By Jay Smith
If you have ever visited the city of Detroit but haven't been back there in the last few years, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. The city has endured enormously difficult times, especially recently, but if there is one bright spot in Detroit, it would be the city's heart, downtown. Much has changed since I first visited Detroit in 2002. Businesses, retailers and restaurants have opened downtown, which is amazing considering it was written-off for dead. Quicken Loans, General Motors, Compuware and others large and small have made significant investments. The riverfront, waterfront and Campus Martius have become draws. Downtown is also seeing an influx of people to live, work and play.
Vacancies continue to plague the city, but downtown's historic properties, many vacant for decades, are finding new uses. Buildings are being renovated into offices, lofts or hotels, including the Westin Book-Cadillac hotel which is a model for the reusing Buffalo's Statler
. At 29 stories, the Book-Cadillac was the world's tallest hotel when it was built back in 1924. It was vacated and left for dead in 1983 until finding new life in 2008.
This hotel, and the Holiday Inn Express across the street, have put some life back on Washington Boulevard, which was a failed pedestrian mall similar to Main Street in Buffalo. Like the Statler in Buffalo, the Book-Cadillac has played host to numerous weddings and receptions, bringing much-needed business into downtown.
Each of my four stays at the Book-Cadillac have been great and the rooms are very nice. The hotel takes up the first 23 floors and the top six floors are luxury condos. The Westin's trademark Heavenly Beds are almost second-to-none in comfort. Rooms are modern yet retain reminders of the building's history. There's even a cool gift shop of Detroit "swag" on the ground.
Redevelopment in the city has been focused on sports (Comerica Park, Ford Field and Joe Louis Arena), the arts and culture (Detroit's Theater District is said to be second only to New York's for the number of theaters), education, health care, and casinos (three).
My last visit was in September, while attending a couple of Detroit Tigers games and over the weekend, paid a visit to the Henry Ford Museum in the nearby suburb of Dearborn (which is about a $20 cab ride or 7 miles from downtown). The museum includes the incredible historic Greenfield Village, where you can find Henry Ford's childhood farm and home, the Wright Brothers Bike Shop and House, and Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory.
At the Henry Ford Museum, you will learn how the automobile changed America forever through an impressive collection of automobiles and, among other things, the Montgomery, Alabama bus that Rosa Parks started the bus boycott in, and the Spirit of St. Louis.
Finally, I toured the famous Dearborn Ford Rouge River Truck Plant, where they make the F-150 truck. It's an amazing look at how the workers on the assembly line and the robots operating beside them make America's best selling trucks.
Detroit may be known as Hockeytown USA, but downtown is a hub for all of the major sports. After my time at the Henry Ford, I came back downtown to eat a pregame lunch at another "Anchor Bar" (no relation to Buffalo's). Detroit's Anchor Bar is a theatre converted into a bar and restaurant and is a popular place to go for dinner and a drink downtown. It is close to Comerica Park where I watched my beloved Detroit Tigers beat up the Minnesota Twins, 8-0, in front of over 40,000 fans. Doug Fister pitched his first career full game. Dinner later that night was at the Hockeytown Cafe, who could probably use some business considering the NHL lockout. Their deep dish pizza and beer are to die for.
Having the Tigers reach the ALCS to play the Yankees and the playoff games at Comerica Park helps to offset the lack of traffic at downtown bars and restaurants due to the NHL lockout and the Red Wings not playing. Having the Lions enjoying better days and playing downtown on ten or more Sundays each year helps too.
Detroit is not without its problems but the seeds of a comeback have sprouted. It's worth visiting to experience firsthand. The city and area have a great amount to offer and the city proper is a lot better than it often is portrayed it to be.