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The Nice Things We Have to Say About Detroit

We made it across Lake Erie, where we paid close attention to the weather, adapted to biking around a city in the rain, traveled across three states, and saw some great friends. Check out our Instagram to see the highlights.

Photo: www.inkdetroit.com

But this post is about Detroit and how much we enjoyed the city during our 4-day stay. Around town, we would see bumper stickers, t-shirts, and locals encouraging people to “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” a campaign started by a local in the 1970s. We found this was pretty easy to do, so we extended our stay a day so we could see and learn more about a city neither of us had been to, but like many, heard maybe some not-so-nice things.


So here are some of the nice things we have to say.


Miles of great bike trails

We biked and ran 40 miles around the city over our stay and were impressed with the accessibility of bike lanes and trails. The Dequindre Cut is a 2-mile greenway, lined with urban art (and even a beer garden) with ample space for bikers and walkers. We could hop on right at our marina to head straight to the impressive Eastern Market. We also took full advantage of Detroit’s Riverwalk (named the best riverwalk in the country this year), which lines the Detroit River, weaving around green parks, volleyball courts, natural wetlands, and an amphitheater.


The country’s largest historic public market district

Eastern Market spans 6 blocks and has been operating since 1891. We went on Saturday which was dedicated to food (Sundays are for local artists and non-food items) and we were blown away by all the fresh produce from farms across the state. We bought scallions from an urban farm in Detroit, zucchini from a farm in Ann Arbor, fresh mozzarella made the night before, and great sandwiches from area food trucks. One of the several times we wished we had a bigger kitchen on the boat (and more meals in a day).


Locally brewed beer

Like most urban areas, there is always a distillery or brewery within reach. We stopped at Atwater Brewery, founded in 1997 and serving award-winning German-style beer brewed right on site. (We took some to go too).


A museum where you can learn about the city's rich history

We spent an afternoon at the Detroit Historical Museum where we learned about Motown’s roots and the evolution of the automobile industry, while also strolling through "Detroit streets" as they would appear in 1800s. The Detroit 67: Perspective exhibit was particularly noteworthy, as it takes you through the factors and implications that led up to and through (even to today) the unrest that occurred during July 23-August 1, 1967 as a result of growing racial tension in the city. Being in the city 54 years to the day of these events added another layer of perspective and opportunity for reflection on the challenges around inequity we are still facing as a country as we biked and walked the streets of the city.


Really, really, really good pizza

Our first meal was Buddy’s Pizza, birthplace of Detroit-style pizza, which is square pizza originally baked in square steel pans from area automotive plants. It was crispy, thick, cheesy, and very, very, very good.


Really, really, really good bread


We visited Avalon International Breads and was blown away by their avocado toast (yes we are millennials and this is what we order for breakfast). The homemade bread was two inches thick, soft yet crispy in all the right places and paired nicely with a hot sticky bun right out of the oven.



You can order a Coney dog from 2 different restaurants right next to each other

Downtown Detroit is home to Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island restaurants. They have been neighbors since the 1930s and both are known for their coney island dog--a steamed hot dog topped with chili, mustard, and onions. We too were confused why this was a thing in Detroit, far away from New York’s Coney island. It is not totally clear, but many believe Greek immigrants passing through New York brought with them the inspiration for the Coney dog when they settled in Detroit. It is contested which restaurant has the best dog, but we thought Lafayette’s had a little more snap.

Photo: https://www.thrillist.com/eat/detroit/lafayette-coney-island-american-coney-island-best-place-to-visit-for-detroit-coney-dogs

A downtown that has a beach and a roller rink

While we wished our visit overlapped with a Tigers home game, there was still plenty to do downtown (where the stadium is) and we enjoyed walking around seeing the summer pop-up activities around the city. In one city square, there was a roller rink with a DJ and across the street, a pop-up cocktail bar and beach at Campus Martius Park. Fun!



You can learn about (and see) some of the first cars ever made

Most people know Detroit as Motor City, and it is hard to miss the towering GM headquartered downtown or Ford’s logo plastered on buildings across the city. You can take a tour of Ford’s Dearborn headquarters (we hear it is pretty great), but it was a little out of biking range so we opted to take a tour of one of Ford’s first auto plants in Piquette, a Detroit neighborhood. The plant was built in 1904 and the Model T, built in secret to hide from the dozens of auto manufacturer competitors in the area (our tour guide said there were 2300 US auto companies before 1930!) was created in this factory in 1908. Very cool to see and even touch some of the first cars ever built in the US.


Ingenuity and creativity used to address some of the city’s unique challenges

In the 1950s, Detroit's population peaked at 1.8 million people, compared to today’s 664,000. While there are several complex and varying factors attributing to Detroit's declining population (less good paying jobs, 2008 housing crisis to name a few), it is no secret Detroit has thousands of abandoned properties and vacant lots across the city. In general, with less residents, there is less tax revenue and therefore increased challenges for the city to fund the necessary services to keep a city operational. Detroit had to file for bankruptcy in 2013.

Photo: https://www.freep.com/picture-gallery/news/local/michigan/detroit/2020/07/13/oakland-avenue-urban-farm-promoting-black-farming-detroit/5412670002/

Despite these ongoing challenges, government, private, and community organizations are coming together to do something about the growing vacant lots and abandoned buildings, such as transforming them into community farms and gardens. As of 2019, there are 1,400 community gardens and farms in the city, many providing food for residents that otherwise may not have access to fresh produce, selling for profit at the Eastern Market, or providing education and programming to engage kids and area residents in urban farming. We visited Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and was impressed with the variety of crops and space.


Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources transformed the Globe Building, an abandoned manufacturing plant from the 1860s, into the Outdoor Adventure Center. This interactive center (we were probably the only couple there without kids), shares information about how to take advantage of Michigan's great outdoors from hunting to camping, fishing, and more. It definitely got us pumped up for our journey through Michigan's waterways.


Flaming cheese in Greektown

If you want great Greek food, head to family owned Pegasus Taverna, where you can get Saganaki, which is cheese that the server sets on fire at the table while yelling “Opa!” It was good. So was the lamb shank and baklava and Greek wine.



The city has its own island

Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in the US (almost 1000 acres) right in between the US and Canada. It has an aquarium, maritime museum, beach, yacht club, tons of picnic areas, a fountain, green spaces, playgrounds, and even a botanical garden. We visited most of the places (except the aquarium, the line was out the door and did not look fun to stand in the heat). Tons of BBQs and people enjoying the great weather and all the activities the park has to offer.


Free laundry at the marina

This is always a treat. If there are laundry machines at a marina, usually you have to track down quarters and pay anywhere from $3-$5 a load. When you come across free laundry, it means everything goes in and we very much enjoyed fresh sheets and clean clothes during our time in the city.


We recognize we were only in the city for 4 days, which poses limitations to truly capture the opportunities and very real challenges that still face the Motor City. But, we left with nothing but nice things to say and if you’re in area, we encourage you to check out all Detroit has to offer.