Did you know that Michigan is the 11th largest state based on land size? Or that Alaska is the only state with more water included in its borders? Michigan is actually surprisingly huge – although Lake Superior is even more surprising (Trust me, the question “How many Liechtensteins would fit in Lake Superior” has become an inside joke).
As I covered at the beginning of the summer, my roommate came to visit West Virginia for a little over a week, which allowed me to make a series of blog posts traveling around the state. Our plan was that at the end of the summer, I would visit Michigan, where her family lives. In my last post, I talked about the Greyhound ride to get to Detroit, and in this one I will follow-up by talking a bit about what I did in Michigan. I was there for two weeks, but mostly in Detroit, so I’ve decided to make a Top Five list of my favorite places there and to do another post later about our trip up north – all the way to Lake Superior.
First, a note on Detroit. Before going, I honestly did not know a lot except that (1.) They use a lot of French words they can’t pronounce, (2.) the Ford Motor Company exists, and they got into my elementary school history books thanks to the assembly line, and (3.) the city went bankrupt a few years ago.
I stand by my opinion on the French; while driving along, we would choose various road or town names and compare my French accent with the actual Michigan pronunciation just for kicks. However, I did learn a lot more about the history and present of Detroit. Like everywhere in the US, Michigan was home to several Native American tribes and had a complicated history with them to say the least. Early European settlers were mostly French fur traders, and before the Ford Motor Company really put it on the map, Detroit was founded in 1701 by a French guy whose family apparently knew how to invest their money: Antoine Cadillac. Yeah, Detroit has some old money – or old by American standards anyway.
There were a few battles from the War of 1812 fought in Michigan, but it was after all the non-French immigrants arrived that Detroit started to boom. All that nice late 19th-early 20th century architecture dates to this period. This was the factory age. And while it wasn’t exactly a utopia for the many working-class folks, they did have jobs that were largely given out without racial bias. The Depression brought things down a bit, but WWII saw a rise in production, especially airplanes. In the second half of the 20th century, Detroiters pushed for equality but also saw a lot of tension as that happened; for a timeline, Motown Records was established in 1959 and the most famous Detroit Race Riots were in 1967. Honestly, I could write a lot about race and class in Detroit from WWII-now because I find it to be the most interesting part of the history, but suffice to say, a lot has happened, and it’s worth a trip to the Detroit Historical Museum, which also touches on modern issues.
#5: Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village
Henry Ford was a collector, particularly of inventions and anything related to American history. He collected so many artifacts in fact that he eventually couldn’t fit them in his house. The Henry Ford Museum was a way to share this collection with the world and to educate American youth about their history. Greenfield Village, adjacent, was a living replica of American history. Some buildings are the original, like Robert Frost’s house or the Wright Brothers’ Bike Shop. Ford identified places like these and arranged to move the buildings on site. Others are reconstructions that show what a Southern plantation looked like, all the way down to reconstructed slave quarters. It’s a bit like Colonial Williamsburg, but the buildings – and associated employees in period costume – are from various points in American History. There are also a couple of amazing restaurants, which use a lot of what is grown in the Greenfield Village gardens. You can even have a sasparilla at the Eagle Tavern.
#4: Belle Isle
In the middle of the Detroit River, there is a small island, which today is a recreational park known as Belle Isle. It’s a nice area with a lot of Neo-Classical architecture that makes me think of Daniel Burnham’s 19th century dream of a Neo-Classical America. Detroit was having its hey-day around that time, so a lot of the architecture as you drive to Belle Isle consists of stunning old mansions. My favorite part of Belle Isle though is the Conservatory which is full of plants from all over the world.
#3: Eastern Market
Farmer’s Markets are always great, and Eastern Market is the largest (public) market in the US. It has pretty much anything you could want from fruits and veggies to fresh meat, flowers, and popcorn. It’s a huge area; besides the actual food part of the market, there are also some restaurants and stores with local crafts and chocolates. This was definitely one of my favorite places.
#2: Detroit Zoo
The Detroit Zoo is easily the best zoo I’ve ever visited. It’s huge, first of all, but it’s also really well done with plenty of space for the animals. I loved the Butterfly Garden and the grizzly bears, but I think my favorite was definitely the Penguin House. The layout of the zoo was also just really well done, and there were several places to picnic while still watching the nearby enclosures for animals.
#1: Detroit Institute of Art
This had to be on the list because I love art, and this was an amazing museum. It’s so massive that we didn’t even see everything, but I still saw so much and was just in awe of the collection. A highlight of course are the Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, which were done in a traditional fresco style. This means that the mural is literally part of the wall now just like frescoes in Ancient Rome or the Renaissance.
Besides this, they have the largest collection of American Art that I’ve seen in person, which includes Thomas Cole landscapes, Mary Cassatt Impressionist pieces, and more modern Andy Warhols. There are collections of home wares both from European history and American, even some pieces by Paul Revere, who, besides warning about the British, was also a silversmith and engraver. The lower level features art from other parts of the world both ancient and modern. In one room, you can learn about Japanese tea ceremonies, and in another, you can see modern Anish Kapoor pieces. I was in the museum for about four hours, and I could have stayed for at least four more. And of course the building itself is very Beaux-Arts and thus amazing.
Detroit is a city with a lot of history that can be viewed as a microcosm of American history. It has problems, yes, but it’s also really worth a visit – at least to try a Coney Dog.
Bonus fact: 511.3 Lichtensteins could fit on the surface of Lake Superior.