What to see and how to stay safe in Detroit?
June 15, 2010 11:18 AM   Subscribe

DetroitFilter: I will be in Detroit for a conference next week. Help me figure out some issues of safety and sightseeing.

I'm going to be attending the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit from June 22 to 27. The conference happens at the Cobo Hall complex in, um, what looks to be downtown. I'm staying at a hotel on John R street, about half a mile away.

Obviously, I've heard a lot about how Detroit is a weird place: shrinking, crumbling. Sounds fascinating, but maybe a little scary too. Questions: Will I be safe walking from Cobo back to my hotel after dark? What's public transportation in Detroit like? Finally, I expect the conference to keep me busy, but it's also my first trip to the city and I'd love to get a feel for said industrial decay, the urban gardening I've heard so much about, and other forms of social innovation or just weirdness going on in the city. Are there any places or activities you'd recommend? Finally, if anyone knows a place in the city to stay for cheap, I'd consider canceling my expensive hotel res. and relocating, even if it means having to rent a car.

posted by toomuchkatherine to Travel & Transportation around Detroit, MI (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any recommendations for cheap places to stay, but you're really going to want to rent a car regardless of where you're staying. Public transportation is pretty much non-existent and without a car you'll be limited to the downtown area. That said, downtown is pretty great these days. There's lot of restaurants and bars. I heartily recommend Grand Trunk Pub (formerly Forans) on Woodward. It's an old railroad ticket office and they specialize in local beers and food.

Detroit's my hometown (though I haven't lived there in several years) and I grew up very close to downtown. I think you'll probably be fine walking from Cobo to a hotel on John R.
posted by fancypants at 11:38 AM on June 15, 2010

Having not lived there for awhile, I can't give you info on hotels, but I'm guessing you'd be pretty safe going from Cobo to the hotel, especially with other conference goers around. And I'll be watching for info on alternative tours - there really are some amazing people who've been doing astounding things in the city of Detroit for a Long time now. Innovative renewal!

Public transportation is still pretty minimal in Detroit from what I know - buses are the main deal, and they're not great. But, if you do have a chance to get out and about, definitely get to the DIA if you can - the Rivera Court alone is worth the trip. Greek Town is a traditional place to go for food, and it's walkable from where you are (and tasty!). But the recommendation to get a car is a decent one - with a car you could get out to eat in Mexican Village and drive up Woodward and down Jefferson and just see much more of the amazing architecture around town.
posted by ldthomps at 11:42 AM on June 15, 2010

I live near Detroit, although I don't visit the city too frequently.

Just like Los Angeles or NYC, there are dangerous areas in Detroit, and there are less dangerous areas. My feeling is that the actual downtown area where Comerica Park, Cobo Hall, the DSO, the Opera House, etc, are located is one of the less dangerous areas. If you can, I would avoid walking alone after dark in Detroit. Or in any American city, actually. If you can't avoid it, well... downtown is one of the better parts of the city to be doing it, I suppose.

I'm not sure exactly where the really bad areas of the city are. I know someone who lives near Joy Rd and Outer Dr, and their neighborhood seems to be bad. I only go to inner Detroit once per year or so on average.

Detroit is shrinking, and crumbling. But there's also a lot of newer stuff downtown too. There's some newer, fancier housing in the downtown area that's just been built in the past 5 years. Comerica Park and the surrounding area look newer and nicer than much of the city. I understand that some new casinos have just been built too, although I haven't seen them personally.

Someone who spends more time in the city might be able to give you more specific/up to date advice.
posted by Vorteks at 11:47 AM on June 15, 2010

Oh yeah, Nthing that public transportation is pretty much useless here. Detroit seems to have the attitude "we make the American cars here, and so help us we're going to use them, no matter what!"
posted by Vorteks at 11:50 AM on June 15, 2010

It should be fine to walk to/from the hotel with a group of people. It would be better not to walk alone, especially after dark.

There are several exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Arts, including a showing of Robert Frank's Detroit photos. The Diego Rivera murals are reason enough to visit the DIA. Eastern Market is always a good time. Go on Saturday. The Metro Times is one of the free local rags that has a lot of event listings.

I'm located in the Detroit 'burbs. I don't get down to the city often, but feel free to send a memail if I can help with anything.
posted by paulg at 11:51 AM on June 15, 2010

If you can, I would avoid walking alone after dark in Detroit. Or in any American city, actually.

Off the top of my head I can probably name at least 100 American cities where I, as a woman, would freely and safely walk alone after dark. At 3 in the morning - that's another story. But no one flees the streets of Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Providence, Baltimore, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, St. Louis.. shall I go on? once the sun goes down.

Detroit is a special, very sad case. I believe that on the face you will probably be fine walking to and from the hotel and Cobo but it honestly squicked me out a little bit - the decay and abandonment was just so prevalent. And I used to walk the East Village in the 80s.
posted by micawber at 12:11 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, if you're looking for something more adventurous, like urban exploration, I can't personally recommend anything beyond the usual websites like Forgotten Detroit and silentbuildings.com.
posted by paulg at 12:20 PM on June 15, 2010

Cobo and a walk of a half mile up John R--well, nothing is ABSOLUTELY safe, but yes, you'll be safe. There will be a ton of Detroit area people at the US Social Forum. There will be people from the national student cooperative association, from the Young People's Project (a math literacy group), from MSU and Wayne State and U-M. So you will be in good hands and all you have to do is ask. Listen, we know what our reputation is in the world, and we are quite friendly people who like to eat and drink and visit museums and all like that.

The DIA is definitely worth the trip up Woodward, and yes, public transportation is officially a joke. But again, I know several people from way out west here (Ann Arbor--40 miles away) that are going. You'll be right near the Music Hall and near Comerica Park (the Tigers are out of town then, though), so you'll be near the Fillmore and Cobo is near St. Andrews Hall.

I'm not much on casinos, so I can't give you a read on those, but again, there will be quite a few Detroiters at the USSF, so just put the pressure on them to show you Real Detroit.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:21 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Social innovation and weirdness at the Heidelberg Project. Went there last Thanksgiving and loved it. Art made from abandoned businesses like funeral homes and dentists' offices, from discarded stuffed animals and vehicles. That the city demolished a few of the houses in the project kind of gives you a flavor of what's gone wrong in Detroit.
posted by *s at 12:23 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd reiterate that the DIA is nice. Heidelberg project is cool, but not the nicest part of town. I was with a big school group one time when I visited and I remember thinking I probably wouldn't have been comfortable there alone. I do tend to be on the paranoid side, though.
posted by gilsonal at 1:21 PM on June 15, 2010

DIA, definitely.

My favorite "weird" place in Detroit was the parking garage at the Michigan Building. I haven't been there in a few years, but it looks like it's still open and being used as for parking. I love the main branch of the public library, too. But I have a thing for libraries.
posted by MaritaCov at 2:29 PM on June 15, 2010

Mrs. Bubba & I spent hours walking all around the McDougall-Hunt/Heidelberg Street area, and this would have been close to ten years ago, so a couple of late 40 something white folks wandering around looking at the Heidelberg project was not out of place. That said, it was daylight and we know the area. And we were climbing around on some of the abandoned properties, too. Mt. Elliot & Mack does not look like the type of neighborhood one would just loiter in if one was not familiar with the area.

Banksy has been leaving his calling card in and around Detroit Detritus; perhaps if you go on an archaeological expedition, you'll uncover a Banksyan masterpiece and make your name in the art world.
posted by beelzbubba at 3:57 PM on June 15, 2010

There is no doubt in my mind that you will need a car if you want to get around in Detroit. Here are a few other attractions that were left out from the previous posts. The DIA is a must see along with The Henry Ford Museum. I would also suggest seeing MOCAD and the Detroit Science Center. If you want authentic Detroit I suggest Baker's Keyboard Lounge, Cafe Demongos, and the Bronx Bar. No trip to Detroit is complete unless you go to Lafayette Coney Island at 4am. Slo's Bar-B-Q is the local barbecue place and down the street is PJ's Lager House which is a nice place to grab a beer and see a show. Belle Isle is nice, and I suggest seeing the conservatory, but under no circumstances stay on the island after dark. If you want to relocate and do some bar hoping activities, your best bet is to head out to Royal Oak which is about 8 miles up Woodward. If Detroit is too much for you, you can always cross the bridge and spend a night living it up in Windsor.
posted by kscottz at 6:16 PM on June 15, 2010

See what's happening at Oslo, and take pictures of the Guardian Building.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:52 PM on June 15, 2010

Detroiter now living in Baltimore here. If you are used to cities (that is, know what is dangerous and what is just some guy being drunk in public), you'll be fine walking back to your hotel. Just take the same precautions you would in any city.

The Rivera Court at the DIA is unique. You must see it, especially since you are interested in social justice. There is a recorded thingie on it you can get that goes into the political aspects more deeply. There is other cool stuff there, but the Rivera Court is stunning.

With a car, you can get to a lot more places, but Detroit is also a very hard city to get to know. You need a local guide.

I'd skip Greektown. Yeah, you can easily get there on the People Mover (the only public transit that works), but the food is expensive and mediocre. Jacoby's, an old German bar, is nearby and has both atmosphere and decent food. Get a coney island (a chili dog) for a real local experience (you can do this at the airport, which also has Gale's Chocolates, local and good).

Yeah, Henry Ford and Greenfield Village (they are calling it "The Henry Ford" these days, which is just wrong) is very interesting if you are in to mainstream US history. I especially love the village. But the Arab American Museum, also in Dearborn, is more unusual and was very good. I especially liked the kitchen exhibit. It is close to Warren Rd., where the wonderful Lebanese restaurants and stores are. Head to Shatilla for amazing Lebanese sweets and ice cream. Go to Al Amir's (or, really, any restaurant up there) for good, inexpensive Lebanese food. The Detroit Historical Museum, up by the DIA, isn't bad. It isn't fantastic, but I've always loved the Streets of Detroit exhibit in the basement.

Diamond Jack's does Detroit River cruises. I enjoyed the one going north from near the Ren Cen the best, although the one going south isn't bad, either.

When I say the public transit doesn't work, I say this as someone who doesn't own a car and who commutes 4 hours a day by public transit. When I lived in Detroit, I had a car. The buses are infrequent, off any schedule printed or unprinted and have insane routes.
posted by QIbHom at 6:02 AM on June 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. I came and went. Unfortunately, I ended up being pretty busy with the conference and didn't get to see much of town except for a couple of daylight walks downtown, which were interesting, and a jaunt over to Lafayette Park, which is a Mies Van Der Rohe-designed housing development from the late '50s, tucked into a space just east of Greektown. It was lovely; I recommend it as a fun destination for an architecture nerd, especially during good weather, since all you can really do is walk around outside the homes.

I agree with all those who said it's a good idea to have a car and even better to have a local guide. I felt that the city would be hard (but rewarding) to get to know, and would like to go back sometime if I ever get the chance to stay with a resident.

I've read and read about the decay of Detroit, but the extent of it surprised me anyway. I think I didn't expect downtown in particular to feel so abandoned. Someone at the Social Forum told me that Detroit has twenty-something percent unemployment, but based on my walks around, I would have guessed higher.

Anyway, a fascinating place, even on a quick look: obviously full of pain and obviously home to a significant amount of hope, too.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 9:57 AM on June 26, 2010

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