Upon realising we had a long weekend coming up back in May, on the Monday of that week we decided to book a last minute trip away, because why not? Having already been to a lot of the usual places within a few hours of Toronto, we chose Detroit for a few reasons. One, last-minute flights to just about anywhere were still very expensive, so we wanted somewhere we could hire a car and drive to, and being about four hours away, Detroit fit the bill. Two, I knew it was home to Motown Museum, which I thought would be really cool to see, and three, we figured we probably wouldn’t go to Detroit if we didn’t do it while living in Toronto, so now was as good a time as any.
We had some mixed reactions from friends when we told them where we were heading – a few people said they loved Detroit and wished they were coming along with us, while several other people responded with, “Why?” It’s not exactly a tourist hotspot, and there are definitely more glamourous places to go on holiday, but without really knowing what to expect from the city, we had a wonderful time. Between some really interesting museums, delicious vegan food and a quick trip to Ulta, what more could you want from a weekend away?
We didn’t really know too much about the city before we got there, but we learned that the population of Detroit has been steadily declining since the 1950s. Back then the population was 1.8 million, and today it’s under 700,000. We could see something was up as we drove around and noticed that at least 30%, if not more, of all the homes and buildings we passed were abandoned – either boarded up, graffitied or occasionally burned down. There are definitely parts of the city that you don’t want to walk around at night, to put it lightly.
The Motown Museum
Being a lifelong Michael Jackson fan, as well as a fan of Diana Ross & the Supremes, and just generally loving music, I was excited to check out the Motown Museum, and it really surpassed my expectations. Not only were there about a million songs that I didn’t realise were Motown hits, but I also wasn’t fully aware of how significant their cultural impact was outside of music.
Founded in 1959, the Motown sound dominated the charts through the 60s and beyond with artists like Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and about a million more. Whether you recognise the names or not, most people raised in a Western context would be familiar with their biggest hits if they heard them.
Beyond making wonderful music, Motown’s acts were mostly (if not all) people of colour, and with the Civil Rights movement pushing for progress throughout the turbulent 1960s, to have African-American music all over the radio was pretty important. Many of their artist toured together as The Motortown Revue and initially played to segregated audiences in the Deep South, but eventually to integrated audiences who were able to dance together. This music is credited with being a part of breaking down those barriers and contributing to these very necessary and long-overdue changes.
The museum itself is located in the original property where the label was founded, which was nicknamed Hitsville U.S.A. We had a fantastic tour guide who made the experience a lot of fun, and we got to go into the actual studio where so many famous songs were recorded. They also had a hat and sequined glove on display that Michael Jackson donated to the museum, which was definitely the highlight for me!
The Henry Ford Museum
The Henry Ford Museum also surpassed my expectations, because I didn’t realise how many super interesting things are held there. It’s actually located in the town of Dearborn, which is about a 20min drive from Detroit. I’m not particularly interested in the history of cars, but this museum had so much more than that and is well worth a visit if you’re ever in town. Please excuse the crappy photos, museum lighting is notoriously unforgiving, but below is the actual car that JFK was shot in, along with the chair Abraham Lincoln was shot in (which is behind glass), and the bus that Rosa Parks sat in when she refused to move for a white passenger, one of the most well-known events that took place as part of the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Pretty mind-blowing pieces of history!
A friend I work with grew up in Windsor, which is the town just on the Canadian side of the water across from Detroit, and he told us to check out Greektown while we were there. The city isn't very big so it didn't take long for us to walk around. The main strip of Greektown is only a couple of blocks, but it was pretty lively, and we spotted a bakery that was absolutely packed with people, so I had to pick up a treat or two for myself. We also walked through the General Motors Renaissance Centre down on the waterfront where you can see Windsor on the other side, and we spotted the Fox Theatre where all the Motown artists used to play.
You can keep your acai bowls and green smoothies, I'll take a good diner breakfast any day of the week, especially one with scrambled tofu & home fries. The above was at the Brooklyn Street Local. Below is Detroit style pizza from Buddy's who have a location right near the Henry Ford Museum. We chose Buddy's because they can make it with vegan cheese. If you've never had Detroit style pizza before, it's rectangular, about an inch thick, and has no crust so the toppings go right to the edge, and it's goddamn delicious.
We kept going back to this one little area of Corktown (the Irish part of town) because they had a few places with vegan & vegetarian options all next to each other, so we were happy campers. One of them was Brooklyn Street Local, which I mentioned up above, and we also stopped by the Detroit Institute of Bagels for breakfast on our last morning before driving home. Their everything bagel was absolutely top notch.
Our favourite place, however, was PJs Lager House who serve meat, as well as a whole bunch of vegan options. We were still super full from lunch so we split the vegan Po-Boy, and both wished so badly that we could fit in another one because it was so good. We had plans to venture further afield that night but we got along with the bartender and the couple next to us so well that we stuck around for a few hours and really enjoyed ourselves. If we were ever in town again, we would 100% go back.
Another place we went that was across the road from this beautiful floral wall was Detroit Vegan Soul and they serve things like tofu "catfish", cornbread muffins and maple glazed yams with sultanas - delicious!
Another place I think we would definitely go back to is Pie-Sci. Although their pizza isn't Detroit-style, they won major points from me by having vegan options for everything. Instead of just not putting chicken or a creamy sauce on my pizza when I asked for it vegan, I got the complete pizza with vegan substitutes for everything, which is pretty rare, and it was damn good pizza too!
We actually didn't know anything about The Heidelberg Project until the bartender at PJs told us that we should check it out, so we made sure we went before driving home on the Monday. Basically, the artist grew up in this neighbourhood and it was really, really rough, so over time he created these found-art projects and painted a bunch of the houses in the street. The neighbourhood is still sketchy af, and aside from this one part of the street I certainly wouldn't wander around on my own, but it's really unique and definitely worth going to if you have a car and can get there easily.