Detroit Field Trip #1

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Thanks to those on Twitter who sent me additional titles for my Detroit reading list—I now have several more books on reserve at the library.

After reading so many hundreds of pages about the city, I was itching to get there and see it in person. The Saturday of Labor Day weekend provided the perfect opportunity—the University of Michigan’s football team had a home game, so I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere in Ann Arbor itself—and spectacular weather. I also heard from a co-worker that the free Detroit Jazz Festival would be taking place that weekend, which meant I could combine sightseeing and good music.

I wanted to start, though, at the Detroit Historical Museum, located slightly north of the central downtown district in an area that includes Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the main branch of the public library (I would have gone in there as well, but it was closed for the holiday weekend). I initially had a little bit of trouble locating the museum, as Google Maps didn’t account for the neighborhood’s many construction projects and street detours—which would become a recurring theme throughout the day, as much of downtown Detroit is under construction right now.

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When I finally found the museum, I was pleasantly surprised by its size: knowing that admission is free, I didn’t expect that the museum would be all that large. But it is, and it’s very well done—its size and quality only slightly below those of the urban history museums in Shanghai and Chicago, which are my gold standards (and, incidentally, neither of those institutions is free). Following the advice of the volunteer staffing the front desk, I started in the “Frontiers to Factories” gallery, which offers a brief history of Detroit from its founding in 1701 through the turn of the twentieth century, when the city was well established as an industrial center but not quite the powerhouse it would become. I then walked downstairs to the “Streets of Old Detroit,” where curators have created life-size dioramas of city scenes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although there weren’t a huge number of visitors to the museum while I was there, the Streets of Old Detroit were crowded with guests at a child’s birthday party, squealing with excitement as they discussed the goods available in the five-and-dime. Historical museums aren’t going to be nearly as much fun when this kind of exhibit just features a laptop displaying the Amazon home page.

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I headed back upstairs and skipped the “Kid Rock Music Lab” (sensory overload) in favor of the “Gallery of Culture” and “America’s Motor City” exhibit. Fun piece of trivia from the Gallery of Culture: Detroit is the nation’s leader in bowling lanes per capita. Who knew?

Galleries on the second floor recounted Detroit’s history with the Underground Railroad (it was the last stop before Canada) and as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II. Since I was getting somewhat hungry and restless by that point, I moved through those exhibits rather quickly—but the beauty of a free museum is that you know it’s not a big deal to come back another time.

I left the museum, retrieved my car, and headed down Woodward Avenue to the waterfront area, where the combination of street closures from construction projects and the jazz festival had created a massive traffic jam. Spotting a $10 flat-rate parking lot, I decided I was better off leaving my car there and setting off for my next destination on foot.

There was no question what I would eat for lunch: Detroit’s signature food, the Coney dog. Not surprisingly, the Coney dog is linked to the city’s industrial past: factory workers wanted a lunch that was cheap, filling, and fast, and found it in the hot dogs with meat sauce (which are apparently NOT chili dogs) sold at small lunch counters known as Coney Islands. Although the factories have closed, the Coney dogs remain, and there’s fierce debate about which restaurant offers the best one. That debate centers on two Coney Islands in particular—Lafayette and American—which are located next to each other in downtown Detroit. I’d read that Lafayette had a slight edge in quality, but the restaurant itself was something of a dump, while American’s dogs weren’t quite as good but the atmosphere was nicer.

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I actually didn’t decide which one I would choose until I stood across Lafayette Boulevard and sized them both up. Lafayette Coney Island did indeed look like it had seen better days. But American looked too slick: to the right of the tiny original lunch counter was an expanded fast-food style restaurant, with a shiny checkerboard floor and sign in the window announcing their new Las Vegas location. Las Vegas? Forget about it. I wanted my heartburn on a bun from a local institution, not an empire. Lafayette it was.

Lafayette was less grimy inside than I’d expected, and its grittier appearance certainly wasn’t deterring customers: every seat at the counter was full, and most tables were as well. I nabbed a spot at the end of a long communal table and ordered one Coney dog with everything (meat sauce, chopped raw onions, mustard), plus a Vernor’s ginger ale (also a local product). Seconds later, it seemed, the gruff server clattered a plate containing my lunch on the table in front of me, dropping a fork beside it. I hadn’t expected that a hot dog would require utensils, but with my first bite meat sauce dripped from the end and the bun began to fall apart in my hand. I picked up the fork and used it as I finished the rest of my first Coney dog.

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How was it? Overall, I would pick a Chicago-style hot dog over a Coney dog, only because in my world pickles beat mystery-meat sauce every time. But I certainly understood why factory workers found Coney dogs a satisfying meal.

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Needing to walk off my meat-on-meat lunch, I aimed toward the waterfront, where I found the jazz festival in full swing. I wasn’t quite ready to sit down and listen to the music, though, so I strolled south on the walkway running along the river. Windsor, Ontario lay across the blue-green water, a small collection of mid-sized high-rises and one building stretching many stories above the rest. On closer examination, I realized it was a Caesar’s casino. Oh, Canada.

I walked as far south as the Joe Louis Arena’s People Mover stop and thought about going for a ride on the small circular monorail line, but had to discard that idea when I realized I didn’t have enough change for the 75-cent fare. This is reflective of a larger adjustment I need to make in Michigan, which is remembering to have cash on hand at all times. In New York it’s nearly unheard of not to accept credit cards, and I had gotten into the habit of using my debit card for pretty much everything; I almost never needed to have actual cash in my wallet. Things are different out here: I’d had to pay for both parking and my lunch with cash, and only had $5 left. The People Mover could wait for next time.

I retraced my path up the riverfront, the jazz music growing louder as I drew closer to Hart Plaza. Staking out a spot on the grass, I lay down and let the music fill my mind and quiet it. I don’t know much about jazz, but I like music that can sidetrack my brain as it tries to race from things I need to do to things I need to remember to books I should request at the library to what I should make for dinner that night …

After chilling at the festival for a while, I gathered my things and started walking back into downtown Detroit. At some point I’d like to do a tour of the city focused on its architecture and historic buildings, but I decided to make a quick stop into one I’d heard was worth a visit: the Guardian Building. I was not the only one interested in this Art Deco landmark, as I found when I entered the lobby and immediately noticed more than a dozen other tourists training large cameras on the many intricate artistic flourishes of the “Cathedral of Finance.”

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Everywhere I looked, something new caught my eye. Walls of sand-colored marble gave way to a colorful tile ceiling; ziggurats staggered above the elevator lobbies. At the far end of the main hall, a mural depicted Michigan and its industries. Not even the Bank of America logos all over the place could take away from the magnificent decor. I realized I should make it a point to return on a tour, as I was sure that the lobby alone contained many design features and symbols that I was unaware of; I needed a professional to explain what I was seeing.

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After leaving the Guardian Building, I wandered around downtown for a while longer, vaguely heading in the direction of my planned final destination. I detoured around closed sidewalks and orange construction cones; scaffolding wrapped around many building façades. Downtown Detroit is getting rebuilt with a vengeance, although I’ve heard that many neighborhoods are still left to fend for themselves—a situation very similar to Philadelphia’s when I was growing up.

I was, in fact, walking toward a local business with a Philadelphia connection: the Detroit Water Ice Factory. Water ice—a staple summer dessert where I come from—is actually not all that well-known outside the Mid-Atlantic. And while I might only go out for water ice once or twice a year when I’m in Philadelphia, as soon as I learned it’s practically unheard of in Michigan, I really wanted some. (There is a Rita’s Water Ice in Sterling Heights, MI, but even I admit it’s a little extreme to drive more than two hours round-trip just for water ice.) A bit of googling told me that author Mitch Albom had founded the Detroit Water Ice Factory, which raises money for a variety of local causes.

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A sign next to the counter at the Water Ice Factory addressed a question no Philadelphian would ever need to ask—“What is Water Ice?”—and I’ll admit that I took issue with some of the flavors offered (banana?!?). I was pleased to see, however, that the store had picked up one of Rita’s greatest inventions, a layered water ice and frozen custard dessert that in Philadelphia is called a gelati. In Detroit it’s a “Motown Twist.” In the interest of an accurate comparison, I ordered exactly what I would have gotten at Rita’s: cherry water ice, vanilla custard.

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I was in heaven. There was a little too much custard for my taste (the ratio is a matter of personal preference, and I think water ice should be about two-thirds of the dessert, rather than half), but the water ice itself was perfect.

Not everyone agreed with me. As I sat there eating my Motown Twist and feeling a brain freeze creeping on, I saw a teenage girl with her family eat a few spoonfuls of water ice, make a face, and push it away. Another woman walked to the counter with her barely touched cup of water ice and tried to return it, explaining, “I just don’t like it as much as I thought I would.” Sacrilege. Most people, though, seemed satisfied—especially the older couple sitting at an outdoor table who alternated bites of water ice with sips from their cans of Bud Light, a combination I’ve never thought to try.

I need the Detroit Water Ice Factory to stay in business. As much as I enjoy exploring a new city and trying new things, it’s wonderful to have access to something familiar and comforting, too.

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