Travel Diary: Detroit Music City

My trip to Detroit this year was all about the music. I tagged along with a couple of hardcore music fans in late May to see George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic at Sound Board. That was an interesting concert with about a million musicians and dancers on stage. I don’t know much about funk music but my friends consider George Clinton a funk legend.

We shared an Airbnb loft a five-minute drive from downtown. I’d always wanted to stay in a loft in Detroit. The neighbourhood seemed pretty quiet and secluded, and the building had a gated parking lot. In the mornings, I woke to the eerie whistling of distant trains. The hallways stank of weed, tempting one of my travel buddies to make friends with the neighbours. Too shy, he later dragged us to 8 Mile to score medicinal marijuana. No dice— sorry, pal!

A highlight of my trip was the tour of Motown Museum. Hitsville, USA was the birthplace of Motown music and that distinctive Motown sound. The Temptations, Supremes, Jackson 5, etc., all recorded their hits in this one little studio inside the house (we weren’t allowed to take photos inside). I felt fortunate to be able to stand in that space and absorb all the creative energy.

It’s unbelievable how much of an influence Berry Gordy’s label had on the music industry. I learned some interesting facts, such as how their musicians had to take finishing school (in house) to learn how to present themselves to the public. These kids came in through the door scruffy youths and came out polished stars. While the golden age of Motown lasted, the music created unity amongst the blacks and whites in American.

Inside the Guardian building

Are you an architecture nut? If so, you would love Detroit. So many historic buildings have been or are in the process of being restored. And of course, countless abandoned structures. One that intrigues me is Michigan Central Station, designed by the same folks who did New York’s Grand Central Station. The windows have been replaced, but it’s going to cost another 100 million dollars to complete the renovation. So far, the city haven’t decided what they’re to do with this building yet. Convert it into residential lofts? Casino? Convention Centre? Police Headquarters? At least it’s making itself useful in Hollywood films on occasion.

Michigan Central Station

Typically, I’m a pretty healthy eater, but when I’m traveling, anything goes (a bad habit that I’m currently rectifying). This was the kind of food I was eating in Detroit:

As satisfying as it was, after two days of eating this way, I went crawling back to vegetables— wraps and smoothies and all that healthy jazz. What a loser, right?

The pizza’s sauce was BBQ and so good, from The Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria and Brewery in Cass Corridor.

Cass Corridor, a midtown neighbourhood, used to be a lot seedier, but I’m getting a upscale hipster vibe. You’ve got stores like the Shinola’s flagship, Jack White’s Third Man Records, and these trendy boutiques, Nest Housewares and City Bird (where I bought an art print from local talent).

Shinola Detroit

City Bird

Third Man Records

How fun is Third Man Records? It’s a record shop and concert venue, with their own vinyl pressing plant in the back. Of course, The White Stripes is constantly playing in the shop.

Third Man Record’s vinyl pressing plant

On Friday night, we wanted to go somewhere special for live music. The Raven Lounge is Michigan’s oldest blues bar and currently one of the city’s last. Legends such as Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin had performed here. The decor is old school, like something out of a movie.

The Raven Lounge

The staff were so sweet. Thank you to the band for the Toronto shout-out. The doorman must’ve told them when we weren’t looking.

The quiet man sitting at the table in front of us went up to the stage and surprised us by singing like James Brown. Nobody else seems fazed. This level of talent must’ve been routine here, all the seasoned musicians just hanging out, jamming.

In the ladies room, I chatted with the singer, and she told me she’d done it all: gone to the Grammys, toured, sang on hit records, and she’s still singing because the Lord gave her a gift and she wants to share it.

At 1 am, the doorman (who is also a musician in the band Nyce) walked us to the car, even though it was parked right outside the venue. The neighbourhood is very secluded. Apparently, the owner approached the drug dealers and prostitutes in the area to stay out of The Raven’s zone. If I weren’t with two dudes, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming to this part of town, but I’m glad I was able to.

On my last trip to Detroit, I wrote that the city was so quiet and devoid of people, it felt like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Now, downtown seems to be bustling, with people out enjoying the sun, food trucks galore, and the QLINE, their new light rail, zipping along every so often. Eastern Market, empty when I was there last year during a weekday, was bustling on a Saturday morning.

Germack Coffee

Division St, Eastern Market

Signal Return

The markets, coffee shops, restaurants, and stores were all packed. So apparently, everybody in Detroit comes out to Eastern Market on Saturdays. I picked out a limited edition art print at Signal Return for my wall gallery, and one of my friends bought a bunch of 45s at the 37th Shield Library, put out by FNR, a vinyl-only record label.

Detroit is a music city. Musicians of nearly every genre—rap, rock, punk, metal, hip hop, techno, electronica, jazz, blues, etc.—are doing innovative things. Some of them break out into the mainstream and some you’ll only hear of in Detroit. The creative energy here is astounding, and even more astounding is that not more people recognize this and give the city the respect it deserves.

Many people don’t understand why I’m always excited to go back to Detroit. If I travel to any other city, I more or less know what to expect. Not in Detroit. There’s always something special around the corner, a surprise that doesn’t vie for attention but exists as a reminder of beauty among the city’s blight.

Heidelberg Project

While downtown is safe, Detroit has its problems, and you should be cautious. Be street smart and stay out of rough neighbourhoods, but don’t let fear dissuade you from traveling and learning. In return, you’ll meet the friendliest, most kind-hearted locals and receive inspiration from a city rich with culture and history.

I want Detroit to succeed. From what I’ve seen on this trip, it’s happening. We swung by Avalon Village later that Saturday to see its progress. This eco village, funded by Kickstarter, is still under construction, and no one was there that day, to our disappointment. The workers must take weekends off. I want to come back and meet Mama Shu!

And also go to a Dopehead house party.

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STAY: lofts via Airbnb

LIVE MUSIC: Raven Louge | PJ’s Lager House | Sound Board

VISIT: Motown Museum | Michigan Central Station | Guardian Building | Eastern Market | Heidelberg Project | Avalon Village

SHOP: Third Man Records | City Bird | Nest Housewares | Shinola | Pure Detroit | 37th Shield Library | Signal Return

EAT & DRINK:  The Jolly Pumpkin | PJ’s Lager House |  Astro Coffee (sustainable!) | Germack Coffee  | Beyond Juicery & Eatery

See my travel post from the 2016 Detroit trip.

Photos taken with Huawei Mate 9 Pro phone’s Leica camera & Fujifilm X-T20.