Exploring Michigan’s Motor City with kids, plus suggestions for lodging and dining.
To car buffs, the HQ of General Motors and Ford make it “Motor City;” to filmmaker Michael Moore (Academy Award-wining director of the documentary “Roger and Me”), they make it the epicenter of American Imperialist Big Business. To fans of R&B and soul music, it’s long been “Motown;” to rappers in the wake of Eminem, it will forever be known as “313.” Whatever your interest or political persuasion, surprising Detroit is all this and more.
On a recent, too-brief getaway, two New York City moms (Camilla and I) and two boys (Camilla’s 12-year-old Luca and my 11-year-old Regan) set out to learn more about this surprising city. With the ladies eager to see the “James Bond” show at The Henry Ford museum, and our ‘tweeners eager to visit 8 Mile, where the eponymous hip hop film was set, we piled into our rental Ford Taurus and hit the road.
First Stop: Car Culture
The Henry Ford (800/835-5237 or 313/271-1620) was founded by the Ford family in 1929 to house inventor Henry Ford’s immense collection of Americana, and to celebrate America’s spirit of ingenuity and innovation. We went first to the “Bond. James Bond” temporary exhibit (no longer on display) but found its props, set designs and other movie memorabilia much more dull than the film clips playing constantly. The Henry Ford itself is such a crowded, diverse and hard-to-peruse collection that we decided to study the Visitor’s Guide and pick out some of its unique treasures for a closer look.
Among the astonishing highlights: The Birmingham, Alabama public bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 was restored, open and accessible, to such good condition that Luca was able to sit in Ms. Park’s own seat while the terrific docent explained how the museum had bought the bus on e-Bay. The presidential limousine in which the Kennedys rode on that fateful day in Dallas was respectfully parked behind a black velvet rope barrier. The cafe serving Detroit’s special Coney dogs and fries was adjacent to a colorful VW Beetle-style “Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.”
The delightfully shiny chrome “Dymaxion House” exhibit, designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, was so compact that the boys couldn’t understand how it could be considered an “ideal” home. The new “Heroes of the Sky” hall, commemorating the history of flight, showed off early planes, though not as well as the collection of Ford automobile. The Fords stood in lanes on “highways,” or gathered in vignettes in the “countryside,” to demonstrate their part in developing the American idea of vacation. We were thrilled with seeing them.
Next: America’s History
After several hours inside, we needed to be outside, and set our sights on Greenfield Village (www.TheHenryFord.org) which shares The Henry Ford’s estate. As a family outing, the totally renovated historic village is certainly worth a full-day visit, a day lost in time. In the manner of Colonial Williamsburg and other living history museums, Greenfield Village comprises 90 landscaped acres dotted with service buildings.
Reenactors, a working blacksmith shop, costumed interpreters roaming the grounds, staff at the historic homes and places of business, all combine to bring 300 years of American history to life. For us, the highlight was a five-minute ride (after a 20-minute wait) in a Model T, whose owner/driver regaled us with the car’s colorful history. The boys could not believe they were actually seated in a vehicle that, next door, was worthy of museum status.
Greenfield Village also boasts a respectable cafe, Mrs. Fisher’s Southern Cooking restaurant, an adorable steam train circling the perimeter, shops, a circa 1913 Herschell Spillman Carousel, and a working steamboat.
Can I Watch A Car Being Built?
This was great fun in my youth, but alas, economic and union problems have restricted Detroit assembly-line visits. Michigan fans can visit the newly opened “Ford Rouge Factory Tour” assembly line exhibit at The Henry Ford. But there are many other places across the country to view this fascinating process. We’ve learned that families with kids 7 years and older can watch Corvettes being assembled at the General Motors Assembly Plant (270/745-8287) in Bowling Green for only $5, or, if they’re at least in first grade, see Toyotas being built in Georgetown (800/866-4485; www.toyotageorgetown.com) for free, both in Kentucky. Chevrolets are being assembled before the public in Spring Hill (931/486-5000) and Nissans are being made in Smyrna (615/459-1444), both in Tennessee. Families with kids 12 years+ can tour a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama (888/286-8762; www.bamabenz.com) and a BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina (888/868-7269; www.bmwzentrum.com).
Wrong Side of the Tracks
No visit to 313 would have been complete without a stop at “8 Mile,” or what in our view was the area of poor white trash, gang violence, automobile assembly plants and rap-offs frequented by Eminem and his pals. Little did we know 8 Mile is a 42-mile thoroughfare running east-west through the metropolitan area parallel to 7 Mile and 9 Mile Roads. Armed only with an address off the Internet for the rap artist’s recording studio, we asked many locals which section we should sightsee in. I suppose touring Baghdad with children might garner more looks of disapproval.
One young concierge finally pulled out a city map, pointed to the neighborhood of Warren in Macomb County, where he said Marshall Mathers (the artist’s real name) was from, and suggested we approach 8 Mile Road between Dequindre and Mound Roads to look for Gangstas. The boys’ excitement quickly faded as we passed blocks of pawnshops and worn bars, some well kept housing developments and a few mini malls. At one laundromat, a patron steered us a block away to the trailer park where the film’s most poignant scenes were shot. I think the boys were relieved to see swing sets and pick-up trucks parked in front of the aluminum trailer homes, each with window boxes of geraniums or other signs of caring. We took a few photos, looked quickly for Gangstas (none) and felt satisfied. P.S. The recording studio address was either incorrect, or it has been torn down.
Right Side of the Tracks
Camilla felt it was important to contrast the homelife Eminem sang about with the life of Detroit’s other half, living on the “right side of the tracks.” Off we drove to the modest Edsel and Eleanor Ford House (313/884-4222) in Grosse Point Shores. Designed by Albert Kahn to resemble a Cotswald cottage, it was commissioned by Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel, who had earned the presidency of the Ford Motor Company at age 25 with his streamlined designs and forward-thinking business strategy. The girls’ favorite aspect of the tour was the garage, which housed two limousines designed by the Fords: a long, boxy black 1952 Lincoln Town Car with a raised roof which enabled Mrs. Ford to enter the back seat without crushing her hats, and a yummy silver Lincoln Continental Cabriolet, 1941, whose design so pleased Mr. Ford that he drove an assembly-line model, just like other well-to-do Americans.
Their home was completed in 1929 and given to the public in 1978; fully furnished and restored, it is open daily except Monday for hour-long escorted tours. Our boys preferred to stroll the 87-acre landscaped grounds instead and, in addition to the peaceful lakeshore setting, loved the Ford’s freeform swimming pool. Resembling that of a natural pond with a small waterfall, its design was highly innovative for its day and an interesting contrast to the ornately Deco Moderne poolhouse. Regan’s next favorite sight? The 3/4-scale Tudor playhouse built for Ms. Josephine Ford’s 7th birthday. Within its miniature chintz and mahogany living room, the knowledgeable docent recounted how little Josephine, a potential kidnap victim, rarely had playmates over to the estate, so played instead with the family bodyguards.
The mention of “Greektown” on the Detroit city map caught our eye, but rather than a town, it’s really just Lafayette Street lined with Americanized tavernas, bars and pastry shops facing the glittering Greektown Casino. However, since Detroit’s downtown is totally dead at night (and shockingly run down, at least from the boys’ point of view, during the day) it makes for a fun evening out. We paused for ice cream at the Astoria Pastry Shop cafe, then watched many ethnically and racially diverse strollers along one of downtown’s few lively streets. At the casino, too, the boys peeked in on the ground-floor slot machines and commented on the mixed young couples who were obviously out on Date Night. From there, it was a quick drive by Comerica Park, where we could see the losing Detroit Tigers haloed by stadium lights, on their eighth inning.
You might also want to try some Middle Eastern Cuisine while you’re in Detroit, as the city hosts the largest Arab-American community in the United States.
Inner City’s Other Attractions
The Renaissance Center is comprised of those round black towers that line the Detroit River shoreline above the Randolph Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to Ontario, Canada. On my last visit to Detroit, it was brand new and full of promise as the center of a downtown revitalization. Today it’s the world headquarters for the General Motors Company amidst blocks and blocks of urban decay. GM World (313/667-7151) is the company’s public face — a mezzanine level display of new cars, new technology and new products open free to the public, weekdays only. It was closed at our visit, but the boys really enjoyed seeing the tunnel and Windsor, site of a memorable scene from Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”
Alas, one weekend was not enough to uncover Motor City’s many surprises. The boys felt they missed the reputedly great New Detroit Science Center (313/577-8400) which features new science stages, exhibits and an IMAX theatre. The Walter P. Chrysler Museum (888/456-1924), where 65 vehicles are on display, might have revealed the insight behind the PT Cruiser. The free “Visit Detroit” tourist guide had a big story about C.J. Barrymore’s (586/469-2800) where kids above 7 years and 48″ can drive go-karts and bigger kids can get behind the wheel of higher-speed Indy Karts. We all heard a lot about the Detroit Zoo (248/541-5717) in Royal Oak and their interactive Arctic Ring of Life exhibit.
We girls wished we could squeeze in the 20th-century art featured at the Cranbrook Art Museum (877/462-7262), the furniture and private artwork displayed in mansion tour at the Henry Ford Estate (313/593-5590), or the Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio at the Motown Historical Museum (313/875-2264).
What became apparent only after our arrival was the city’s role in African American heritage, illuminated in the collections at the Black Holocaust Museum (313/491-0777), the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (313/494-5800), the first Congregational Church of Detroit (313/831-4080), Tuskegee Airmen National Museum (313/843-8849), and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site andUnderground Railroad Museum (519/727-6555), among others.
But then, there’s always next time.
Don’t Want to Sleep in the Car?
After studying the Detroit Tourism website, and seeing so many places of interest so widely spread across the Metro Detroit region, we contacted the tourist office for advice on hotels. Taking into account our needs — traveling with kids; limited time; moderate budget; focus on car culture; pool a must — they suggested the Best Western Greenfield Inn (800/528-1234, 313/271-1600) in Dearborn. Within a few miles of The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, and right off Enterprise Drive, it proved a good choice. Within its rambling pink Victorian facade was everything we needed, including a spacious double room with minifridge, VCR and coffeemaker, and a small indoor pool filled with other kids. Best yet, a convention of antique car buffs was staying there on their way to the Ford Centennial Celebrations, so we could study their cars in the hotel’s parking lot.
Directly opposite The Henry Ford museum complex is the posh Marriott Dearborn Inn (313/271-2700), 800/228-9290. We were very interested in seeing this red brick Georgian landmark because it was America’s first “airport hotel” when it was built in 1931. Henry Ford, a big fan of flight, in fact developed one of the first aircraft, The Ford Tri-Motor. Despite the ornate chandeliers and welcoming floral displays in the lobby, the attractive (to us) formal ambiance made the boys uncomfortable with the notion of staying for Sunday brunch.
For other sightseeing and accommodations ideas, call 800/DETROIT or visit www.visitdetroit.com
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.