On the Road–Motown, Mo’ Better Now
I hadn’t been to Detroit in fifteen years. I have cousins in one of its suburbs and a friend in Ann Arbor. Its Black Pride Festival, Hotter Than July!, is held the last weekend of that month. So last year I figured why not visit for a long weekend getaway from New Orleans’ summer heat’n’humidity. I’m happy I did.
The previous time I was there, I had a good time but, driving around, I was struck by the devastation of block after block of burned out houses. It reminded me of images I had seen of Berlin after World War II.
Things have improved significantly since then. Though urban blight certainly appears too frequently, more often you’re now likely to see newly renovated homes or crews working to repair houses. Downtown is vibrant and the Riverwalk, from which you look south towards Canada, is booming.
A Saturday visit to Eastern Market, the largest historic public market district in the U.S., is practically like being in Times Square during rush hour what with the huge, diverse crowds its wildly divergent offerings attract. It truly amazed me that there could be so many farmers and other such produce vendors in the metropolitan area.
What I could comprehend, as indicative of Detroit’s revitalization, was a statistic my cousins relayed to me. For many years, up until 2015, on average, one new upscale restaurant opened annually in the area; in 2016, 40 such restaurants debuted.
I went with friends to one of these establishments, Antietam (1428 Gratiot Ave.), and enjoyed an excellent, and reasonably priced, tasting menu that featured smoked whitefish dip, grilled house-made sausages, chilled corn chowder, pan roasted rainbow trout, and s’mores much more fancily done than the ones you used to have around the campfire.
Though I only had the opportunity for a drive-by and quick pic outside the Motown Museum (2648 West Grand Blvd.), my cousins and I were able to spend more time at the fabled Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Ave.) and its Beaux-Arts, Italian Renaissance-styled building.
Of course, the immense Diego Rivera murals, collectively known as Detroit Industry, or Man and Machine (1932), still hold pride of place in the large central inner courtyard. A stroll through the galleries, however, will enable you to discover extraordinary works by Caravaggio, Zurbarán, de Ribera, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Mary Cassatt, Pissarro, Seurat, van Gogh, Degas, Picasso, and many others. You could easily spend the better part of a day there.
Other art can be enjoyed alfresco. My friend took me to Robert Sestok’s ongoing City Sculpture exhibit at 955 West Alexandrine Street in the Midtown area near the John C. Lodge Freeway. Sestok welds various metals into towering phantasmagorical structures with names like Dream Machine and New Gold Standard. Some of the sculptures are abstract, some are seemingly anthropomorphic, and all are utterly charming.
From there we went back to Eastern Market to see some of the many Murals in the Market, an extensive collection of outdoor murals. Each year for the past six years, 30-40 artists have been invited to create these exuberant works. Over 100 now exist in the Eastern Market area and 200 more are scattered throughout the city.
For better or worse, there seems to be no shortage of spaces on which these works can be done. In addition to the walls of warehouses and abandoned buildings, murals have been painted on water towers, utility boxes and garage doors. 1xRUN and the company’s fine art gallery, Inner State, curate and produce the murals, and each area where they’ve blossomed has seen a significant visual impact on the surrounding neighborhood as well as increased traffic, additional economic development, and increased safety.
There are hyperrealistic murals, anime-inspired ones and some featuring geometric designs. Some have political connotations, others evoke earlier uses for their site. I saw images that sprang from a graffiti heritage while some proffered a calming lyricism. One of this year’s murals was done by New Orleans-based Brandan “BMike” Odums whose Studio Be at Press and Royal Streets is adorned with his large image of a young girl with upraised arms.
Murals in the Market now offers maps to tell you where the murals are and who did them. It’s a great way to get to explore Detroit.
We explored the University District in the northern part of the city when we went to Hotter Than July! which offered a family-friendly atmosphere and lots of booths sponsored by community organizations and local merchants. Not long after we got there, Mayor Mike Duggan, who was running for re-election at the time, arrived and made some remarks from the stage where he donned a festival t-shirt (he would go on to be re-elected in a landslide). It’s hard to imagine any of Detroit’s previous white mayors attending an event where they would’ve been surrounded by drag queens and gay men of color.
My final full day was spent at The Henry Ford, a large indoor and outdoor history museum complex and a National Historic Landmark in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. It bills itself as “America’s Greatest History Attraction” and with 26 million artifacts spread over 250 acres, that’s no exaggeration.
While The Henry Ford does include a Ford Rouge Factory Tour and a Giant Screen Experience (which showed Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December and January), I concentrated on the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village which took up the better part of a day to visit. And what a memorable day it was.
Occupying a vast building, The Museum is nirvana for those into planes, trains & automobiles…and a whole lotta other things. On display is a locomotive, cars of all types and a Sikorsky helicopter. But a few of its items especially stand out.
In the “With Liberty and Justice For All” section, which focuses on items dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, is the actual bus Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to obey the driver’s order to give up her seat to a white passenger. In fact, you can sit where she sat. That said, as the bus has been lovingly restored to look brand new, you’ll be sitting in the same location but not touching the same seat upon which Parks sat. Still, the sense of history is overwhelming.
How do they know it’s the genuine bus? Persistent detective work that uncovered a remarkable journey in which its value went from $1 to $500,000. Want to know more? Ask one of the well-informed docents who’ll gladly tell you the background story.
Not far from the bus is another incredible part of America’s history–the actual upholstered rocking chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated on April 14, 1865 in Ford’s Theater. Truly mind-boggling.
Another section I enjoyed was “Presidential Vehicles” where you can view a circa 1902 brougham (a horse-drawn carriage) used by Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Sunshine Special, the first car expressly designed and built for a U.S. President.
The most notable car is the 1961 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine that John F. Kennedy was riding in when assassinated on November 22, 1963. Somewhat surprisingly, the vehicle was rebuilt and used regularly by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Also well worth seeing is a prototype Dymaxion House developed by inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller who hoped to make affordable housing available on a large scale using factory kits that could be assembled on site. Stylistically, the result offers a Father Knows Best meets The Jetsons aesthetic.
As it turned out, the weekend I visited was the annual Maker Faire for budding inventors. Youthful brainiacs and their parents were swarming around the Museum so we first headed out to the even more fantastic Greenfield Village.
The Village, which reopens April 15 after its winter hiatus, has everything from a working farm to historic homes to a carousel plus shops offering handcrafts created by skilled artisans all spread out over 80 beautifully landscaped acres. The only other place I’ve ever been to that remotely resembles Greenfield Village is the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
Some of the many highlights include the George Washington Carver Cabin which Henry Ford erected in 1942 as a lasting memorial to the great scientist and where Carver actually stayed for two nights; the 1823 New Haven home of Noah Webster, creator of America’s first dictionary; and the Pennsylvania birthplace of William Holmes McGuffey of McGuffey Readers fame.
But not all the buildings are associated with celebrated people. The circa 1880 building from Bryan County, Georgia was home to the Mattox Family, sharecroppers who may not have had a lot of money but did have the ingenuity to cover their walls with newspapers and thus insulate their home.
The great inventor, and friend of Ford, Thomas Edison is well-represented here with his grandparents’ house, a reconstruction of his Menlo Park Laboratory, and even the Widow Sarah Jordan’s Boarding House, one of the first homes ever to be wired for electrical light, where more than a dozen unmarried male workers from the Lab lived.
Perhaps my favorite stop was the Wright Cycle Shop on Main Street. Wright as in Orville and Wilbur. Not only can you visit the original building where the Wright Flyer was born, but you can see one of their original bicycles, the making of which was their “day job.” Plus the presenters portraying the Brothers–many such re-enactors can be found strolling around the grounds–were cuties.
Should all the walking you’ll do in the Village make you a bit hungry, head over to the Eagle Tavern, where yummy locally sourced meals inspired by 1850s recipes (I had the broiled ham and baked egg) are presented by knowledgeable servers in period clothing. There are other food options as well.
And at the risk of sounding like a midnight TV pitchman (“But, wait, there’s more!”), do not miss the Davidson-Gerson Gallery of Glass which opened just last year and includes stunning examples of art glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Dale Chihuly and many others.
Detroit has been nicknamed “America’s Comeback City.” With its rapidly improving cityscape and gems such as The Henry Ford nearby, I certainly hope to go back there very soon.
In memoriam Lyla Hay Owen
I was saddened to learn of Lyla Hay Owen’s passing on February 7. A native New Orleanian and playwright, director, author and producer, she had trod the boards here for over five decades.
I had been casually acquainted with her work and then, in March 2009, I saw her as Amanda Wingfield at the Marigny Theatre in The Glass Menagerie. What a performance!
At that point I had only seen three mediocre productions of Tennessee Williams’ breakthrough play. At last, I saw the real deal. Owen played Amanda like a virtuoso musician, hitting every note in Williams’ score with just the right dynamic and giving every line the most expert of shadings. She was the living incarnation of a friend’s mother, another Southern belle, who had passed away a few years earlier.
Seven years later, when reviewing another, lesser production of Menagerie, I wrote in comparison of “Lyla Hay Owen’s unforgettable performance, a complete, bone-deep admixture of charm, steeliness, desperation, and an innate patrician-ness.”
She would go on to win the 2009 Ambie Award for Best Actress in a Play for her Amanda, a year in which there was fierce competition in that category.
Alas, Lyla’s candle has now been blown out. She will be missed.