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A City Lover's Guide to the Motor City

12/13/2012 05:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2013

For those of us who love cities in all their giddy, gritty glory, the Motor City awaits.

Although struggling economically over recent decades, Detroit offers experiences you expect from a world-class city: heart-stopping architecture, a bustling waterfront, topnotch art, convivial nightlife, great food, picturesque city squares, a crowded public market, memorable strolls and a spirit all its own.

Let me start this Motor City tour with a confession. Despite being a lifelong Midwesterner and veteran travel writer, I had always avoided Detroit. I expected to be depressed seeing a once-grand place pummeled by economic disinvestment. I finally made the trip two years ago, and witnessed scenes of abandonment and decay that almost broke my heart--but also examples of perseverance and creativity that stirred my soul.

Later I was introduced to the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program at Wayne State University, which tapped 29 young professionals from across the U.S. to become part of organizations working to revive the city. The project--funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State--is part of an unprecedented philanthropic effort to reinvigorate Detroit.

Seeing Detroit through the Fellows' eyes--both Motor City natives and newcomers--I got an up-close look at a city that has fallen farther than any other but is now waging an exciting comeback.

The Motor City On Foot

Surprises abound, beginning with the fact that you can actually see a lot of the Motor City comfortably on foot. Woodward Avenue offers an intriguing urban promenade covering two miles between Midtown and Downtown--the nuclei of Detroit's revitalization. Home to Wayne State University and the not-to-miss Detroit Institute of Arts, Midtown is a haven for the young and the hip who congregate for house-brewed ales at the Motor City Brewing Works, scones at the Avalon International Breads.

Stroll south on Woodward Avenue from the DIA, and you'll see new housing and office developments with shops on the ground floor in the classic urban style--signs of Midtown's building boom. The streetlife on Woodward showcases all sides of Detroit--an Anime-themed café, social service agencies, a swank restaurant in a refurbished old mansion, old people watching the world go by, a Whole Foods store opening next year, the Majestic bowling alley/rock club, and one of the city's ubiquitous Coney Island hot dog stands (which is a traditional street food of Detroit).

Coming into downtown, you're greeted by the Tigers' handsome new ballpark and the lavish Fox Theater, home to touring shows, musicians and comedians. Ahead you'll pass Grand Circus Park, one of several landscaped squares downtown laid out 300 years ago as part of the city's European-style street plan. Handsome mid-rise buildings line Woodward and surrounding avenues, a number of them empty but not detracting too much from the overall sense of vitality.

"Downtown has really had a turning point since I moved here. There's been a lot of work to make the area feel safe and clean," notes Fellow Thomas Habitz, an urban planner with the Henry Ford Health System.

Campus Martius--an inviting square renovated in 2004 to include a café, music stage, ice rink and mesmerizing fountain--lured $500 million in new development to adjacent blocks. Nearby stands the 1928 Guardian Building--an Art Deco masterpiece that for my money is the most strikingly gorgeous building ever built in America. A riot of color and ziggurat styling, it looks like a co-production by ancient Egyptians and Mayans with Louis Comfort Tiffany as a design consultant.

Wandering off Woodward leads to some singularly fascinating spots such as 1515, a coffeeshop and experimental theater with a Left Bank ambience; Cliff Bell's, an art deco jazz club with a Prohibition ambience; the London Chop House, a recently reopened steakhouse with a Rat Pack ambience; and Café D'Mongo's, a nightspot with an eclectic ambience all its own.

Woodward Avenue meets the Detroit River at Hart Plaza, the social focal point of downtown and site of many festivals throughout the summer. Check out the iconic sculpture of boxer Joe Louis's arm and the deeply moving Underground Railroad Memorial showing escaped slaves looking across the river toward Canada.

Rolling Along the River

To see more of Detroit on foot, follow the River Walk, which edges the bright blue Detroit River five miles from downtown to Belle Isle, a Frederick Law Olmsted park with sweeping lawns and landscaped lagoons occupying a 982-acre island. Or see the sights on bike by renting from Wheelhouse Detroit.

You'll pass Renaissance Center, GM headquarters and showpiece of the outdated 1970s strategy to renew downtowns by concentrating new development in fortresses set apart from everything else. A little over a mile up the the path, you can enjoy a picnic or just kick back in the shadow of a lighthouse in William A. Milliken State Park, Michigan's first urban state park. It's the trailhead for the DeQuindre Cut Greenway, a rail line fashioned into an oasis-like biking and hiking trail, which will lead you one mile to the edge of the Eastern Market--which features 250 vendors from the region, plus surrounding blocks filled with bountiful bakeries, meat markets and specialty gourmet shops.

More Motown Sights

Corktown, next to Midtown, draws young people with loft apartments and hipsterati hot spots like Slow's Bar BQ and the Sugar House. A four-floor warehouse of used books, John K. King books, is the most complete bookstore I've ever browsed apart from New York's Strand and Portland's Powell's.

You wouldn't go to Athens or Rome without seeing the ruins, and neither would many visitors to Detroit. The city's industrial freefall and population loss (from 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 today) left spectacular scenes of devastation - documented by photographers in a genre dubbed "ruin porn." The two best examples are Michigan Central Railroad Depot, an imposing 18-story train station on the edge of Corktown where every pane of glass is broken, and the Packard Plant, a 3,5000,000-square-foot auto factory by eminent architect Albert Kahn on East Grand Boulevard. It was abandoned in 1958 and later made musical history as the site of raves, where techno music first gained popularity in the late 1980s.

Less than 4 miles west on Grand Boulevard is an even more world-renown musical shrine-- a modest frame house where Berry Gordy lived on the second floor. Superstars like Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations and Four Tops recorded a mountain of hits downstairs. You can see the dining room table that was the shipping department, the couch where Marvin Gaye sometimes slept after all-night recording sessions and the desk where receptionist Martha Reeves greeted visitors - the Martha Reeves who later sang a memorable ode to the exuberance of city life:

"Summer's here and the time is right
For dancin' in the streets

They're dancin' in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
Up in New York City...
Philadelphia, PA
Baltimore and DC now
Yeah, don't forget the Motor City
(Can't forget the Motor City)"

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas got it right in 1964 - anyone who truly savors urban life can't forget the Motor City.

Lodging

Stay at the Inn on Ferry Street in Midtown, a block of lovely brick mansions fashioned into a comfortable home away from home. Or if you want to be on the water, try Roberts Riverwalk Hotel in a grand 1902 building that was once the research institute of the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company.