Thanks to tough economy, the housing market crash back in 2008, and the city filing for bankruptcy in 2013, I’m sure most of you are probably convinced that Detroit is one of the worst places to spend an afternoon. For urban explorers, the abandoned neighborhoods and crumbling historic buildings are more than enough draw to the city and its outlying suburbs, but for everyone else there wouldn’t seem to be much reason to visit the poster child of hard times.
For me, Detroit holds a special place in my heart partly because it’s where my mother grew up and older brother Paul lives, but also because as a child I took many a vacation to Michigan and have great memories of trips to the city. The last few weeks in March, I unintentionally took a break from the blog to visit my brother Paul and help him paint his house. Although most of my trip was spent inside removing wallpaper and painting various rooms, we did take a little time to do some sight-seeing.
While the crumbling buildings and empty neighborhoods are hard to ignore as you drive into Detroit, there are also a ton of great museums, parks, and historic locations to fill an itinerary. Since I have visited the area many times throughout my life, and have been to many of the places I’m alluding to, this post will not even scratch the surface of what the city has to offer. Instead, given my brothers crazy work schedule and our crunch for time, this post is only going to cover the things we were able to do in an afternoon.
First and foremost, no trip to Detroit could be complete without visiting the iconic sculptures downtown on Woodward Ave. Erected in 1958, the Spirit of Detroit quickly became the symbol of the city and is often wearing Tigers and Red Wings jerseys throughout their respective seasons. Just across the plaza sits the Monument to Joe Louis sculpture or “The Fist”, which was given to the city by Sports Illustrated in 1986 as a tribute to boxer Joe Louis (Heavyweight champion of the world 1937-1950), and has grown to be a symbol of downtown despite the mixed emotions it seems to evoke.
Since they’re both literally located in the middle of a high traffic area with few places to park, you’ll probably drive past them without getting the chance to stop for photos. I, like the crazy person I am, jumped out of the car at a stoplight in order to take a few photos, which isn’t something I recommend doing. Find a place to park a few blocks over and walk like a civilized human being.
Next it was off to find the Old Michigan Theater on the other side of town. This not-so-hidden gem is one of the most impressive parking garages around and is something I’ve been dying to see for years. Since it doesn’t technically have an address (despite the internet telling you it does), it was hard to find. Getting frustrated with traffic, my brother gave up the search rather quickly and demanded that I pick another location. With a heavy heart I entered in an address on Alfred Street and we were off again, this time to a house recently made famous thanks to the movie Only Lovers Left Alive starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton.
Being a huge movie geek, I love getting the chance to see where something was filmed. This particular house is especially interesting to me because not only did the current owners purchase the house before it was chosen as a filming location and allowed the crews to film all the exterior and a few interior scenes before doing any renovations, it’s also, like so many other places in Detroit, a symbol of resurgence. Less than a block away you have deserted mansions and overgrown yards on one end of the street, and new construction and a flourishing city life on the other. Although we stopped so I could take the photo above, and I easily found the address on the IMDB page for the movie, we made our visit brief since this is, after all, someone’s home.
Although I loved seeing the home on Alfred street, I was still bummed about not getting to see the Old Michigan theater and convinced my brother to give it another try. This time we found a place to park and headed over on foot. Along the way, Paul happened to see a plaque on the side of a building and made us stop so he could read it. We had somehow found the place where Henry Ford built the very first Ford automobile back in 1892 that helped build his company, and the city of Detroit into the Automotive capital of the country. It was a thrilling discovery, and once we were done being floored by it, we continued on our way.
After finally finding the location of the parking garage, I was disappointed that it seemed to be off-limits to the public and there was no way inside. On a whim I decided to ask a nice man named Anthony how we could get inside, and much to my delight he was willing to give us 10 minutes to sneak upstairs and explore.
Built in 1925 in the French Regency style, the “Old” Michigan theater was closed in 1967 when it and the neighboring office building were sold. Over the next 10 years it was transformed into a club and concert venue, as well as sat unused until 1977 when the owner and tenants of the office building next door reached an agreement for parking, and the theater was partially demolished and renovated for a final time into the three-story parking garage it is today.
Since this is without a doubt one of the coolest parking garages in existence, it has been feature in everything from movies (including Only Lovers Left Alive) and music videos (Eminem had just filmed one there the week before we arrived), to commercials and photo shoots. It can also be seen in all it’s glory in both video and photos online… or you know… right now on my glorious blog!!
Despite everything I had seen online of the theater/garage, nothing could compare to being able to stand underneath the beautiful domed ceiling and see it with my own eyes. Almost immediately after we walked through the door on the third level of the garage, Paul understood why I had been bugging him to help me find it the entire day, and was both happy he had agreed to find a place to park and that we had taken the time to talk to Anthony (my new favorite person in the city).
Although the parking garage isn’t technically open to the public for tours, it will be soon. The new owner is currently renovating the space to help ensure that the ceiling will stand for years to come, along with making all the backrooms to the theater accessible and safe for tourists to explore. During our visit, we could see where new lights were being added to the ceiling, but were ultimately happy we got to see it before any major work was done and the flocks of tourists were allowed inside. If the rumors are true, the space should be open for tours this summer. So, not wanting to get Anthony in trouble, and having seen everything I wanted to that day, we thanks him profusely and headed out of the city for some dinner. All in all this was the type of afternoon I’m not soon going to forget.