Juxtaposition City: Dejected? Delightful? It’s Detroit

“Ugh my flight is delayed again, and I’m landing late. I’m going be driving through Detroit at past one in the morning. I hope I don’t get carjacked!”

These were the words I said to my mother while my plane was grounded in Chicago; delayed once again. Most definitely not my proudest moment.

From what I had read and heard about Detroit it was ugly, dangerous, crime-ridden, run-down and a place no one wants to be; even the people who were unfortunate enough to live there. The residents have been described to me as rough, tough and just generally not nice. And yet I had to be there. A co-worker was originally supposed to attend the event for which I flew in. Instead he was called into a three-day meeting and asked if I could go in his place. You could liken our conversation to someone drawing the short straw and that someone was me! We all joked about how I got “stuck” with Detroit.

After delays out of both San Diego and Chicago, I had arrived. Finally. It was late, I was tired, hungry and grumpy. If you’ve never flown through Detroit, the airport is huge and it’s quite a walk to get just about anywhere. Finally, I got to the shuttle terminal and just as I was walking up the shuttle driver was pulling away. I shouted, “Hey! Wait!” What was this? The driver actually stopped and waited? I was surprised.

At the rental counter, I was told to use the kiosk. I had already tried but my first name isn’t David though the kiosk was trying to convince me I was named for a Michelangelo statue. Long story short, my rental reservation was somehow mixed up. I was not a happy camper, yet these supposed rough, tough, “not nice” people were working to fix the issue while I was moaning and being nothing short of “one of those people.”

Finally I was told to select one of two cars. I got the black Jetta all loaded up and it wouldn’t start. Then the second car had no keys in it. Was this an omen of things to come? As I griped some more, I was cheerfully dealt with which made me a bit embarrassed as I told the staff I hope they got out of there soon and that they didn’t have to deal with anymore people like me. I apologized and they smiled, laughed and shrugged it off as if I wasn’t a bother at all. I was not ready for “not nice” people to be so damn merciful.

I made my way the twenty minutes or so on the highway into downtown. Most hotels were booked by the time I had made my reservation, so I was not looking forward to staying at the Greektown Casino-Hotel. I ended up at the Casino entrance and either the man who gave me directions to get the hotel instructed me wrong or I was too tired for it to compute and I ended up in a cul-de-sac pointing me to a parking garage that was starting to look mighty enticing had I had a sleeping bag! I called the hotel and the nicest woman guided me step-by-step to my home away from home, staying with me on the phone until I pulled up to the valet. I walked in and was greeted by a quiet, impeccable lobby and a friendly face with a lovely smile. This was making no sense at all!

I was given a room on the top floor and so ready to fall into bed.  MADE IT!

The next day, I had lunch plans with a Facebook friend. Candidly, I was telling myself I was really glad I hadn’t posted anything negative about Detroit on my Facebook page because I was about to meet someone who calls the area home!

I got directions from the front desk staff and made my way down Monroe to Campus Martius. I was greeted by smiles and ‘hellos’ the entire time. Where were all these rough, tough, “not nice” people I had heard so much about? “Hey beautiful! I love that smile you’re wearing today!” exclaimed one jovial gent and wait a minute, yes! He was right. I was wearing a smile. Detroit was having an affect on me. “Heather, you may have had this one wrong.” Oh how I did…

I arrived after a short walk. If Monroe Street is one of the veins of downtown; I’d say Campus Martius is the heartbeat. A collection of food trucks, music, greenery, buildings old and new and people from every walk of life, once again Detroit had something up its sleeve I hadn’t expected: community.

I had the best time with my friend and her husband enjoying our El Guapo Grill bowls and chatting about life and travel. I loved listening to the stories of how they met and what they think of the city. Hours flew by, literally! Before I knew it, it was time to go and I decided I’d rush over to Canada to visit the Harley Davidson store. I walked back to the hotel and ran into my Chicago-based co-workers. One told me not to worry about seeing water leak in the tunnel. Ummmm yeah. Thanks. Not worried at all!

Along the way:

My hotel off to the left
St. Mary’s across the street from the casino

I somehow missed a turn and ended up on the bridge. There is no divider in the middle and that was definitely an experience!

When I drove back over to the US side, the border agent asked me to show him my pins and poker chip. I happily obliged and he chuckled that only a Harley Davidson owner would pay ten dollars in tolls to get less than $10 of product! Truth.

Thunder Road Harley Davidson:

Proving I was there. The all-important selfie!

I got back to the hotel and answered emails. One of my co-workers texted to go have dinner and I decided to get ready only to discover…

…apparently, I didn’t do so well on the packing! I probably could have gotten away with it, but one shoe has a 1/4″ taller heel and walking lopsided all night didn’t seem appealing.

I settled on my black wedges and off we went for a fabulous Greek dinner at Pegasus Tavernas. One of my co-workers who is actually from Detroit says it is the best in town! So I told him to just order for me. He branched out on my behalf and though I was not feeling the fire, the Saganaki “Opa!” goat cheese was delicious. Not a lamb person I was skeptical when he chose it for a main dish, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s cooked for three days! The potatoes were fabulous as was the baklava. We spoke about my thoughts on the city and how surprised I was. He smiled, knowingly and off we went to work.

The stroll:

The event went smashingly. Six or so hours later, I was in my hotel room ready for some sleep and really sad to be leaving Detroit the next day. There was so much left I wanted to see! I decided to get up early thanks to a Tweet by Travel Mindset who had also referred to Detroit as a juxtaposition:

While I didn’t make it to Green Dot Stables (next time!), I really wanted to see The Heidelberg Project. I had never heard of it before and while it wasn’t quite on the way to the airport, it wasn’t so far that I had to skip it. I drove to Detroit’s East Side and almost missed the turn. At the last second, I saw “Heidelberg Street” and took a right. I pulled over and was greeted by an elderly gentleman who smiled and wished me a good morning. I got out of my rental car, looked ahead and knew I wanted more time.

I have tried to articulate my thoughts on this neighborhood at least a hundred times. They do a much better job than I:

The Heidelberg Project was founded by Tyree Guyton. Taken from their website: It offers a forum for ideas, a seed of hope, and a bright vision for the future. It’s about taking a stand to save forgotten neighborhoods. It’s about helping people think outside the box and it’s about offering solutions. It’s about healing communities through art – and it’s working!

Indeed it is. I could have spent hours. I had only minutes…

I don’t know why, but tears formed in my eyes. I was very touched that a community cares enough about itself and its people to make such a strong statement, to walk to the beat of its own drum and to overcome being forgotten. Forgotten. How can we do that?

I know I won’t soon forget. I hope I have done some justice here to such a beautiful project. I know it is picture heavy, please know each of these was taken thoughtfully:

Even among the dilapidation there is still beauty and a sense of renewal:

This was the last house I snapped a photo of before I left to the airport. I imagined when it was first built the glory that must have stood there. Guyton and the Heidelberg Project are bringing that glory back.

I left Detroit, sad, that I did not have more time for it to keep proving me wrong. The constant contradiction; old and new; relapse and renewal, abandonment and achievement, it all left me wanting to learn more.

On the way back to San Diego, my flight out of Chicago was canceled. I was re-routed through Phoenix and the plane hit a bird (rest in peace little bird). We were grounded for quite a while to make sure none of the remains got into other parts of the plane. I chuckled to myself it was travel karma for starting a trip off with a closed mind.

I expected to get nothing out of this quick jaunt yet Detroit delivered. And I’m already anticipating my return.

For a great piece on the Heidelberg Project check out Travel Mindset’s take by clicking here.

This entry has been added to the #SundayTraveler Link-up. For more great travel adventures, check out the link-up at Frank About Croatia by clicking here.