Detroit may not be an obvious city break choice, but a new route from Virgin Atlantic puts it firmly in the spotlight: Sophie Griffiths finds an edgy American city with a story to tell
The street appears broken. A burnt-out shell of a car robbed of its wheels sits in a patch of overgrown grass. Alongside sits a house, unloved for years. Where glass windows once were, there are only black squares, and a lone curtain billows outwards in the breeze. We prop our bikes up, and gaze down the road, where identical houses echo the same sense of disrepair and neglect. They are separated by empty plots of land, where houses have been torn down and grass has grown over their foundations.
Looking down this road, I can see why Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, originally expected a new direct route from London to Delta hub Detroit to merely serve as a point of transit for those wanting to reach other parts of the US.
I’ll admit too, that my first thoughts about visiting Detroit were less about seeing the city. Reports suggested it was a tired and often dangerous place to visit. Truth be told, I was more interested in tracking down my favourite celebrity (and first true love) Eminem, who grew up in Detroit’s famous “8 Mile” area, and still lives in the suburbs of the city.
After just two nights in the Motor City, however, Branson changed his mind about Detroit. And within two days, I have also fallen in love with the city.
The largest metropolis in the US to have declared bankruptcy, Detroit has more than its fair share of rundown neighbourhoods and lost 60% of its population in 50 years due to de-industrialisation and a high crime rate. But Detroit is so much more.
It is experiencing a renaissance and people are moving to the area in their droves to become part of its rebirth.
“This city is beginning to boom again,” Branson announced at the press conference marking the start of Virgin Atlantic’s new routes. “I want us to do our part in making it absolutely great again.” Detroit is a city filled with hope and a hungry desire to become the epitome of the American dream. And the locals embody this passion.
The bike tour I’m on is just one example of this. Our guide is Detroit native Jason Hall, who founded the Slow Roll initiative – a weekly Monday night group cycle ride – in 2010 to encourage locals to rediscover their city. Since its inception, which saw just a few people join Hall and his co-founder Mike MacKool, the Slow Roll has grown into the city’s largest weekly bike ride and has now spread to eight other cities. It attracts some 2,700 participants the week we visit.
As we move on from the abandoned street, Hall explains that the city is slowly tearing down deserted houses and turning empty lots into green space in a bid to tackle the serious crimes that often took place in the derelict buildings.
In less than a minute we pedal into another world. White picket fences line finely manicured lawns leading up to old-fashioned mansions. This is the affluent neighbourhood of Indian Village, where many of the houses were built by prominent architects in the early 20th century. They were once home to famous locals, including Henry Leland, the founder of car brands Lincoln and Cadillac.
The close proximity of rich and poor neighbourhoods is typical of Detroit. They lie less than 10 minutes’ bike ride from the city centre, which comprises a handful of skyscrapers, shopping streets, the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium and a riverfront, separating the city from Canada on the opposite bank.
Detroit was once a booming metropolis, throbbing with energy and wealth – and not just because of the manufacture of cars, which earned it the moniker of Motor City. By 1959 this nickname had also been used to coin another label for which the city had become famous – Motown Records.
On a quiet, tree-lined residential street, less than five minutes’ drive from our inner city hotel, lies the nondescript house that was once home to this world-famous music establishment. It would perhaps remain unnoticed to most passers-by, if not for the small sign on its lawn, marking it out as the original home of Motown Records. It was owned by the legendary record producer Berry Gordy, who launched the careers of soul greats such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Martha and the Vandellas.
We are guided round by Peggy, who missed her calling as a Motown singer. She serenades us with hits from the 60s and 70s as she walks us around the tiny museum, pointing out the tiny orange sofa where Marvin Gaye used to curl up after late night jamming sessions, and the vending machine which still contains original chocolate from the 70s, including the Babe Ruth bars that were Stevie Wonder’s favourite. “They were always kept in the same slot, so that little, blind 11-year-old boy knew just which buttons to press,” she explains.
The tour culminates in the world famous “Studio A”. “Y’all can’t leave without singing a song in the same room as Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, the Jackson Five and the Supremes,” Peggy instructs us sternly, before leading us in a rousing rendition of My Girl by The Temptations. Around us black and white photos line the walls, depicting various mega-stars singing exactly where we are now standing. “Makes your spine tingle don’t it,” Peggy smiles.
No visit to Detroit would be complete without a visit to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, where old models of Fords dating back to the early 1900s line the floors. This was the birthplace of the famous Model T, the first affordable car, which opened up the industry to the American middle class.
History is one facet of the city, and shopping is another, although it still has some way to go to rival its US counterparts in this respect. We head to the Eastern Market – where locals flock every Saturday morning to buy groceries, artisan delicacies and garden plants. There are several bric-a-brac stores, and as I wander round, owners approach me to talk excitedly about their love of the city. “It’s a shame Rita’s nipped out,” my new friend Joey says. “That’s Rita Ross – Diana’s sister,” he adds casually. “She owns the stall next to me – all the Ross’ stayed close – Diana comes to visit sometimes.” He moves on to talk about another famous local, Kid Rock, who apparently spends a fair amount of time helping the city get back on its feet.
The passion that Detroit’s famous offspring have for their home seems is infectious. “We’re getting more and more international people here – they’re coming for vacation,” Joey says excitedly. “We find it weird, but it’s so great for the city.”
He’s right – Detroit is not for clients that want a weekend of shopping and fine dining. It is a city that is raw and gritty. But it offers tourists a far more honest glimpse of its soul than any other American city I have visited.
It’s a two-day stopover with a difference. I might not have seen Eminem, but I have found an exciting new US destination. In the famous song Dancing in the Street, Martha and the Vandellas urged listeners not to forget the Motor City. I feel there is little danger of that happening.
Book it: Return flights from Heathrow to Detroit lead in from £737pp in economy with Virgin Atlantic. virginatlantic.com