The Detroit Dilemma

Travel Blog  •  Sophia Dembling  •  02.26.09 | 9:32 PM ET

Photo by mandj98 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A number of years ago, I worked with a woman who was originally from Detroit. She loved her hometown and missed it terribly. I can’t remember her name, but I vividly remember the glow on her face when she talked about the city she’d left behind and to which she vowed to return someday.

I know, right? Hard to believe.

Yet Detroit has a draw, even if it’s a sort of pity vote. Friend and fellow writer Margaret Littman, also has a passion for the city. She says, “I love Detroit’s architecture and public art and wide boulevards. But more than that, I love that Detroit is such a microcosm of America: boomed thanks to ingenuity and innovative and now struggling with what to do next. Plus, I’m a sucker for an underdog.”

Now, Detroit sounds pretty bleak and hopeless in Motor City Breakdown an article in the most recent “Rolling Stone.” Here Mark Binelli, another Detroit expat, takes an evocative look at the decaying city through the lens of the decaying Big Three automakers.

For example:

To get to the conference, I ride the People Mover, an elevated tram that runs through downtown Detroit in a three-mile one-way loop. The city used to have an extensive trolley system, but it was purchased by National City Lines, a front company formed by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and other corporations with automobile interests, after which the trolley tracks were ripped up and replaced with buses. The People Mover began running in 1987 and seems, in its utter uselessness, as if it might have been built by another secret auto-industry cabal as a way of mocking the very idea of public transportation. The monorail cars are automated and driverless, like trams at the airport or an amusement park; occasionally, walking along a barren downtown block, you glance up and notice a pair of empty cars passing above your head at a haunted crawl.

But then click to Detroitblog, mentioned in Binelli’s article, and read tender-sad stories unfolding in the shadows of the large-scale decay.

Poor Detroit. The C&VB website, where I went to find photos to use for this post, includes this message about its image library: “All photographs are available free of charge for editorial usage and the positive promotion of metro Detroit as a travel and tourism destination.”

I don’t imagine a lot of places have to specify “positive.”

But like Margaret, underdog cities hold a huge appeal for me, and the decline of a once-great city adds a powerful mystique. It’s on my list. What do you say? Thumbs up or thumbs down on Detroit?

Sophia Dembling

Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling is co-author of the Flyover America blog and author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas." She would love to hear your tales of America, so drop her an email.

22 Comments for The Detroit Dilemma

Dan 02.26.09 | 10:59 PM ET

i’m biased. I was born in Detroit and the city breaks my heart. Maybe I’m also a sucker for basket cases, which would explain why I also love New Orleans. I’ve read that the average cost of a home in Detroit is now just $19,000. Long term, it’s a good investment because Detroit will recover. But the long term is likely to be 100 years or more….

Eva Holland 02.26.09 | 11:17 PM ET

Thumbs up from me - Detroit’s been on my list for a couple years now! I’m a sucker for underdogs and industrial relics, and a Motown fanatic to boot. Plus, the Red Wings are the best non-Canadian hockey team of all time! ;)

Alexander Basek 02.27.09 | 9:09 AM ET

Can’t speak of Detroit without mentioning the excellent My Name is Detroit/Incorrigible City Blog:

Sophia Dembling 02.27.09 | 9:57 AM ET

Yeah, hard to image how long term the long term might be. It’s been such a long, slow, excruciating decline.

Maybe tourism can save Detroit, as it has so many other places. Do the Big Three offer tours of their iplants?

Chris 02.27.09 | 11:23 AM ET

I’ve been to Detroit a few times and I’ve never been a big fan. Until my last trip there all I could see was the blight and decay. The last time we stayed in a very attractive place that was within walking distance of the tunnel to Windsor. It was a nice hotel in the convention center, even had a nice auto display downstairs, but there was nothing to do in this downtown area. All of the restaurants and such were closed on the weekends. Detroit has a long, long way to go before it really becomes a tourist destination. And however long it takes to become a worthwhile destination, it will take twice that long to change public perception.

Sophia Dembling 02.27.09 | 11:55 AM ET

Such a double-bind, though, because unless people travel to Detroit, they have no incentive to invest in tourism but unless there’s an infrastructure, tourists won’t visit.

Of course, my philosophy of travel is going to see what there is to see, rather than wanted things invented for me to see. I suppose in this case, it would be a kind of blight tourism—which many Americans do in other countries (like slum tourism in Rio). Perhaps it’s easier to bear when it’s not in your own country.

JackieB 02.27.09 | 12:00 PM ET

Thumbs up. As a photographer, I’ve always been interested in industrial decay and my tourist money will only help the city get back on it’s feet so that there are more reasons to go there. If you dig deep enough, everywhere has something worthwhile about it!

Sophia Dembling 02.27.09 | 12:01 PM ET

(( If you dig deep enough, everywhere has something worthwhile about it! ))

Hear, hear!

KB 02.27.09 | 4:44 PM ET

Many of us feel the same way. I’ve moved away from Detroit four times, and still I feel a draw to the area. Almost everywhere else I’ve lived has been many times better than Detroit for jobs, livability, and progressiveness, but some part of me still misses the area.

Detroit’s a long way from attracting the type of people needed to rebuild the area into what it could be, but I’ll always hope.


Sophia Dembling 02.27.09 | 4:56 PM ET

Another great link, I love the Abandoned House of the Week. So poignant. Thanks.

Jenna Schnuer 02.27.09 | 6:46 PM ET

Nice piece Ms. Dembling.

Another Flyover America team member hurrah for the following statement:

“If you dig deep enough, everywhere has something worthwhile about it!”

You’re our kinda lady JackieB!

The Abandoned House of the Week photos definitely pushed Detroit up a few “want to go there” spots on my list. My camera shutter finger got itchy just thinking about it.

Caro 02.28.09 | 11:11 PM ET

Yes, every city has its good sides and bad sides, but deep down, you can’t deny your roots.

expat 03.09.09 | 11:05 PM ET

I’m a recent expat from the city and for some reason I can’t stop thinking about Detroit.  I spend hours per day reading about the city.  I go back to visit monthly.  As any expat knows, Detroit has a weird gravitational pull.  In all its horror and dysfunction, there is beauty.  The artists, the buildings, the people, the music, the food, the diversity, the blue collar us-against-the-world mentality, the greatest cultural attractions in America with the least pretentious caretakers and visitors, championship athletes who would be prima donnas anywhere else forced to display humility and work ethic when they wear the D on their jersey.  The garage rock, the techno, the rap, the dozens of jazz all-stars roaming the city, the river, the museums, the design!  I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s something about Detroit.

Sophia Dembling 03.09.09 | 11:18 PM ET

That’s a very soulful comment. You explained it well. Thank you.

TheMapman 03.09.09 | 11:23 PM ET

Another Detroit native who loves his hometown.  I moved to Dallas about 2 years ago but still miss Detroit dearly.  I, of course, couldn’t find a job to keep me there.

If you truly love cities, you will find Detroit to be fascinating - why people still live there, what happened to make it what it is today, and how much culture and magic still happens in the city despite the world trying to relegate the city to history.  The ruins of industrial America and the failure of post-war liberalism.  An amazing journey for anyone - you really need the right guide.

Ryan 03.10.09 | 12:59 AM ET

No one ever stops being a Detroiter, they only do it somewhere else. I am a native Detroiter, I left for Chicago, spent three amazing years there, and then for no reason other than a love for the City of Detroit, I came back. Detroit is not just a place, it is a state of mind. We Detroiters are who we are and we take it with us whereever we go. The draw to the City is like reading a Greek tragedy. We see the flaws in the I’ll fated hero, but we want to him through. Few other cities in the world had as significant an impact on the 20th Century as Detroit and now few are suffering as drasticly. However, despite the past few decades so much of the glories if the past are there to see and enjoy and gravitate to. Detroit will turn around, one determined Detroiter at a time, each resident that moves into downtown and each business owner that sets up shop in the neighborhoods, we will be fine. All wounds leave scars but they heal eventually. Visit two new sites: (new social network site for Detroiters across the country), and

Detroit is for Lovers 03.10.09 | 10:54 AM ET

I also have to agree with the above statement, “If you dig deep enough, everywhere has something worthwhile about it!”

Detroit has so much to offer, but it takes a discerning eye. Perhaps we don’t have Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or New York City’s Broadway, but this is the perfect travel destination, or permanent relocation, for the anti-corporate-consumer (plus Detroit does have more seats in our theater district than any other city outside New York). This is the city where you can visit urban gardens, the only urban farm in the U.S., the largest open air market in the country, bike the riverfront, photograph hauntingly beautiful architecture that has fallen into disrepair as epitomized by our train station, and then reward yourself with hand rolled tamales or fresh falafel. We have the oldest operating jazz club in the world and the soul food (and prices) can’t be beat. John K. King books is floors and floors of used and rare books and is staffed by wonderfully freakish literary geniuses who can help you find anything your heart desires. And what about Grace Lee Boggs and the Boggs Center? The music, the art, the hipster hangouts, and the urban pheasants…the crepes, catfish, pirogues, and Coney dogs.  I love this city and I try to take that spirit with me on every vacation take (usually to other rust belt cities). I seek out the unique events, places, and spirit of communities when I travel and I swear my trips are better for it.

Sophia Dembling 03.10.09 | 10:57 AM ET

((I also have to agree with the above statement, “If you dig deep enough, everywhere has something worthwhile about it!” ))

I could not agree more and that’s the philosophy with which Jenna and I launched this Flyover America blog. Actually, the way we put it, “We’ve never seen a place we didn’t like.”

Detroit is just sounding better and better. So tell me, is the soul of the city visible to the casual visitor or do you have to know it to love it?

What’s the best month to visit?

Rich Distel 03.10.09 | 3:04 PM ET

Ugh…Where to begin?
You don’t have to live in Detroit to see its soul, but a knowledgeable guide is a huge plus. I suggest “Inside Detroit” on Woodward Avenue for a great start.

The best month to visit? What do you like? Its January if you love cars (North American International Auto Show); March if you like Rock n Roll (Hamtramck Blowout - 200 bands in one weekend at dozens of venues); May is the month if you like Techno and Electronica (the internationally famous Electronic Music Festival); why not come in late June/early July for the week-long International Freedom Festival celebrating Independence Day for the USA and its neighbor to the south across the river, Canada - culminating with on of the country’s best fireworks shows); How about September for North America’s largest free jazz event, The Detroit Jazz Festival?

Of course you can’t ignore the summer long parade of street festivals - including the Greektown Art Fair, the Midtown Festival of the Arts and Dalley in the Alley (the best alternative festival one could ever imagine.

Pick a month! The choice is yours!

Sophia Dembling 03.10.09 | 3:07 PM ET

Hm ... jazz festival ... interesting. And September is my favorite month to travel.

Thank you all so much for your wonderful, thoughtful comments. Keep ‘em coming. I will use them as reference as I plan my trip—which will happen, this year, I vow.

Marie 03.14.09 | 8:22 AM ET

Originally from north of Detroit, I miss Michigan during the autumn months, especially the food.
As far as decay, I remember Detroit the downtown area was like any other city but the residential area just outside of the city is not so pleasant.  For me, it seems like Detroit metro never changes.  True the Renissance Center built in the 70’s is great and definitly added an attractiveness to the skyline and now there is a MGM hotel/casino there, it always seems to have a dreary, corporate atmosphere tp the city.  But I will always call Detroit my home and suggest things to do.
If your hungry, get a grilled sub fromTubby;s Grilled Submarines.  They are all over Detroit/Metro.
Steak, cheese, mushroom with special dressing, is s favorite.  This is the best steak & cheese sub.
For the person who asked about tours through plants, YES Ford gives tours to the public in several plants, General Motors use to give a tour free at their Lake Orion plant but with all the layoffs, this may have changed.  If you get a chance to go Metro, I recommend the Dodge Estate in Rochester Hills. The tour walks you through the 100 room mansion and gives a bit of history about the Dodges & Greenfield Village, if your a history buff, it is a museum and a village collectively put together.
One more suggestion, Grayline tours!!  Detroit doesnt sound so bad after all….enjoy!

Marie 03.14.09 | 9:44 AM ET


For Grayline Tours call Detroit Dept of Transportation- 313-870-5012

Ford Rouge Plant Tours (13 miles from downtown)  & Greenfield Village (re-opens April 15th/aka Henry Ford Museum) 313-271-1620

Henry Ford Estate- Fairlane - 313-593-5590 (Dearborn)

Lionel Trains Tours- 586-949-4100 x1211 (Chesterfield/North Metro)

Dodge Estate- Meadow Brook Hall- 248-364-6200 (Rochester Hills/North Metro)  Beautiful! Located by Oakland University.

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