If you’re expecting the advance of urban decay to have overtaken Detroit’s downtown core, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find. At least, I was. Detroit’s city center seemed clean, beautiful in places, and just as safe as you’d expect any downtown to feel. It’s worth at least a brief visit, as you travel around the area, getting a feel for the town.
The Joe Louis Fist might very well be Detroit’s most famous downtown landmark. The huge bronze arm and fist measures 24 feet in length, and weighs about four tons. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat difficult to get to, since it’s in between the lanes of Jefferson Avenue. If you’re in your car, there’s no easy way to park nearby — which is why I snapped this less-than-remarkable picture out my car window. However, if you’re stopping at the center of town, the sculpture is just a few blocks away, down Woodward Avenue.
I found a parking spot on Monroe Street, near the old National Theater — more on it in a moment. From the car, I walked towards Campus Maritus Park, the center of downtown where all the major roads come together.
This fountain sits at the middle of Campus Maritus Park, along with a small restaurant, some green space…
… and the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
As you wander around, be sure to stop and pay homage to this otherwise unremarkable street corner. It was here, at the corner of Woodward and Michigan Avenues in 1920, that the first 3-way automatic traffic light went into service. Detroit police officer William Potts invented the green-yellow-red light system. The yellow light removed the need for police to manually change the red and green lights (a system invented in London a few years earlier).
The tech firm Compuware has its headquarters in this building, which faces Campus Meritus Park. But you’ll probably be more interested in the Hard Rock Cafe, which is just around the corner on Monroe Street.
Downtown Detroit’s biggest building complex is just a short walk away from the center of town. The huge Renaissance Center includes the tallest building in Michigan. That central tube-like structure is also the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the western hemisphere (with 1,298 rooms!). If you want a view from the top, you can plan a lunch or dinner in its top-floor restaurant.
General Motors owns the complex, which explains why the logos of various GM products rotate, on the huge electronic signs atop the central tower. It serves as GM’s world headquarters.
The old Wayne County Building is at the eastern end of Cadillac Square, oddly offset from the center of the road. Despite its strange placement, it’s a grand old building, constructed between 1897 and 1902. Copper statues adorn the rooftop, and the building’s central tower rises 247 feet above the street.
The Wayne County Building used to be home to the county’s administrative offices, but it moved out, sometime around 2008. From what I could tell, the building is well-preserved, but empty and locked. A sign outside advertises for new tenants.
Every city has a building that looks like this… and there’s usually a bar or a pizza place in it.
Another noticeable skyscraper is the Penobscot Building, which was Detroit’s tallest, until the Renaissance center took the honor in 1977.
While many of the buildings in Detroit’s downtown core were looking pretty good during my 2011 visit, one historic structure was still in rough shape.
This is the old National Theater, constructed 100 years before my visit. It closed in the late 1970’s after serving a stint as an X-rated movie house. But decades earlier, its ornate facade would glow brilliantly at night, thanks to the hundreds of lights hidden within its intricate design. These days, that giant arched window is broken and wide-open, providing a slight glimpse of the deteriorating conditions inside. The plywood wall surrounding the National’s entryway carries an ominous message in graffiti:
Does it speak for everyone? I don’t know. Aside from the temporary construction wall, there were no signs of work being done on the National Theatre during my 2011 visit, and I haven’t found any reports of current restoration efforts. Hopefully its savoir will come along, someday.
Detroit to Toledo
I don’t think there’s anything to enjoy about the drive from Detroit, south to the Ohio state line and the city of Toledo. This stretch of Interstate 75 is crowded with the trucks that supply the area’s remaining factories, then haul away their products. You won’t enjoy the scenery either, unless the sight of endless miles of high-tension power lines makes your heart flutter.
No, there’s no reason to think you’ll enjoy the drive from Detroit to Toledo, so just accept it as something that has to be done, if you want to make the circle around Lake Erie, and see more beautiful places along the way.
Now that I’ve made it sound so tempting, check out the Drivelapse video of the drive down I-75, and tell me if you disagree.