How Detroit's Oldest Buildings Became the Coolest New Spots to Visit
If nothing else, Detroit is a city of ingenuity.
You may have read headlines about Detroit’s resurgence as the center of new American cool. There's certainly truth to that, but Motor City has never forgotten its history.
Whereas other rust belt cities tore down their classic architecture to make room for parking garages, Detroit left the buildings. Although much of its historic architecture fell to ruin in the late 20th century, the bones of the buildings remained.
Artists and forward-thinkers moved into the beautiful, dilapidated spaces and fixed them up. Detroiters petitioned to revitalize their old buildings. Little by little, the city put itself back on the map — and it’s nowhere near done.
Even today, business owners are taking over old spaces and repurposing buildings into something utterly modern. But there’s always a nod to heritage.
When you first started noticing pictures of Detroit on the internet a few years ago, it was likely thanks to the Heidelberg Project. Headed by artist Tyree Guyton, the project aimed to revitalize a neglected area of eastern Detroit by repainting buildings in bright polka-dotted colors and attaching found objects to the structure. The project has been ongoing for 30 years and Guyton said he plans to take it to other parts of Detroit. If you’ve got time, drop by Second Best Bar to pay homage. The neighborhood bar used to be the Heidelberg Project’s former offices.
The bartenders at Gold Cash Gold still have to let some visitors know that they can’t sell their belongings there. The bar and restaurant took over a former pawn shop and left the historic signage, causing confusion for some. Even the interiors are a nod to the past: the restaurant floor was ripped out of a high school gymnasium, the tabletops are reclaimed from bowling alley lanes and the artwork contains old photographs of the owners’ ancestors. The menu, in contrast, is wholly modern — think ravioli with goat cheese, a salad of foraged mushrooms and a hearty cauliflower roasted with turmeric.
The elegant dining room of Wright & Company feels almost like a library you would expect to find in an old-school mansion. The space has actually been used as a music shop selling instruments, a jeweler and luxury lofts. Now it serves a host of fancy cocktails and small-plate meals, perfect for a high-class evening that feels like it’s from another time.
The new-aged way to take a business trip to Detroit is to sleep in a former office building. The glamorous lobby of the Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney is a historic look back on Detroit’s days gone by. As you walk to your room, which was once somebody's office, you’ll notice small details like water fountains, mail chutes and old elevator call buttons up and down the hallways.
In it's golden age, Detroit learned to make do with small spaces, including alleyways. One of the most successful transformations has been an old alley known as The Belt. The alley has transformed into one of the city’s trendiest spaces for public art, bringing in installations and murals from internationally-recognized artists curated by the uber-cool Detroit art gallery Library Street Collective. Be sure to come thirsty, bars abound throughout The Belt. Make a stop at the newly-opened basement club Deluxx Fluxx for the hippest parties, concerts and dance nights in Detroit. The space itself is worth a visit alone as it’s an immersive art installation from art duo Faile.
Detroit’s Eastern Market has gone through many iterations in its 125 years. But its current evolution is arguably the most fun. The market started off as a space for hay and wood sales and, by the end of World War II, became a wholesale food spot. Now, its got some of Detroit’s most interesting retail spaces for cheese, vintage clothing and even pierogis.
Stop by the Guardian Building to view a stunning example of Detroit’s finest architecture. The landmark skyscraper has a stunning Art Deco interior that causes visitors to stop dead in their tracks, look upwards and give the ceiling a slack-jawed gawk. Completed in 1929, the downtown landmark has had various tenants over the years, including the U.S. Army during World War II. The building only opened to the public in 2002. Today, you can wander through the lobby and into one of the Guardian Building’s new shops, grab a coffee and pick up some classic Detroit memorabilia to bring home.
Whatever your reason for visiting Detroit, UNESCO's very first offical 'City of Design,' you have to take a moment to appreciate the city's commitment to honoring its past while staying fresh and new.