.

Pay $10 for a round-trip ticket and hop aboard a small wooden passenger vessel as you travel 15 minutes upriver to Detroit’s Venice-like neighborhood of canals known as GarWood, after the famous hydroplane racer. Grab the indispensable Historic Detroit guidebook and check out the unique architecture, the ancient trees and the waterborne lifestyle of residents who range from plutocrats to neo-hippies living on sailboats. For a grittier experience, take the Downriver ferry for a look at some of Detroit’s still-belching factories.  

2 p.m.

The demise of manufacturing can be seen in the ghostly old buildings in Detroit’s once-thriving factory districts. Detroit has enshrined the ruins of one plant -- the Packard complex -- where production of the famous luxury car stopped in 1956.  The plant’s ruins have been preserved by a grant from the Detroit-based Ford Foundation, which essentially acts as the city’s Sugar Daddy.

Visitors can ascend an eight-story observation deck that offers panoramic views of the Packard’s 3.5-million square feet of graffiti, rooftop trees and leaning towers of water. Architect Albert Kahn’s Building 10, the world’s first factory space built with reinforced concrete, has been turned into a museum and gift shop. Antique buses ferry tourists to the much better preserved Ford Motor Piquette Avenue plant, where Henry Ford began tinkering with the assembly line and the Model T.

5 p.m.
8. Chilling on the RiverWalk

Cool off from Detroit’s muggy summertime heat by heading to the Detroit River, which connects Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. A walkway stretches five miles along the water and offers way stations for eating, drinking, sitting, renting bicycles, kayaking, fishing and riding a carousel. Nearby are the velodrome and swimming pool left over from the 1968 Olympics.

The river is a highway of freighters, pleasure boats and personal watercraft, and that’s Canada on the south -- yes, south -- shore. If cool breezes aren’t your thing, stop in at New Detroit Inc.’s Museum of Reconciliation, where the region’s infamous racial and ethnic conflicts are dealt with in historical displays, outreach activities and periodic live programs. A current exhibit centers on L. Brooks Patterson, the longtime Oakland County executive. The museum also offers a walking tour of sites related to Detroit’s history of slavery.

8 p.m.
9. Cass Corridor

Cass Avenue connects downtown with the Wayne State University neighborhood -- two miles of bohemia, including storefront artists’ spaces, old warehouses that have been converted into galleries and intimate and low-cost restaurants and clubs. The side streets contain large old apartment buildings where the artsy set lives in tattered grandeur. Catch the Dexter streetcar downtown for a slow and interesting ride northward along Cass.

Red arrow denotes today's P.J.'s Lager House.

8 a.m.
10. Corktown

During the early stages of the auto age boom, Detroit widened many of its principal thoroughfares into broad avenues. But the money ran out before the job was finished, and a couple of main streets, including Michigan Avenue, remain narrow paths. Michigan Ave runs through the city’s oldest neighborhood and has been converted into a pedestrian mall, with beach chairs and tables set on its cobblestone surface.  Surrounded by bars, restaurants, shops, three-story apartments and the ghostly Michigan Central Station, Michigan Avenue seems like a throwback to a 1875 village green – with lots of beer.

12 p.m.
11. University of Michigan, Belle Isle

“The U” – there is only one, right? – was founded in Detroit in 1817 and moved to Ann Arbor in 1837. It returned to Detroit in the 1850s after officials concluded Ann Arbor was too rural to support their ambitions. The Campau family offered the university the island it owned in the middle of the Detroit River, and 160 years later, U-M has one of the world’s most unique and beautiful campuses, though it long ago  spilled over to the mainland.

The school blends easily into the island’s streams and willows, with dorms lining the shoreline opposite Windsor and the famous Diag crisscrossing a meadow at the island’s exact midpoint. Weekend nights can be awkward on the islands bar districts if you are over 25, but a Sunday morning stroll and lunch will have you chanting, “It’s all about Blue, baby.”


* Forts Lernoult and Pontchartrain went by different names at various times. Fort Pontchartrain was partially rebuilt after the 1805 fire; Lernoult escaped the flames. Both forts were gradually consumed by the expanding city in the 1820s. Fort Wayne was built in the 1840s, and remains.

* Only a small part of Judge Woodward’s street plan was executed; it can be seen today in the Grand Circus Park and adjacent streets.

The city demolished virtually the entire Black Bottom neighborhood, part of which was called Paradise Valley, to make room for the Medical Center and  Chrysler Freeway (I-75) in the late 1950s and 1960s. 

* The city ran a small farmer’s market at Chene and Ferry for decades, but it closed in  the 1980s.

Detroit was home to the state capital until 1847, when it moved to Lansing after the growing population in western and northern Michigan requested a more central location. The capital building was located in today’s Capitol Park.

* Detroit had an extensive streetcar system that began the Civil War era and ended in 1956, partially because city officials believed the streetcars caused traffic jams. Lines ran down all main arteries and even many small streets, and layered on top of Detroit’s system was an interurban system that connected downtown and such outlying cities as Ann Arbor, Flint and Port Huron. Click here for the informative Detroit Transit History website.

* The Ford Foundation, begun by Edsel Ford in 1936, was based in Detroit until his son, Henry Ford II, decided to expand its mission and move the headquarters to New York in the 1950s. Ford called giving up control of the foundation one of his biggest mistakes. The foundation today has no Detroit connection and gives away more than $450 million a year.

* Detroit was chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1963 as the winning American city to host the 1968 games, but the International Olympic Committee picked Mexico City. Click here to a WDIV story about Detroit's 1968 Olympic bid.

*Check out an essay and photos on the widening of Michigan Avenue from the Corktown History blog, which affixed the red arrow to the photo of Michigan Avenue and P.J.'s Lager House from the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

* The University of Michigan was indeed founded in Detroit in 1817, but moved to Ann Arbor in 1837 and never looked back, though for several years there has been a U-M office and conference center on Woodward Avenue in Midtown.

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