Detroit: 10 Top Things To Do

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Heidelberg Project – one of my favorite pieces.

Spent an amazing weekend in Detroit (thank you Nick Belperio for being such a willing and adventurous travel partner!).  It is a city unlike any other I have visited – so many fabulous and exciting new developments but the blight is omnipresent (hundreds of burned out, boarded up houses, terrible roads).

Highlights included stellar examples of Detroit Modernism (Saarinen, Lafayette Park, NoraModern), The Heidelberg Project (we met Tyree Guyton, the force behind this project), and a fantastic food scene driven by some of the most creative and inspiring young people I have met (especially loved Sister Pie Bakery and Bon Bon Bon in Hamtramck). We stayed at the Aloft downtown which I highly recommend (and Red Bull was doing an event nearby so all the cool skater boys were there with their moms and dads which was really fun to see).

Read below for details of our top 10 list with specific recommendations (as well as a few watch-outs).


1. Cranbrook Museum/Art Academy (39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills)

Several people recommended we visit Cranbrook and initially I resisted because it is a 30 minute drive from downtown and very posh – not the cool, emerging scene that I had come to Detroit to see. BUT I am so thrilled that I did add it to the itinerary. A definite must-see. Very rich history and designed by Eliel Saarinen (the father of the more famous Eero Saarinen). I’m a huge fan of American Modernism and this is the cradle of that movement (art, architecture and design). While here, make sure you get a docent-led tour of the Saarinen House, the jewel of Cranbrook’s architectural treasures. Saarinen was good friends with Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames – all of whom frequently visited Saarinen House. A visit to Cranbrook brings the Detroit design aesthetic into sharp focus.

We were fortunate to get there on the last day of the 2015 MFA Thesis show. Extremely impressive. Standouts included: Jean Louise Egger, Joshua R. Clark, Alex Thomas, Nathalia Calderon, Henrik Munk Soerensen, Katherine Craig Persiconi, Emil Roman Froege, David Uthus.

Nick Cave, an alumnus, will open a solo exhibition with performances on June 20, 2015,  running through October 11, 2015. Definitely a must-see.

Another recommendation if you drive up from Detroit, stop at Toast (23144 Woodward Avenue) in Ferndale for breakfast or lunch. The wait to get in this past Sunday was 45 minutes so we didn’t stop but it looked fabulous.

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Cranbrook Academy and Museum designed by Saarinen

 

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Saarinen Living Room

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Saarinen House windows

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Saarinen House master bedroom in the upstairs quarters

2. Lafayette Park/Mies Detroit

OMG – LOVED this area. Thanks so much to Michelle Unverzagt from Nora Modern for putting this on our radar. The Mies van der Rohe Historic District in Lafayette Park includes 186 cooperatively owned Town House and Court House units, three apartment towers, an elementary school, a retail district, and a 13-acre park known as the Lafayette Plaisance.

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Beautiful neighborhood

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Townhouses

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Interiors

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Michelle also recommended we check out Dequindre Cut which we didn’t get to but I would definitely put it on the itinerary next time. It’s being developed by the Riverfront Conservancy and sounds a bit like the High Line in NYC (except it’s a low line).

3. Shinola, NoraModern and Hugh at Canfield/Cass Intersection

This is a very cool neighborhood. It’s best to park near Shinola (there’s a lot across the street). I love Shinola and this store is so much bigger and better than the one in Tribeca. They have a gorgeous flower store as you enter, bikes are being built on premise, there’s a beautiful coffee bar. And it was packed with happy shoppers!!

If you walk down Canfield towards Cass and turn right, you will find two gorgeous home design stores, Nora and Hugh.

Also in this neighborhood, three breweries. I’m not a beer drinker but it looked like people were having a great time. Detroit Jolly Pumpkin is the newest and looked the most fun (and they have truffle fries!). The others are Motor City Brewing Works and Traffic Jam and Snug.

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Shinola is really amazing!!!

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flower store at entry to Shinola

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Coffee bar at Shinola

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Nora Modern

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Hugh – adjacent with a walk-thru from Nora

4. The Heidelberg Project (3600 Heidelberg Street -East Side of Detroit, open 24/7 but come during the day)

This is a must-see for anyone interested in art.  Tyree Guyton founded this project 29 years ago with his father to overcome the blight that was present in the community at that time. Currently, there is an arsonist on the loose who has burned down over 12 houses in the last 18 months. Tyree works with the burnt out buildings as well (see pic below with blue shoes in the basement of a house burned down just a week ago).  The creativity on display is absolutely mind-blowing – many of his pieces will remind you of Mike Kelley’s work who also happens to be from Michigan.  We were fortunate that Tyree was on site on Friday afternoon. His work references time, travel, being in the present. He is a devotee of both Plato and Rudolf Steiner.

I recommend visiting during the day, ideally when Tyree is present.  And I strongly urge you to make a contribution to keep this project going.

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One of Tyree’s spotted houses. The spots were inspired by Tyree’s granddad’s love of jelly beans.

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His record house (similarity to Richard Prince’s vinyl house in upstate NY). Image by Nick Belperio

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Installation in a house that was recently torched.

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Dolls?

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Time and stuffed animals feature prominently

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Tyree Guyton and me. Thank you Nick Belperio for asking him for the photo.

5. DIA

We had tickets to see the Frida and Diego show but were ultimately more thrilled by the Rivera murals and by DIA’s permanent contemporary collection.  I especially loved their Robert Smithson pieces, the Fred Wilson chandelier, a painting by Alfred Leslie and a Marina Abromovic video that was new to me.

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Rivera mural at Detroit Institute of Art Image by: Nick Belperio

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Alfred Leslie painting (Angelica Fenner 1978). Photo by Nick Belperio

6. Sister Pie Bakery and Bon Bon Bon

Sister Pie Bakery took our breathe away. Exceptional attention to detail. All your senses are engaged the minute you walk in the door – wonderful aroma, flowers, beautiful wooden counters and tables.  It’s a happy, serene place – they play fantastic music, a crew of female bakers sing and chat as they work. At 4pm, when we arrived, there was very little left to buy except rice pudding hand pies which were delicious!

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Rice pudding was amazing.

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So many plants in Detroit. They especially like succulents – you have to be hardy to make it in this town.

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Image by Nick Belperio

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gorgeous custom woodwork.

Bon Bon Bon in Hamtramck is another exceptional operation run by an amazing group of young women (Alex Clark, Jenna Hutchinson, Carrie Hause and Stephanie Poe).  Their chocolate flavors are not only delicious, they are incredibly innovative – my fave was #46, an olive oil caramel with sea salt, rosemary and black pepper. Their packaging is extraordinarily gorgeous and original as well.

The retail operation in Hamtramck is only open to the public on Saturdays (from 10am-7pm) but they have just opened a retail store downtown.

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amazing packaging

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best packaging I’ve seen in a long time

7. Corktown strip

We ate at Gold Cash Gold and especially recommend the Chef’s board which includes a very generous assortment of delicious charcuterie, cheese, and pickles!!

Two other places close by that were recommended and looked great were Slow’s BBQ and Green Dot Stables.

After dinner we hit up Sugar House for cocktails – SO GOOD!! And such a beautiful space.

Note: Gold Cash Gold, Slow’s and Sugar House are all on the same block.

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Gold Cash Gold

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Sugar House

8. And Even More Restaurants

The restaurant scene is very lively. Besides Gold Cash Gold, we also loved Selden Standard.  Fantastic design and vibe and amazing food. It’s very close to both DIA and to the Canfield/Cass intersection and is open for lunch and dinner.

Additional restaurants locals-in-the-know recommended:  Wright & Co. and St. Cece’s Pub.

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Also outdoors space in back

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Selden’s ovens

Note: We also ate at Antietam but I would NOT recommend it. The decor is very fussy and the food was average.  Did not like the vibe.

9. Eastern Market

We loved this market but were totally unprepared for its vastness. It’s the largest historic market in the country. We couldn’t figure out which sheds to visit, if there were any restaurants, what was good to see. But definitely worth checking out for flowers, baked goods, spices and the most beautiful old advertising murals.  Make sure you confirm the opening hours and days.  Rudolf Steiner and his biodynamic farming methods are popular with the organic farmers at the market.

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Plants – and at least 5 big sheds of products as well as warehouses for meats, restaurants

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Fabulous murals

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Murals

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Rudolf Steiner acolytes

10. Aloft Hotel

We loved staying here (opened in December 2014) and I’d recommend it for convenience, warm and helpful service, free wi-fi, reasonable prices. There’s no room service as far as I can tell but the rooms are comfortable and efficient. It’s right by Comerica park where the Tigers play – and my room overlooked the park so it was fun to see the game in action.

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Lobby filled with Skateboarders and their moms and dads in town for the Red Bull Hart Lines event

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Lobby from 3rd floor. Photo by Nick Belperio

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View of Comerica Park and Tigers Game from my room on 5th floor.

Additional tips:

Uber

We recommend using Uber at night when out for dinner as opposed to driving yourself. It’s very inexpensive. All the drivers we had were new to the system – and it was not quite as efficient as it is in other cities e.g. one didn’t have GPS, one had lots of personal junk in the back seat, all the cars were super tiny e.g. Ford Focus. But nevertheless being able to call for an Uber is definitely a plus.

Hamtramck

With the exception of Bon Bon Bon, the Hamtramck spots (e.g. Hamtramck Disneyland, Popps Packing, A Public Pool) were underwhelming and not worth a visit unless you have a lot of time on your hands.

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