I picked Detroit as the first city to visit on my trip, largely because it was one of the few remaining major cities in the United States that I hadn't visited previously. Detroit is known globally for its strong ties to industry and manufacturing, and particularly to the automobile industry. All of the historic "Big Three" car companies in America (Ford, GM, and Dodge) were established in Detroit and still retain their corporate headquarters in the greater Detroit area. In more recent years, Detroit has suffered from significant population migration away from the city and crippling budget shortages, which ultimate resulted in the city declaring bankruptcy in 2013. These two facts are tied together; while Detroit's politics have been mismanaged for decades, it would have been difficult for any city to cope with a population decline of 60% hitting at the same time that an aging population began needing to tap into its promised pensions. There are thousands of abandoned buildings scattered around Detroit, leftover relics from the earlier boom days now slowly crumbling into dust. Fortunately, Detroit has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in the downtown area in recent years, and it retains one of the most vibrant cultural and artistic scenes in the country. This is the city that produced musical talents as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Kid Rock, and Eminem. It was one of the places that I had to see for myself on this trip across the heartland of America.
I started my vacation early on a Friday morning. I woke up at 4:30 AM and quietly loaded up the car with my three main essentials for the trip: a small suitcase of clothes, my laptop computer, and my digital camera. This new camera was a replacement for the beloved one that I had taken all across Europe in 2016, only to leave by accident on the DC Metro and never see again. Someone picked up a very nice souvenir for themselves that evening. This new camera accompanied me throughout this trip and did a magnificent job of capturing images, for example the picture above recording the starting milage of my car before setting out. I would be keeping track of exactly how far I went over the course of this vacation.
As for the drive up to Detroit itself, it passed in uneventful fashion. It takes about eight hours to drive from the northern suburbs of Washington DC to Detroit, and my expected time of arrival on the smartphone navigation never varied by more than a few minutes. I was going to be doing a lot of solo driving in the days ahead, thousands and thousands of miles of it, and therefore it's worth mentioning how I was passing the time while driving. I spent most of that driving time listening to different podcasts, different sports and politics and gaming themed shows, interspersed with listening to music for a change of pace. My car had a Bluetooth connection and I was able to run everything off of my mobile phone through the car's speakers, in addition to using Google Maps for navigation. All of this has gotten so much easier for travelers in the course of the last decade, and it's a significant upgrade from trips that I did as recently as four or five years ago. When I did a similar driving trip through Eastern Canada in 2013, I was still using a satellite GPS system that attached to my car's windshield and listening mostly to CDs that I had owned since my high school days. It's easy now to keep yourself entertained on even the longest crosscountry drives.
My first stop was located a little bit north of the downtown area of Detroit at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant. This museum is basically in the middle of nowhere as far as Detroit is concerned, tucked into an area of rundown and abandoned industrial buildings that had me wondering if I had arrived at the right location. But this was indeed correct, and it made sense that the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant was situated in this former industrial area. This particular brick building was constructed in 1904 and was the first factory built by the Ford motor company. This was where Henry Ford designed the Model T car, and the place where he first began experimenting with assembly line techniques. (This was not the original Ford plant, which was the Ford Mack Avenue Plant, but that building no longer exists after it burned down in the 1940s.) The Piquette Avenue Plant is also notable for being the oldest car manufacturing museum still open to the public. There was an early Ford car picking up passengers when I arrived at the parking lot, and it helped to set the mood for the rest of the visit.
The museum for the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant is located on the second and third floors of the building, and visitors initially start out by walking up a staircase to the museum show floor. There was a tour group just starting out when I arrived, and I was able to listen along to the guide as I poked around the museum. The building itself was easily recognizable as an old factory, with an industrial feel that trendy new restaurants often try to evoke in their decor. This was the original, authentic version of the industrial design. Of course the main attraction of the museum was the presence of classic Ford automobiles from the early history of the company, and there was no shortage of them displayed across the two floors. The red automobile was a 1909 Ford Model T, one of the oldest Model Ts still in existence. The informational sign claimed that it had serial number 220, which is pretty impressive considering that over 10 million Model Ts were built over the following decades. This was one of the few Model Ts actually built at the Piquette Avenue Plant.
I took pictures of a bunch of the classic Ford designs from the early days of the company. The cars that predate the Model T were generally luxury designs that catered to the wealthy, and as a result they tend to feature elegant craftsmanship that still evokes a sense of style despite the primitive nature of the automobiles. The green car was a 1904 Model B Tonneau, an expensive luxury car priced at $2000 and which has only a few surviving models still in existence today. The white car was a 1908 Model K Roadster, another high end pricey car that could reach a speed of 70 miles/hour (about 115 km/hour). Given the state of the roads in the early 1900s, that sounds like a spectacularly bad idea to me; this was essentially the drag racer for gentlemen of the Edwardian era. And finally, the black car depicts the view from behind the wheel of a classic 1915 Model T, the same car mass produced in the millions for the common people. Driving a Model T is a bizarre experience for modern individuals since the car didn't control anything like current automobiles. There were three pedals: the left pedal controlled the gear shifting (obviously no automatic transmission in those days), the center pedal was for driving in reverse, and the right pedal was for braking. That's right, the Model T did not have a gas pedal! The lever next to the steering wheel controlled the speed of the car. All of this sounds totally insane to us today, but drivers in the 1910s had no preconceptions about how driving was supposed to work, and the Model T was supposedly pretty easy to learn how to use. I think that I would be horribly confused if I tried to drive this vehicle today.
The third floor had more cars, naturally, with these designs either coming from a bit later in the Ford company's history or serving some kind of unusual specialized purpose. There was an early example of a commercial vehicle in the form of this car owned by a florist company (from Suitland, Maryland no less!) and a car with skis replacing the front wheels designed to be used in the snow. Elsewhere, a lengthy car with a yellow wagon bed attached dating from 1916 represented the forerunner to modern trucking designs. This is the antediluvian version of the 18 wheeler trucks that transport so many of our modern goods today. One of the things that I love about these old cars is the obvious influence of horse drawn carriages; many of the earliest car designers were literally carriages with the horse replaced by a motor engine. Only with time and additional refinement did car designs start to become more aerodynamic and begin to take on more of the shapes that we know today. The Silbey Lumber Company vehicle above shows this transformation at an early stage and that makes it a fascinating artifact from the early days of the 20th century.
Other cars came from later dates, like the 1931 Model A Roadster in the first picture above. This car was vastly more affordable than some of the other luxury designs in other pictures, retailing for only $500 in 1931 and therefore entering the availability range of mass ownership, at least until the Great Depression crushed car sales. The other car dates from a much later period indeed, in the form of the 2004 GT Halo model. This was a prototype Ford design that had an extremely limited production run and was mostly intended to serve as a promotional tool. This Halo design supposedly reached a speed of 212 miles/hour (340 km/hour) during tests and it had a retail price of $150,000. The Halo model looked wildly out of place sitting in this old factory next to a bunch of cars that predated it by a century - a neat contrast.
At the back end of the third floor was a recreation of this room, known as the "experimental room" in the days when the Piquette Avenue Plant was in operation. This was the place where Henry Ford and the other company engineers did the planning and tinkering that went into their early designs, including the Model T. The museum staff have done their best job to recreate what the room would have looked like at the time, although as usual with these kind of historical restagings, I imagine that everything would have been a lot messier when in actual use. This place immediately brought to mind memories of my grandfather, who loved building things by hand and would have been right at home here with all of these pre-digital machine tools. Visiting this spot felt like stepping back into the past when everything had to be done on drafting paper and slide rules.
From the Ford Piquette plant, I planned to walk to my next destination in the form of the Motown Museum, also located nearby in the northern reaches of Detroit. It turned out that the Motown Museum was a bit further away than I had expected, and when I checked the distance today on Google Maps they are apparently 1.7 miles apart. The distance itself was no big deal, however the weather did not cooperate with me and a steady rain was falling the whole time that I made this trip. At least I did get a good opportunity to view this part of Detroit, which was an area that still looked to be going through hard times economically. Several of the buildings that I passed were clearly abandoned and the companies that were still operating in the area tended to have fenced off parking lots with armed guards manning the gates. Not the friendliest welcome for visitors, to say the least. I did walk past this beautiful Art Deco building along the way though, which dates back to 1928 and is known as the Fisher Building. I would have taken more time to explore this area, which also housed some of the buildings associated with the city government, but the rain coming down kept me moving along.
Eventually I reached the Motown Museum itself after about half an hour of walking. The museum is located in the original Motown recording studio, and I had heard that it was found in a humble Detroit rowhouse. This proved to be completely accurate, and if it hadn't been for the tourists walking around outside the museum, I wouldn't have been able to distinguish it from the other residential buildings located next door. Motown was quite literally born here in a small photography studio that was transformed by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, into a recording studio. Seeing this tiny place is a timely reminder of the struggles that the African American community faced in making their voices heard, and serves as another example of how some of the greatest artistic achievements are born from overcoming adversity.
The Motown Museum was one of the top attractions that I most wanted to visit in Detroit. Unfortunately, when I arrived I discovered that visitors can only view the museum on guided tours, and that all of the tours for the day had already been filled. I would not be able to go inside either of the buildings. This was a major disappointment, especially since I had walked a roundtrip 3 miles to reach the Motown Museum. Let this be a warning for anyone else who plans to visit that they need to book a tour group ahead of time. I didn't think that the museum would be too crowded at 3:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, and apparently I was wrong.
After the long walk back to my car, I drove for the first time to downtown Detroit proper. I parked in the stadium garage by Comerica Park and Ford Field, which are situated next to one another at the mecca of Detroit sports fandom. Ford Field is the home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, and yes, the team is owned by the same Ford family that manufactures automobiles. Henry Ford's descendents still seem to own a sizable portion of the city, with their hands in everything from cars to football teams to medical care (there's a series of Ford hospitals, not kidding). Ford Field is an indoor stadium with a closed roof, and I was able to go inside to see the gift shop but not to see the field itself. In fact, as soon as I started taking pictures of the merchandise the security guard immediately asked me to leave. Great idea there: the last thing that the historically inept Lions franchise needs is to be chasing away fans. The Lions have not only failed to win the Super Bowl at any point in their history, they've never even played in a Super Bowl as of this writing in 2018. To say that this franchise has a history of mismanagement is an understatement.
The neighboring Detroit Tigers have been significantly more successful, winners of 4 World Series and 11 AL pennants over their long history as a franchise (again as of 2018). The Tigers were a founding member of the American League in 1901 and the city of Detroit has a long history of famous players dating back to the era of Ty Cobb and Hank Greenburg. The team played in Tigers Stadium for more than eight decades before it was torn down and the team moved to their current location in Comerica Park starting in 2000. I was arriving at the entrance behind the scoreboard in center field, and it was about three hours before the game that would take place later that evening, with the area still deserted of fans. The decorations surrounding the stadium were simply amazing, a combination of ferocious-looking tigers paired together with baseball symbols. Stone tigers perched atop the gates next to rain tarps held up by rods shaped to look like baseball bats, while elsewhere tiger heads clutched baseballs in their mouths. This was great stuff, highly distinctive and instantly memorable.
The only thing open at this point was the Tigers team store, packed full of more merchandise that anyone could possibly want. I had tickets to the baseball game coming up later this evening, and my fear throughout the day had been that the rain would force a cancelation. I would be moving on from downtown Detroit the next day and a rain out would mean a waste of my ticket purchase, no chance to come back later for the makeup game. Fortunately the weather began to start clearing up as the afternoon wore along, and by game time things were quite pleasant. This was a break of luck that helped to make up for missing the opportunity to enter the Motown Museum earlier.
There are several notable buildings located in the immediate vicinity of the two stadiums. There's the Detroit Athletic Club in its stately building, the Detroit Opera House, and the building pictured above, the Fox Theatre. This theatre dates back the 1920s when it was initially constructed as an upscale movie theatre, and it contains just over 5000 seats to make it the largest theatre in Detroit. The Fox Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places and it's supposed to be a beautiful place to watch a live show.
I walked down Woodward Avenue from the two stadiums, following this major road as it led into the downtown heart of the city. Detroit has a sizable collection of skyscrapers in its business districts, the oldest of which date back to the Art Deco period in the early 20th century, paired alongside more modern constructions. This route eventually leads to the Campus Martius Park, the green space pictured above in the center of the downtown. This is a small area surrounded by buildings that contains the Michigan Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, the fountain pictured above. I was wondering about the Latin name associated with the Campus Martius Park, and discovered while putting this writeup together that the park was originally much larger. It served as the mustering ground for Michigan soliders during the Civil War, as the martial name of the park would suggest. The Campus Martius Park was completely destroyed by city development in the early 20th century, then was brought back to life in this smaller form as part of an urban renewal project in 2004. It's an odd history for sure and the city of Detroit would have been better served to preserve the original park in some form, but later is better than never.
One of the most famous destinations in downtown Detroit is the Guardian Building, an Art Deco construction located in the heart of the city's financial district. The Guardian Building was constructed in 1929 and has achieved fame for its amazing interior decorations. It's been nicknamed the "cathedral of finance" and it's easy to see the origin of the name; the Guardian Building truly does look like a cathedral on the inside. Visitors enter from the street onto a lower level, where they are met with the ridiculously ornate information desk to their left. There are elevators to the building's 36 stories located over there, with the elevator signs and the ceilings decorated with colorful forms carved from different types of stone. If the visitors continue onwards straight ahead, they climb up a short set of steps into the main hallway of the building, the area that would be the nave if this were an actual cathedral. This has all of the standard trappings of a Gothic cathedral, with high arching ceilings and stained glass windows set into the walls, only instead of being devoted to religion the Guardian Building is instead dedicated to financial interests. There's a moral lesson of some kind there about worshipping Mammon that the building's architects were probably well aware of.
The ceiling designs in the Guardian Building are wild and defy easy categorization. The style looks a bit reminiscent of some Native American tribes from the Southwest, although I have no idea if that was the specific inspiration. There's a huge mural of the state of Michigan at the far wall, and it depicts some of the state's industries such as manufacturing, farming, and mining. The Guardian Building is also still an active place of work, with the offices on the floors above rented out to various different commercial groups. The beautiful ground floor is a branch office for Bank of America, and even as I was walking around taking pictures there were other people using the bank to deposit their paychecks. This is a weird, beautiful place that needs to be seen in person to be believed.
By this point I had worked my way down close to the waterfront, where there are a series of statues and other public monuments recognizing famous people associated with Detroit. The stooping man in green with the orb in his hand is a statue known as "The Spirit of Detroit", which was commissioned back in the 1950s and has become one of the most famous images associated with Detroit. There's a local tradition of dressing the statue in jerseys of the Detroit sports teams during playoff runs, and given the size of the statue, these jerseys have to be designed in comically large fashion. The statue of a floating arm is located nearby, with this being a monument dedicated to legendary boxer Joe Louis. Known popularly as "The Fist", the statue is designed to commemorate the power of Louis' punches both inside the ring and outside it as part of his struggle against racism. Finally, the big ring is a monument to Michigan's Labor Legacy. It's a more abstract depiction of the labor movement, and was placed in a spot where it captures the skyscrapers in the background, making an obvious point about how labor is the foundation for capital. The weather was finally clearing up at this point, and with the blue sky overhead it made for a nice picture.
These pictures were taken along the Detroit Riverwalk. One of the neat things about Detroit is that it sits right on the nation's border, with Windsor, Canada located on the other side of the river (as evidenced by the Canadian flag over there). I could not cross to the Canadian side of the river because I didn't have my passport with me on this trip, so for better or worse I was staying on the Detroit side of the water. I walked along the riverfront for a short time, enjoying the arrival of these pleasant sunny conditions. There was a cool breeze coming off the water and this was the best weather I had experienced all day.
My walk along the river led me to a huge complex of buildings that towered up into the air. I decided to head inside to check the place out, and soon discovered that I had reached the GM Renaissance Center, the corporate headquarters for General Motors. Once again there were more than a dozen cars on display in the ground floor lobby, only this time they were Chevys and Cadillacs rather than Fords. This was a truly massive collection of several different buildings linked together by long walkways. The corporate portion of GM was housed in four different towers, but there was also a Mariott hotel, a conference center for hosting large events, and a good sized shopping mall occupying the lower floors. (I tried to get dinner here but the food was geared towards the workday crowd and most of the places were already closed by the time that I arrived.) To provide a sense of scale, the hotel has rooms on 73 stories, and it's one of the tallest hotels in the whole world. The entire place looked sleekly modern and served as a symbol of Detroit's economic revival. Although large parts of the city remain broken down and abandoned, the downtown commercial portion of the city seemed to be doing just fine.
By now, enough time had passed that the baseball stadium had been opened up to the public in anticipation of that night's game. I stood in line outside the now-crowded entrances and made my into Comerica Park. The Tigers were playing the Boston Red Sox on this Friday night, and because this was somewhat of a marquee game there was a giveaway for the fans, a Detroit Tigers souvenir floppy hat. As an Orioles fan I could never actually wear the hat, but it was a fun little memento of this game nonetheless. Once inside I headed down to the seats in right field to watch the Red Sox players taking batting practice. This is the common practice at baseball games, where the home team takes batting practice first before the fans arrive and then the road team takes batting practice second after the gates open. This was my first chance to zoom in with the camera and take some pictures of the players at the other end of the field; that's first baseman Mitch Moreland pictured above getting ready to take a cut at the ball. For whatever reason, the Red Sox players were mostly taking a laid back approach to their swings and there were disappointingly few homeruns during the batting practice session. Everyone in the stadium wants to see homeruns during batting practice, even from the opposing team.
After batting practice was finished, I did my usual circuit of the ballpark to see any of the unique features here in Detroit. Like many other ballparks, Comerica has a statue gallery out in center field below the big scoreboard commemorating some of the most famous players in Tigers history. The players were sculpted in some creative poses, jumping to make a catch and swinging a bat at full extension, those kind of action sequences captured in stone. Most of these players retired a long time ago, and I believe that Al Kaline was the only one of the six players even still alive in 2018. Elsewhere in the stadium were a series of small exhibits detailing the lengthy history of the Tigers dating back to the first decade of the 20th century, and a beer garden patio with this ferris wheel in the background. Each of the cars was a giant baseball spinning around a central tiger's head, perfectly in line with rest of the stadium decorations. I also spotted this Triple Crown "throne" in the area behind home plate, in reference to Miguel Cabrera's 2012 season when he lead the American League in batting average, homeruns, and RBIs. Yes, the Triple Crown is an outdated way to evaluate individual performance in baseball, but Miggy's slashline of .330 / .393 / .606 that year was impressive by any accounting. (His 2013 season, when he won the MVP award again, was statistically even better with an OPS of 1.078 (!) but did not result in a Triple Crown because RBIs are a dumb stat.)
My seat was located in my favorite place to watch a baseball game, in the upper deck immediately behind home plate. I've found that this is generally the place that best combines having a great view of the field while also not paying through the nose for tickets. Comerica Park faces to the south and fans sitting in the upper deck are treated to outstanding views looking out over the downtown section of Detroit. Despite the rain earlier in the day, the skies were mostly clear now and it had become a beautiful night for baseball. This view did look familiar though, and I realized that Comerica Park had a design that was almost identical to Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins. Or to be more precise, the Twins stadium looked like a copy of the Tigers stadium, since Comerica Park was built about a decade earlier. Take a look at this picture from the upper deck of Target Field taken when I visited Minneapolis in 2014. That's way too similar to be an accident, right? I did a search online and sure enough, the two stadiums had the same architectural group that did the design in both cases. While both of them are beautiful stadiums, the Twins should have asked for something at least a little bit more original.
From a baseball perspective, this game proved to be one of the more unusual ones that I've seen. The Red Sox were a very, very good team in 2018, coming into this game with a record of 68 wins against 30 losses. They would go on to win 108 games and win the World Series in 2018; this wasn't just a good team, but a historically great team, arguably the best team of the last decade. They would be sending David Price to the mound on this evening, and if he wasn't quite as dominant in 2018 as he had been earlier in his Tampa Bay or Detroit days, Price was still a quality starter. As for the Tigers, they had fielded a series of excellent squads in the first half of the 2010s, and then the team eventually became too old and crippled by ill-considered longterm contracts. By the 2018 season, the Tigers were in full "rebuilding" mode and going with a youth movement, resulting in a squad that was still a number of years away from being competitive again. They came into this game with a record of 41-57, which is about what everyone had expected from them. The Red Sox were the heavy favorite in this particular game, and I noticed right away that the Boston hitters were all sporting on-base percentages 50 to 100 points better than their Detroit counterparts. It's very hard to beat a visiting team when they outmatch the home team that badly at every position, much less when they also have a superior pitcher on the mound as well.
So what happened in this game? Matthew Boyd, the pitcher for the Tigers, retired the leadoff Boston hitter and then gave up a walk and a single, followed by an RBI double hit by Steve Pierce. Boyd had retired exactly one batter and there was already one run in, with additional Boston hitters on second and third. He worked his way out of that jam by getting an out at the plate when J.D. Martinez recklessly tried to score from third on an infield grounder, then Boyd followed it up with another ground ball out to end the inning. Meanwhile David Price was cruising for the Red Sox, retiring the first nine Detroit hitters in order and looking so dominant that a no-hitter seemed like a realistic possibility. Then Price started to unravel in the 4th inning, yielding three straight singles to load the bases... only to get the next three hitters out in order to end the inning with no runs given up. And that was the way that the rest of the game went, with both teams repeatedly getting runners on base only to fail to score them in various different ways. The Red Sox and Tigers each stranded 9 runners on base and went a combined 3 for 18 with runners in scoring positiong. The final score: a 1-0 victory for Boston. Seriously, the visiting team scored in the first five minutes of the game and there were no more runs to cross the plate for either team the rest of the way. Unbelievable. Here's the game link at Baseball Reference for the curious.
Anyway, I wasn't at the game to root for any particular team to win. (OK, I was hoping that the Red Sox would lose, to be honest.) I had gone to Comerica Park to experience the atmosphere at the ballpark, everything from watching the pregame introductions for the Detroit players to seeing the silly race that took place between innings. Of course it was people dressed up in little car outfits, this being Detroit and all. It was pleasant simply being outside on a lovely night, watching the sun set in the distance and the lights come on across the heart of the city. Given that I had been up since very early in the morning, I was more than ready to retire back to my hotel at the end of the night and catch some sleep.
This was my one day devoted to exploring the city of Detroit, knowing that there were plenty of things that I was unable to visit for lack of time. The next day I would be staying in Michigan and driving about to some of the major attractions in the southeastern part of the state: the Ford Rouge Factory, the state capital in Lansing, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. This vacation roadtrip was only just getting underway.