Even on a Cloudy Day: A Weekend in Detroit

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It’s impossible to experience and come to understand the totality of a great American city in just a few days, just as it’s impossible to accurately sum one up in a couple of thousand words.

For one, obviously, cities are too large; there’s too much ground to cover and too many things to see. For another, quality can vary from region to region within a city. It’s very possible to spend all of your time immersing yourself into the nicer aspects of a city, all the while totally avoiding the unfortunate realities that also exist within it. And if that’s the case, you might enjoy yourself more, but you end up with a misrepresentation of what the city truly is. On the flip side, though, there’s the chance that, regardless of your intentions, you accidentally wind up in the wrong part of the city and get exposed to something that maybe you didn’t want or weren’t prepared to see. As Bubbles from The Wire said in reference to the stark contrast between Baltimore County and the Baltimore ghetto, “thin line ‘tween heaven and here”. For an outsider, that concept, that reality, can be difficult to grasp, and that too can affect the processing and understanding of a city. Furthermore, it can be difficult to reconcile the history of a great, or as they’re sometimes referred to, “once-great” city with the present state of that city. In short, it takes effort and discipline to bridge the gap between ignorance and understanding, and a few measly days aren’t enough to do it. But you have to start somewhere. And this past weekend, I took my first step forward in understanding the history, the culture, the plight and the city of Detroit, Michigan.

As you may well know, my friend and co-founder of this site, Brent Glass, proudly hails from the Detroit area. For years, I’ve listened to him praise the city’s rich history and unique charms, rant and rave about the city’s corruption, and righteously defend the city’s honor any time anyone made a derogatory comment about it in his presence, having never seen or witnessed or experienced any of it myself. I’ve long wanted to rectify that, but I had an even better excuse to make the trip when Brent moved back there last month to pursue his PhD at Wayne State University (in either Public Administration or Urban Politics). Initially, I’d planned for another three-day romp at Humboldt Park on this particular September weekend, but Brent, the exuberant student, educator and former salesman that he is, convinced me and four other friends to visit him and go see a more traditional concert in a storied arena instead. Now, I can say with upmost certainty that we’re all glad that he did. In the few short days that we spent in the Detroit area, we were able to cram in a concert, a baseball game and a whole bunch of culture. There were far too many experiences and sights to cover in full detail, but I’ll hit some of the highlights, and more importantly, try to get at what made them interesting and impactful.

Coney Challenge

Coney Island is the de facto fast food chain of Detroit and Michigan in general. You’ll find far more Coney Islands in Detroit than you will, say, McDonald’s, or even, Starbucks. Although they’re unique to the general area, they’re not all created equal. The two most highly touted, however, happen to be located right next to each other. And I mean, right next to each other.

Coney Islands

Yes, Lafayette St. is the home to the two most famous Coney Island chains, American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. Founded in 1917 by Greek immigrant and hotdog stand owner Gust Keros, American Coney Island is the original Coney Island. The story goes that Gust had a brother with whom he had a falling out, which prompted the brother to take his own recipe next door to start his own Coney Island: Lafayette Coney Island. However, the urban legend has been exaggerated. In actuality, there was no acrimonious dispute that led to the inception of Lafayette. But, in 1924, his brother did start his business next door, with a different hotdog and a different chili recipe, and the two restaurants became heated competitors after that. With that said, Lafayette was sold and is no longer family-owned, so it’s in no way a family rivalry anymore. But the question remains: which Coney Island has the better Coney?

We began with American, simply, because it’s roomier. It has a sit-down family dinner feel to it, and is all reds and whites and blues. The walls are covered with pictures of the Keros family, staff members and celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon and Miley Cyrus. The menu is surprisingly diverse; you can get gyros, wings, soups or salads, in addition to its famed Coney Island Hot Dogs, American Specials and Coney Loose Burgers. We weren’t messing around, though – we were there for The Coney Challenge, so we all ordered Coneys or American Specials from our enthusiastic waiter, who purported to be the grandson of Gust Keros. The man was full of personality, boasting of the restaurant’s storied history and cracking jokes at a breakneck pace. After he told us that we were about to eat the world’s best dog, he explained that the famous Japanese competitive eater Kobayashi had stopped by to give a demonstration last week. “How long do you think it took him to eat five Coneys?” he asked. (Keep in mind, this means dog, bun, chili, mustard, and onions for each one.) We each submitted our guesses, all of which were between a minute and five minutes. He waited a beat, and then, “30 seconds,” he said to our shock, awe and more than mild disgust.

We took our time and enjoyed every second of our orders – and our experience – before heading over to Lafayette to complete the Coney Challenge. (Or as Louie would call it, the “bang bang”.) The Lafayette is much smaller and drabber in comparison. The color scheme consists of shades of brown, and the menu features less diverse options than its next-door competitor. However, even though American had better atmosphere, almost everyone in our group thought that the Lafayette Coney had the better Coney. But we all agreed that the two were indeed the best chilidogs that we’d ever had, and that The Coney Challenge was an appropriate way to kick off our adventures in the Motor City. 

Detroit Institute of Arts/The Heidelberg Project

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The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and The Heidelberg Project represent the two opposite ends of the Detroit art and culture spectrum. We were fortunate enough to visit both in the same day. We’ll begin with the more traditional of the two. The DIA has existed in some form since 1885. It’s been located on Woodward Ave. since 1927, and has undergone several renovations and expansions since then. As per the DIA’s website, “The museum covers 658,000 square feet that includes more than 100 galleries, a 1,150-seat auditorium, a 380-seat lecture/recital hall, an art reference library, and a state-of-the-art conservation services laboratory.” I can’t say I knew all of those facts, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the museum is massive, and that it would take you many visits to glance at everything it has to offer. In our time there, we covered a very small percentage of the museum, but what we did manage to see was awfully impressive. Though we haphazardly zigzagged our way through the American, European, Modern and Contemporary, and Graphic art sections, one exhibit stood out above the rest.

Mexican Marxist and atheist mural genius Diego Rivera spent 11 months in Detroit in 1932-1933 painting his magnum opus, Detroit Industry. The 27-panel masterpiece juxtaposes biblical imagery with depictions of industry at the Ford Motor Company, among others things. Some have called it blasphemous; others have called it communist propaganda, but the museum has long maintained that Rivera’s great work is a testament to the idea that Detroit’s mass production industries were one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. It doesn’t degrade the city; it elevates it. To behold it in person is absolutely breathtaking.

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Other things that stood out to me:

Kooky-looking faces

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Abstract paintings

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Picturesque landscapes

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Minimalist and impressionist wonders

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This sad and resonant portrait of urban destruction

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And Hale Woodruff’s The Art of the Negro: Study, which features the most influential African-Americans in American history all in one painting.

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The DIA is located in midtown. It’s not too far away from downtown, the part of the city with the recognizable architecture; the mammoth sports stadiums; the fancy casinos, and the pleasant riverfront. Other parts of the city aren’t as lucky. To the east of downtown is where you will find sights of crumbling neighborhoods, poverty, and abandonment. It’s the Detroit that you occasionally see on the news, the Detroit that your relatives and friends warn you about, and the Detroit that nosy acquaintances make the butt of their jokes. This part of Detroit once boasted proud working-class neighborhoods, but since its peak, has fallen precipitously as a result of violence, drugs, racism and general apathy. In 1986, a man named Tyree Guyton decided to take a stand to save his neighborhood, by turning his entire street into a sprawling industrial art installation. The Heidelberg Project is by far the strangest and most inspirational thing that I saw while in the Detroit area.

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It’s an eclectic mishmash of paint and recycled junk arranged in a manner that is both mesmerizing and confounding. From the yards to the street signs to even some of the houses themselves, the entire street is art. Certain structures are abstract and can imbue a range of emotions.

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Others are more straightforward, such as this reminder of Heidelberg’s painful past…

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…And this exhibition of consumerism driving our collective oil consumption.

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Then, there were a few that were spelled out directly for us.

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Some we were able to confidently interpret, like Noah’s Ark, for example.

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Plenty of the exhibits were evocative without being too descriptive.

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Others, though, still have me scratching my head.

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People come from far and wide to take in Guyton’s renowned work, but the neighborhood is quiet; most are respectful and speak in hushed tones as if they were at a war memorial, which is appropriate, because, in a way, that’s what The Heidelberg Project is. The notable exception was when a girl, who, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say she was just a teenager, drew the ire of Guyton for either touching or standing too close to his work while trying to take a picture. “Aw, I can’t take a picture with it,” she whined, “Why?” “Number one: because I created it and I own it. Number two: for your own safety. And number three: because I told you to,” the artist sternly shouted at the girl from across the street. One person’s expression of political protest is another’s selfie opportunity. Alas.

The Heidelberg Project is many things: beautiful, thought-provoking, sad and eerie; as trip companion Alyssa put it, “This would be a scary place to walk through at night,” not because it’s a rundown neighborhood, but because you could imagine all of the shapes and colors taking on a “haunted carnival from hell” feel in the dark. But despite everything, as a whole, The Heidelberg Project is very inspiring. (Also, it’s working. From the HP’s website, “In our 27-year existence no serious crimes have been reported on Heidelberg Street”.) There are many indications of a hopeful future for the neighborhood, the city and the world at large. The two images that best encapsulate this recall the official motto of Detroit: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus, which translates to  “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

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The Black Keys and Cage The Elephant at Joe Louis Arena

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Joe Louis Arena, named after boxing legend Joe Louis, who grew up in Detroit (after his family fled the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama), is primarily known as the home of the Detroit Red Wings, but it’s also used as a concert venue, among other things. On this particular night, the arena was packed for one of the most popular rock bands in the world: The Black Keys. But before they took the stage, Cage The Elephant opened the show with an intense and chaotic set. The exuberant band took a few songs to find their groove, starting off with a little more coked-out energy than necessary. But they improved with each song, and by the time they played, “Shake Me Down,” the crowd-pleasing hit off their second album, Thank You, Happy Birthday, they were locked in. “Even on a cloudy day,” lead singer Matt Schulz sang repeatedly during the song’s bridge before returning to the emphatic refrain, “I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun”.

Once known for their low-key, stripped-down blues-rock, the duo of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are now synonymous with anthemic arena rock. The Black Keys aren’t from Detroit, but they are from the Midwest – Akron, OH, to be specific – and even though they’ve risen to such great heights, their shows still have a blue collar, working-class air that resonates in a city like Detroit. Beginning with “Dead and Gone” from their 2012 smash album El Camino and concluding with the rousing headbanger “I Got Mine” from 2008’s Attack and Release, The Black Keys played a satisfying mix of songs from nearly their whole discography. Auerbach effortlessly oozed cool the way that he tends to, and Carney drummed with precision and his own nerdy brand of cool, his goofy, intense expression of concentration never leaving his face. During the encore, the band threw the crowd a delightful curveball in the form of a cover of “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” by favorite Detroit son, Bob Seger.

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I took a few videos throughout, including this one of “Howlin’ For You,” in which Dan says to the crowd, “Come on, Detroit! Help us out”. To which, of course, we obliged.

The Henry Ford Museum

Henry Ford is known as the godfather of the automobile industry as we know it, and that’s not entirely untrue. Although he wasn’t the creator of the automobile, or even, the inventor of the assembly line, he was the first to popularize the assembly line and to make the automobile affordable. He was an industrialist, the founder of Ford Motor Company, a collector, a known pacifist and, er, um, an anti-Semite (but we won’t get into any of that). His museum is technically located in Dearborn, MI, not Detroit, but Dearborn is a part of the greater Detroit area, and Detroit and the Ford name will forever be intertwined in history, so no matter.

The Henry Ford Museum is not a shrine to the man, but instead to the man’s passions. And the man wasn’t just interested in cars, but also in science, industry, history and Americana. “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition,” Ford said of the museum. Ford died in 1947, but his museum lives on and has since acquired artifacts from pivotal moments of the second half of the 20th century.

There’s stuff that makes you say, “Well, that’s kind of cool,” like this 1950s era Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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And then there’s stuff that makes you say, “Oh my god”, and nothing else, such as the actual bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested in Birmingham, AL in 1955.

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Or, you know, the chair that President Abraham Lincoln was sitting in at Ford’s Theater when he was assassinated; faded bloodstains and all.

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Our group was enamored with the presidential vehicles, particularly President Ronald Reagan’s 1972 Lincoln that he was in when he was shot in 1981. (Reagan was in our fraternity.)

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Here’s the limousine that President John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated:

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And this is Theodore Roosevelt’s horse-drawn Brougham. TR didn’t like cars, because of course he didn’t.

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Oh, and for you classic car enthusiasts out there, here:

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Tigers-Indians at Comerica Park

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For successful strivers like the Detroit Tigers, September is a time for frantic playoff chases. The Tigers entered the game with a half-game lead on the finally achieving Kansas City Royals in the AL Central division. As a Cubs fan, I had no real rooting interest in the matter, but as a Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks fan, I have a history of rooting against Detroit sports teams. To be honest, I’d say I like the Indians a little more than the Tigers. (If you’re not a sports fan, don’t even try to understand twisted sports fan logic; you won’t get it, because sometimes we don’t even get it.) But I was excited about the game nonetheless.

Comerica Park has been the home of the Tigers since 2000, when they moved from historic Tiger Stadium. It’s a large, pitcher-friendly stadium with a deep outfield, and a striking view of the downtown skyline. The park was nearly full – 99.8%, according to ESPN.com, and it was evident from before the game even began that this is a city that is passionate about its team. The people in the bars before the game, the fans in the stadium, the park’s vendors – everyone was excited that the playoff race was coming down to the wire, everyone could sense that, if all were to go well, the euphoria of playoff baseball would be right around the corner. It must be said that this is a city that could use some euphoria.

The game, it turned out, was a good one. Cleveland took the lead early as Michael Brantley hit a two-run home run off of Detroit rookie Kyle Lobstein in the first inning. Detroit then tied it up in the third with an Ian Kinsler RBI single to center and a Torii Hunter sac fly, before taking the lead in the fourth, thanks to a homer from Victor Martinez. However, an inning later, Mike Aviles hit a two-out, two-run double into the right-field corner, scoring Lonnie Chisenhall and Jesus Aguliar to reclaim the lead for the Indians.

In the top of the eighth, the momentum swung yet again, this time with the Tigers in the field. First, Detroit manager (and former major league veteran catcher) Brad Ausmus won an instant replay challenge. Then, with two outs and two on, 39-year-old right fielder Torii Hunter made a turn-back-the-clock diving catch that he seemed to make so effortlessly a decade ago, keeping the Tigers in the game. In the bottom of the inning, as the script called for, struggling Tigers catcher Alex Avila knocked one out of the park to put the Tigers back on top 5-4.

As the crowd rose to cheer, with 39-year-old closer Joe Nathan on the mound and two outs in the top of the ninth, I was a little surprised to find myself rising and clapping with them. I suppose that the short answer as to why I did – and why I suspect my friends did too – is that I’m a sucker for good times with friends and baseball and beer. But the longer, harder to comprehend answer has to do with the fact that, in a short time, I had become inspired by a city that is passionate about its food, culture, history, entertainment and sports. And also by its resilient people, who, even on a cloudy day, refuse to give up on it.

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Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He’s currently writes about television for Voice of TV, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices,The College Fix, and The Wine and Cheese Crowd, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

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