Motor City Magic

The results of a half-billion dollar renovation project will be readily apparent to those attending GEAR EXPO in Detroit next month. Read on to get a sense of what’s in store.

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When my flight landed at 4:30 that afternoon, Carla Conner-Penzabene–who is director of sales for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau–was already waiting for me at the terminal’s entrance. She then whisked me away to our car, where the chauffeur loaded my bags into the trunk. On the way into town she asked if I knew much about the city, and I told her that I’d traveled to Detroit on a number of occasions on assignment for the magazine, the last time about a year ago. “You’re going to be surprised by what we’ve done since then,” she said, and she wasn’t kidding. While I’d expected re-paved roads and a couple of new parks, what I actually found was a place that’s been completely transformed, from a confusing tangle into one of the most vibrant and engaging cities that I’ve had the pleasure to visit and explore.

So shelve any preconceived notions of Detroit that you may have and allow me to share with you what I encountered doing a little advance scouting for those planning to attend GEAR EXPO 2005. You’re going to be amazed–and I’m not kidding, either.

A Moving Experience

Our first stop was the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, where my room on the 51st floor–with its floor-to-ceiling windows–provided a wonderful view of the city, the Detroit River and, just across it, Windsor, Ontario. Perhaps the most striking change from previous visits was the Riverwalk; a landscaped park and walking path replacing the car lots and three cement plants that had claimed that space for so many years. Once I’d rejoined Carla in the lobby, we stepped across the street and took a stroll along the Riverwalk, which will provide some eight miles of uninterrupted walking trails once it’s completed. The downtown section is done, though, and from the crowds of people gathered there watching their children play in the fountains, it was clear that it’s already been woven into the city’s fabric.

From there we reentered the hotel and made our way downstairs to the “People Mover” station–one of 13 stops along its three-mile path, which the computerized rail transit system covers in its entirety in a mere 15 minutes. It only took a few of those minutes to arrive at the Greektown Casino, which was filled not only with those who enjoy gaming, but others wandering among the many adjoining shops, bars, and restaurants. While my description might not be entirely accurate, my impression was of a number of old, brick buildings that have been joined, with the alley between them covered with a glass roof, transforming it into a wonderful indoor lane meandering between a host of shopping, dining, and entertainment venues.

While the People Mover makes it a breeze to get around, Detroit is truly a walking city, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to explore Greektown–as well as the other nearby districts–and discover all that it has to offer. And although it usually costs 50 cents per ride, those attending GEAR EXPO will pay the same for a day pass. And believe me, you’ll find plenty to do, because it would take weeks to explore everything within easy walking distance of the People Mover’s route.

The Walking Tour
Although we would soon hit the streets–my favorite way of getting to know any city–we first took another quick jaunt on the People Mover, which I’d already fallen for on our first ride. As we glided along the elevated track, I was struck by how many of the downtown buildings have been renovated, and by how many more are currently in the process or marked for improvements. And these are buildings that are worthy of investment, designed by noteworthy architects such as Mies van der Rohe and soon to become the condos and lofts of the thousands of people who are flocking to take up residence downtown. In fact, this is a crucial aspect of the city’s redevelopment efforts, and from the number of people I saw who clearly live in the area, it appears to be working.

We soon arrived at Cobo Center, where the People Mover’s tracks actually enter the structure, even providing a view of the main exhibition hall at one point. By my watch–and if we’d gone directly to Cobo–no more than five minutes would’ve passed in transit, without once having set a foot outside. No matter where you’re staying in the city center, you’ll find that the usual hassles of actually getting to the exhibition site have basically been eliminated.

After taking a quick tour of Cobo we made our way outside to the sidewalk, bound for dinner a couple of blocks away at The Alley Grille. As we walked along Carla pointed out particular buildings of interest, even taking me inside a few lobbies for a closer look at the impressive architecture and design. Our meal was outstanding–I’d suggest the grilled pickerel if you go there, and you should–but the day’s real centerpiece was still ahead of me.

On our return to the Renaissance Center–or the “Ren Cen,” as it’s known locally–we rode the elevator to the 71st floor, where we joined a crowd of Marriott guests in a suite overlooking the river. Even though my itinerary had mentioned something about a fireworks display, I had no way of knowing it was one of the largest in North America, and a joint celebration between Windsor and Detroit marking the two country’s independence days: Canada’s is held on the first day of July, and ours on the fourth, so this event is held each year on the 29th of June. It was estimated that a million people had gathered in the city below–not counting those across the river, which was itself crowded with yachts and party boats–and as I stood watching the fiery blossoms exploding before my very eyes, I thought of what a perfect complement it was to my reintroduction to this great city.

History Abounds
The next morning, after watching the sun rise over Detroit from my room’s window, I met Carla for breakfast at Sweet Loraine’s, not far from the hotel’s main lobby. We were joined by Diane Bach, Carla’s colleague and administrative coordinator of sales and marketing for the Convention Bureau, and Peter Zeiler, business development representative for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC). While dining he described the years-long effort that was required to reclaim the land for the Riverwalk, which is a testament to the city’s commitment to reinventing itself.

Afterwards we took to the street by car, so that we could cover as much ground as possible, with Zeiler pointing out various DEGC projects along the way. Many of the buildings had been saved from demolition and are now filled with apartments and condominiums, and parks and walkways have been refreshed with new landscaping–all with a single purpose in mind, according to Zeiler. “What we had in the past were inviting pockets scattered around town with no connection between them, and one of our goals has been to unite them by developing the empty buildings and making it easier to walk from place to place,” he said, pointing to a new Hyatt hotel on one block as a case in point. “With the shape this lot was in before, you wouldn’t have wanted to walk past it at night, but that’s no longer a concern. And that’s what we’ve done throughout the business district.”

Our next stop was one that I’d greatly anticipated, the Detroit Institute of Arts, since it’s home to one of the finest examples of the work of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The Detroit Industry fresco cycle–which covers four, two-story walls just past the museum’s lobby–is an astounding sight, even if you’re not an art lover, for it’s an intricate and imaginative portrayal of the city at its apex. I can’t think of an artwork I’ve seen that depicts the heat, sweat, and sheer massiveness of manufacturing so well. And, as if that work isn’t overwhelming enough, there are also paintings by Picasso, Monet, van Gogh, and sculptures by Rodin, among many others. Although a visit will require a short bus or taxi ride from downtown, it’s more than worth the effort.

Right across the road and down a few blocks we toured the Detroit Historical Museum, with its working “drop-down chassis” assembly taken from a GM plant, and from there we drove a short distance to The Henry Ford, where the museum is a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It’s almost mind-blowing to think of all the things that I saw collected there, including the presidential limousine in which John F. Kennedy was riding when he was assassinated, as well as the actual chair Abraham Lincoln was seated in when he was shot, too. But that was just the very tip of the iceberg, as there are galleries filled with airplanes, train engines, and a long line of automobiles beginning with the very first versions all the way through modern formula-one racers. And on the adjoining grounds you’ll find that Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park has been recreated in Greenfield Village, and that there are buses that will take you on a Ford Rouge Factory tour.

Just as I’d felt in Greektown, or at all of the museums we’d visited, I could’ve spent a week exploring each one of these sites–which I plan to do on return visits. I came to realize that, even though I’d spent plenty of time in Detroit over the years, I hadn’t even skimmed the surface of all that it has to offer. It’s not often that city planners have the foresight to invest half a billion dollars just to make itself more attractive and amenable to potential visitors, but that’s exactly what’s happened in Detroit, and it shows.

An Excellent Return
When Carla dropped me off at the airport that afternoon, I didn’t quite know how to thank her. Not only had she been gracious and accommodating, she’d also opened my eyes to something mere familiarity had blinded me to before. Every city has its assets, whether that be beautiful surroundings, big-business activity, or a vibrant arts and social scene, but Detroit has all of that–and more. And they’ve gone out of their way to eliminate past problems and to unite and spotlight the city’s amenities, which you’ll be able to see for yourself next month at GEAR EXPO.

Even if you visit only a few of the places I’ve mentioned, I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m excited about Detroit–as well as AGMA’s decision to make a return appearance in the Motor City.

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