It was fun telling people that I was going to vacation in Detroit. After all the bad press that the city has received, it was no surprise that the facial expressions I saw after sharing my travel plans were quite entertaining.
But I'd read enough about the Motor City (and I've actually written about its growing popularity with meeting planners) to know that this was a unique opportunity to witness a historic city that's now recasting its future. So I flew to Chicago to meet up with my best friend from high school, rented a car and headed straight for Detroit (stopping once in Kalamazoo for donuts).
Detroit may continue to make headlines as the largest U.S. city to enter bankruptcy, but during our visit -- my first time ever in the Motor City, other than changing planes at the airport -- I found a lot more to catch my interest than economic woes. First off, I was charmed by the friendliness of the people; everyone from tour guides to those who work in shops, restaurants and hotels were candidly honest about the city's situation, yet exceedingly enthusiastic about the future.
Among the highlights of our visit:
• Spending a morning strolling down down Nine Mile Road, an commercial street in the town of Ferndale, where artsy shops, restaurants and a gay community center with its own art gallery were among the draws -- as well as Rust Belt Market, an artists' collective that stocks all kinds of treasures and hosts interesting events.
• Admiring the architectural beauty of buildings like the Fisher Building, a gorgeous art deco 1928 skyscraper, and Cadillac Place, an imposing office complex built between 1919 and 1923. Both are National Historic Landmarks. (We refueled with tasty handmade pizza at Motor City Brewing Works, near Wayne State University.)
• Taking a walking tour called "Detroit's Rise, Fall & Renewal" in downtown Detroit with a company called Detroit Urban Adventures. Led by an attorney who is one of the thousands of recent transplants to downtown's growing residential scene, he showed us a lot during the two-hour stroll. Among the top sites: the ornate yet currently empty Wurlitzer building, which once housed the eponymous organ company's offices, and Book Tower, a finely detailed skyscraper that dates to 1916. The Guardian Building is an absolute must-see; this 36-story skyscraper, completed in 1929, has a fabulously colorful art-deco interior. We also learned about Detroit's future, as we rode the People Mover and checked out buildings that are quickly being refurbished to host new hotels, apartments and offices. After the tour, we drove to the massive, glorious (yet empty) Michigan Central Station, which was the tallest train station in the world when it opened in 1913.
• Wandering around Greenfield Village, a collection (originally envisioned by Henry Ford) of pristine historic buildings that includes the former homes of several famous people, including the Firestones, poet Robert Frost, and Noah Webster.
Visiting Detroit was one of the most interesting short vacations I've had in a long time. It was a chance to see urban challenges, to be sure, but also an opportunity to see a city with an optimistic determination to move forward, as it aims to preserve as much of its history as possible. There aren't many places on earth that provide such a fascinating opportunity to see the evolution of a metropolis.