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detroit design guide [update]

by Grace Bonney

Image via Ten21 Creative

Today’s Detroit City Guide update comes from original guide writer Jim Griffioen of Sweet Juniper. Jim was kind enough to update his detailed and interesting guide to the Motor City. From incredible architectural and design history to some wonderful local artisans, Jim’s guide is a must, must read and is full of humor, history and great finds. Thanks, Jim, for a wonderful update!

*Note: To preserve the original guide’s URL, we’ve made these changes to the original guide, so some of the comments you see below will be from the original posting back in 2008.

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

Detroit City Guide
Let’s face it: no one’s coming to Detroit for a bounty of fauna-decorated greeting cards or hand-screened wallpaper. As the author of the Design*Sponge guide to the Motor City, I must first dispel you of any notion that Detroit is the kind of place where you can shop in trendy, walkable neighborhoods for the kinds of beautiful things you ordinarily see on this website. As far as I know, we have no ceramic antler peddlers or artists working around the clock to draw owls in every conceivable fashion. We do, however, have a sizable population of ring-necked pheasants. And packs of wild dogs. I once had to fight off a pack of hungry feral dogs that wanted to eat my toddler. Try doing that in Park Slope!

Detroit was like the Silicon Valley of the 1920s. A new and exciting technology emerged here that would transform the entire world. There were jobs for everyone. As Detroit’s auto barons poured their wealth into the city’s buildings, they created one of the greatest collections of 1920s architecture in North America. Eventually, half the population left for the suburbs. That means the city is very empty. There are a lot of vacant lots, empty houses and even empty Art Deco and Beaux-Arts skyscrapers. At night, a great swath of our lovely skyline is dark.

The importance of the automobile in Detroit’s history and decline cannot be understated, and it plays an equally important role in the area’s tradition of design. Automobile design is often ignored by mid-century enthusiasts who might prefer a Saarinen womb chair to a sweet 1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, though the origins of both can be traced here. Not only is Detroit home to a growing and tight-knit group of artists attracted to the affordable standard of living, available space and inspirational landscape, but also many professional designers who work primarily in the automotive field.

In the three years since I originally wrote this guide, the New York Times has sent dozens of reporters here to write stories about the Detroit scene and the possibilities afforded by all the cheap space. I swear I saw a friend get a call, glance at his phone and say, “God, it’s the New York Times again.” I think what the Times is picking up on is that though Detroit missed out on a lot of the benefits of gentrification (i.e., all those ceramic antler peddlers) it retains an authenticity missing from cities that have suffered from extreme gentrification (Detroit is still gritty and dangerous like the pre-gentrified Brooklyn or the pre-Giuliani Manhattan that a lot of New Yorkers fetishize). As Detroit artist Vaughn Taormina recently said, “So if you think Detroit is a shit hole, fair enough. But we think your city feels like the mall.”

This guide is organized by neighborhood, and by “neighborhood” I mean the islands of residential and retail activity surrounded by abandonment, neighborhoods without much going on commercially and those massive highways leading to the suburbs.

Midtown/Cultural Center

Things to See
Detroit Institute of the Arts
5200 Woodward Avenue [map]The DIA completed a major renovation in 2008 with a Michael Graves addition that added 77,000 sq. ft. The Diego Rivera court at the center of the museum should not be missed: Rivera considered it his finest work. The museums tends to skew toward nineteenth-century American, French Rococo and classic Dutch work, but the collection is encyclopedic and spans from Egyptian and classical art to a large modern gallery.

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) 4454 Woodward Ave. [map] — A most welcome addition to the contemporary art scene in Detroit, since 2006 MOCAD has been more than just a museum; it has been a true gathering space for people interested in all kinds of new art. With free admission, and a busy schedule of public programs that include lectures, concerts, parties, films and literary readings, one of the greatest aspects of MOCAD is its space: a 22,000 sq. ft. former auto dealership stripped to its raw elements that makes it perfect for the conceptual pieces in the exhibitions. Be sure to check out the upcoming events before you visit; there’s a chance you might be able to catch all the Detroit hipsters in one spot.

Wayne State University Campus [map] — The campus has a cluster of excellent mid-century buildings, the most significant of which were designed by Minoru Yamasaki (the Education Building, Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium and the sublime McGregor Memorial Conference Center).

Detroit Historical Museum 5401 Woodward Avenue [map]

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History 315 East Warren Ave. [map]

Detroit Public Library (main library) 5201 Woodward Ave. [map] — Check out the severely under-appreciated murals by John S. Coppin on the third floor of this lovely Italianate library (designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the US Supreme Court).

College for Creative Studies Gallery 201 East Kirby [map]

Brush Park [map] — Just south of the cultural center is the area known as Brush Park, once a prestigious neighborhood of Victorian mansions built in the 1870s for Detroit’s lumber barons, reduced to flophouses and ultimately ruin as the wealthy fled further and further from downtown. Several of the remaining homes have been restored, while others still sit abandoned amid the urban prairie awaiting renovation or demolition. The infamous David Livingston house was fully demolished not long after this breathtaking footage was taken. There’s a nice Inn in one of the restored mansions just across 1-75 from Comerica Park.

Cass Corridor [map] — South of Wayne State University, this stretch of Cass Ave. and its environs was a cultural hotspot during Detroit’s turbulent 60s and 70s. The southern end of the corridor is becoming more and more barren due to demolition (by neglect and otherwise) but there are plenty of good dive bars. If you’re into eclectic and art-house cinema, the Burton Theater (opened in 2009) is a great example of what can happen when some dedicated individuals make the effort to reuse one of the city’s many vacant buildings to bring a service to the city. No other American city of its size has as few movie screens as Detroit, and the Burton was a welcome addition.

Places to Shop
Bureau of Urban Living 460 West Canfield Street [map] — This small shop carries unique modern housewares, accents, art prints, stationary, books and more. The premise is a “general store” for design-minded individuals who have laid down roots in Detroit and don’t want to shop in the suburbs. Proprietress Claire Nelson keeps a diverse stock of household items from Blomus, Russell+Hazel, Hybrid Home, Inhabit, Umbra, Mrs. Meyers and Plush Living. But she also makes sure to regularly rotate art and design projects by local folks and prints her own small batches of prints, posters and t-shirts.

Claire, along with Liz Blondy (owner of Detroit’s finest dog daycare and grooming facility, Canine to Five), is one of the brains and a lot of the energy behind Open City Detroit, a group of entrepreneurs who’ve banded together to share advice and experiences to encourage others to open businesses in the city of Detroit.

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) 4454 Woodward Ave. [map] — In addition to a new coffee shop, MOCAD has a great little store with highfalutin art magazines, books, toys, commissioned t-shirts and other interesting items.

City Bird 460 West Canfield Street [map] — Handmade goods, letterpress cards, jewelry, vintage clothing and the full line of sibling proprietors Andy and Emily Linn’s line of Detroit-themed soaps and housewares. The Linns grew up in the city of Detroit and have stuck around to share their love of the city through this lovely little midtown boutique.

Leopold’s Books (The Park Shelton) 15 E Kirby St [map] — A small but meticulously curated bookstore, heavy on graphic novels and literary fiction with the region’s best selection of quality periodicals and local zines.

Goods (The Park Shelton) 15 E Kirby St [map] — Handmade merchandise from local Detroit artists and designers. Goods also offers custom/made-to-order items from your own design or their design library.

Detroit Artists Market 4719 Woodward Ave. [map] — Established in 1932, this storefront gallery features paintings, sculpture, ceramics and jewelry by local artists.

Re:View Contemporary Gallery 444 W. Willis Street, Units 111 and 112 Simone DeSousa’s high-quality project is a welcome addition to Detroit’s contemporary art scene; the gallery also has a nice little design store. Stop in Avalon for a sea-salt chocolate chip cookie afterward.

Peoples Records 3161 Woodward Avenue — Great selection of Detroit-soul vinyl.

Dell Pryor Gallery 4201 Cass [map]

G. R. N’Namdi Gallery 66 E Forest Ave [map]

The Hub: 3535 Cass, NW corner of Cass and MLK intersection [map] — “More than just a bike shop,” the HUB helps customers build personalized bikes from parts salvaged from older cycles, trains kids in bike mechanics and repair and maintains a strong commitment to outreach and community involvement. The New York Times has written about how great Detroit is for biking, and this place is part of the reason why.

Mantra, 3401 Cass Ave. [map] — A small vintage shop with tons of affordable (but kind of junky) mid-century furniture.

Sole Sisters 87 E Canfield St [map] — Suburban shoe chain’s recently opened midtown location, selling shoes, purses and accessories.

Where to Eat
Good Girls Go to Paris (The Park Shelton) 15 E Kirby St [map] — Why not stop in for one of like a hundred sweet or savory crepes after shopping at Leopolds or Goods?

Wasabi (The Park Shelton) 15 E Kirby St [map] — If you’re in Detroit looking for sushi or Korean/Japanese fare, this is probably the best you’ll find. The sushi lunch specials are particularly reasonable. I am including them here because of their incredible holiday displays.

Avalon International Breads 422 W. Willis St. [map] — The model for small-business entrepreneurship in Detroit, this organic bakery sells delicious artisanal breads, coffee and espresso drinks and tasty sweets.

Goodwell’s Natural Foods Market 418 W Willis St. — Next to Avalon with a Raw juice bar, this expanding vegetarian deli serves amazing pita sandwiches and delicious (and healthy) soups.

Cass Cafe 4620 Cass Ave. [map] — Art Gallery, bar and restaurant with good vegetarian options.

Motor City Brew Works 470 W Canfield St [map] — Cozy little brewery with great beer and excellent pizzas. Watch where you park to avoid getting towed: there’s some kind of Hatfield & McCoy dispute over the parking lot in front that I still don’t understand after years of living here.

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Northwest of the central business district, Corktown claims to be Detroit’s oldest intact neighborhood, with well-kept residential streets of 19th-century Irish worker cottages and larger Victorian houses.

Things to See
Michigan Central Station Roosevelt and Michigan Ave. [map] — This building may just be the most impressive modern ruin in the world. The MCS is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by the same firm as New York’s Grand Central, but abandoned in 1987 to the mercy of the elements, architectural scavengers, vandals, ruthless oligarchs and graffiti taggers. I would say no visit to Detroit is complete without standing outside to look up at it, and I would also highly recommend finding some way inside to get a look at the sublime interior. Good luck if there’s a movie shoot going on there though; security gets ramped up to protect the stars.

Some friends of mine designed and built the garden full of native plantings in front of the station in Roosevelt Park.

Places to Shop
John K. King Used and Rare Books 901 W. Lafayette Blvd. [map] — Michigan’s largest used-book store. Give yourself a few hours. They’ll be well spent here.

Xavier’s Twentieth Century Furniture
2546 Michigan Ave. [map] — You need to figure in at least 20 minutes to wrench yourself away from any conversation with Xavier, the purveyor of vintage mid-century furniture, lighting, accents and accessories in this inconspicuous spot. Xavier knows what he’s selling (you won’t be able to get a beautiful Robsjohn-Gibbons slipper chair for a song, but he also has many affordable pieces).

Where to Eat
Mudgie’s Deli 1300 Porter St [map] — Detroit delicatessen culture doesn’t get much respect outside the region, but the corned beef in this town is as good as I’ve had at some of the most renowned delis in New York, largely because of a few longstanding, serious corned beef distributors that still call Detroit home. Mudgie’s makes a great case for the superiority of Sy Ginsberg meats, roasting and cooking its own cuts every day. The menu at this Corktown deli is huge and its sandwiches are inspired.

Le Petit Zinc [map] — After opening and running a few successful restaurants in Brooklyn (including Chez Oskar in Fort Greene) Charles Sorel moved to Detroit and opened a French cafe in an old daycare center, sharing a wall with a small local newspaper. And it works. Detroit, a city with deep French roots, didn’t have a proper French restaurant until Zinc opened, and it’s a great place to stop in for un petit dejeuner, a savory crepe, salade niçoise or the best ratatouille in town.

Slows 2138 Michigan Ave. [map] — Slows is one of Detroit’s biggest success stories from the past few years. Suburbanites and city dwellers flock here every night for the famous barbecue, but you could easily come here just to appreciate the design: the stunning interior features slatted wood walls in a modern take on the traditional southern barbecue, with all wooden surfaces planed, sanded and refinished by the owners to their own design. The reasonably priced menu, like the interior, is like a classed-up vision of southern barbecue without straying too far from its roots. If you want to know more, read the New York Times‘ recent lovestruck profile of owner and former Louis Vuitton model Phil Cooley.

(There are rumors that a burger restaurant is going to open in the location of the short-lived Mercury Coffee Bar, and the long-awaited Astro Coffee will soon open across Michigan Ave. next to Slows.)

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An area of Detroit that is clearly thriving, Mexicantown’s lively “real city” atmosphere keeps spreading outward in southwestern Detroit. It’s densely populated with people and eateries, so it’s a great place to eat and walk around enjoying the public art and shopping. While there aren’t any real design-oriented stores here, there are plenty of interesting shops. La Gloria (3345 Bagley Ave) is a great place to stop for Mexican desserts. There’s an eclectic and popular weekend flea market just east of Livernois at 5700 Federal Street. Nearby is Kidz Playland (5620 Federal) and they hold Lucha Libre wrestling events there from time to time. Also check out the gallery at the Bagley Housing Association for metalwork created by the artists at nearby Disenos Ornamental Iron. Don’t miss the Fuller-esque electric-blue geodesic dome on the corner of Vernor and St. Anne (built by Jack White’s brother).

The trendiest place to eat these days is the inconspicuous-looking El Barzon (reservations needed on weekend evenings) and for good reason. The food is amazing, whether you order from the Italian or Mexican side of the menu (seriously). It’s also a great neighborhood to make your own “discovery” and try some small place without all the suburbanites.

Cafe Con Leche 4200 W Vernor Hwy [map] — Thriving in its new location on Clark Park, this coffee shop has fostered a great sense of community just by being a gathering spot where people can meet over espresso drinks or a cup of incredible champurrado.

Oh, and if you’ve heard those rumors about there being “no grocery stores in the city of Detroit” be sure to check out Honey Bee la Colmena 2443 Bagley St [map] (my detailed profile is here) or E & L Supermercado 6000 W Vernor Hwy [map]. Then kick Chris Hansen in the nuts for me if you see him walking around Manhattan.

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Things to See
People Mover [map] — Detroit’s much-maligned, mostly-empty monorail gives a tour of the central business district and the skyscraper graveyard. Plus it’s only 50 cents.

Guardian Building 500 Griswold [map] — An awe-inspiring art-deco masterpiece covered in American Indian motifs; the real treat is inside. Sweet talk the security guards into giving you a tour.

Penobscot Building 645 Griswold [map] — Another classic 1920s skyscraper. I love the practical businesses sticking it out inside the bowels of this building (and the Buhl building next door) with their etched glass doors and old-timey feel.

Riverwalk [map] — The recently unveiled riverfront promenade is a great place to walk all year to catch glimpses of the skylines of both Detroit and neighboring Windsor, Ontario. Detroit is the only major American city that faces Canada to the south.

Hart Plaza [map] — Designed by Isamu Noguchi in the 1960s and featuring his massive, unique fountain, this plaza is an open civic space right on the Detroit River at the foot of Woodward Avenue. Every year, it hosts the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, along with dozens of other ethnic and cultural festivals.

Downtown Ruins (David Broderick Tower, Free Press, United Artists, Book Tower, David Stott, David Whitney, etc.) — Camilo Jose Vergara once proposed preserving Detroit’s abandoned skyscrapers as an “American Acropolis.” Many of the towering vacants have been demolished and some (like the Book-Cadillac Hotel) have been renovated, while the rest wait for condominium developers to live up to their promises. One of the most shocking ruins is the old Michigan Theater, the site of the workshop where Henry Ford built his first automobile, then a luxurious movie palace, now a parking garage.

Places to Shop
Spectacles 230 E. Grand River [map] — This Harmonie Park boutique carries men’s and women’s clothing and accessories from lines like Upper Playground and Schott NYC.

Dumouchelle Art Galleries 409 E. Jefferson Ave. [map] Auction house that occasionally sells some wild (and modern) stuff from rich folks’ estates.

Where to Eat
Lafayette Coney Island 118 W. Lafayette Blvd. [map] — The Detroit Coney Island is a thick-casing pork hot dog covered in a meaty chili, diced onion and yellow mustard applied with a wooden stick. I prefer the dogs at the Lafayette; the decor seems to have remained unchanged for decades. It’s also where Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 had their wedding reception.

Greenwich Time 130 Cadillac Sq. [map] — Serving great burgers for more than half a century in Detroit’s flatiron building, and not much has changed.

Roast (inside the Book Cadillac Hotel) 1128 Washington Ave [map] — Iron Chef Michael Symon’s gorgeous upscale (yet unpretentious) offering inside the newly-renovated Book Cadillac hotel. You’d pay twice as much for this food in New York. And if you’re really cheap, Roast has the best happy hour in the city, with $3 menu tastes and dirt-cheap top-shelf cocktails. With all the movies being filmed in Detroit these days, there’s always a chance you’ll see some big shot here. Order a Last Word at the bar, a cocktail that originated at the Detroit Athletic Club during prohibition (made of gin, fresh lime juice, chartreuse and crystal clear Luxardo maraschino liqueur).

Angelina’s Italian Bistro, 1565 Broadway St [map] — Good food and wine with knowledgeable service and huge windows overlooking Grand Circus Park; a great place to catch a bite before (or after) a show at the Opera House across the street or a game at Comerica Park a block and a half away.

Small Plates 1521 Broadway [map] — Upscale but not too expensive restaurant near Grand Circus.

Bucharest Grill 2040 Park. Ave. [map] — Excellent, affordable shawarmas and other Romanian fare inside the Park Bar.

The Rowland Cafe [map] — An excellent coffee shop and cafe inside the breathtaking lobby of the Guardian Building.

Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy 1439 Griswold St [map] — No longer just a poorly-kept hipster secret, Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy buzzes with life every Friday night in this dim corner of Capitol park across from a strip club that seems to change its name every few months and next to a struggling mid-century synagogue. There is a lot you could say about D’Mongo’s, and a lot has, but I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never been anywhere quite like it. I’ve heard rumors that it was shuttered for decades and reopened with dust still on the furnishings, and it does feel like walking into a different era. Larry Mongo is (like his brother) a unique sort of genius: from his Liberace’s-garage-sale decor to the bathroom that shares a veneer wall with the kitchen, everything is miraculously charming. There’s always live music and cooks from the kitchen regularly join in. An elegantly dressed older woman always directs you to a table (if one is available) and the crowd regularly spills outside.

The bar serves beer and wine but it’s best for cocktails, and the prices will have you questioning your server about how many drinks she forgot (answer: none). The food is chicken, ribs and sides. The scene is very much what Detroit is all about these days.

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Eastern Market/Near-East Side

Things to See
Eastern Market Russell and Winder [map] — One of the best times to get a real sense of the Detroit area’s diversity is Saturday morning at the Eastern Market. 70,000 tons of fresh produce pass through here every year, in addition to vast quantities of meat, seafood and dry goods. Even on the coldest days of the year there are buskers and street vendors. The shops and restaurants are open every day except Sunday. Head to Gabriel Imports for olives and Mediterranean specialties, Cost Plus Wines, Gratiot Central Market for meat, Rocky Peanut Company for nuts and bulk candies, Germack for pistachios and Rafal Spice for coffee and spices.

Lafayette Park Lafayette and Rivard [map] — A shockingly-successful urban redevelopment project tucked away inside a terribly-unsuccessful urban environment, Lafayette Park may owe some of its success to the names on its blueprints: the buildings were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the park-like grounds by his colleague at IIT, master landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. The Mies buildings include three international style apartment towers and 186 one- and two-story townhouses. The facades of all these buildings have Mies’ famous walls of glass. Lafayette Park boasts the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe architecture in the world. The high rise at 1300 Lafayette designed by Gunnar Birketts fits in well with the modern character of the neighborhood, and was once home to Diana Ross. Anyone interested in mid-century architecture, urban planning or a green escape from the city just a block from downtown should consider a visit to Detroit’s Lafayette Park. If you have any questions about the neighborhood, ask a Lafayette Park resident. We’re really friendly.

Dequindre Cut [map] — A two-mile, below-grade abandoned rail line, the Cut existed for many years as a jungle-like canyon of non-native species, wildlife and illegal dumping grounds, as well as the greatest stretch of graffiti canvas I’ve ever seen. Now the cut has been cleared of trash and vegetation — a rail-to-trail project that now connects Eastern Market to Detroit’s riverfront.

If your an avid biker in town without your wheels, be sure to stop by The Wheelhouse, 1340 E. Atwater Street [map], a bike shop located along the riverfront, to rent a bike (or even take a guided bike tour of the city).

Heidelberg Project 3600 Heidelberg St. [map] — Another must-visit. Tyree Guyton started his project in 1986 and hasn’t stopped since (despite having six of his houses demolished by city bureaucrats). A colorful array of painted car hoods, shoes, vacuum cleaners, stuffed animals, tires and wildly-painted abandoned (and inhabited) homes, the world-famous Heidelberg project (if nothing else) shows the power of one man to transform the despair and ugliness suffocating his neighborhood into something truly beautiful. Bring a camera. Get out of your car. Walk around. Talk to Tyree. No one is going to bite you.

Urban Prairie/Poletown [map] — If you want to see more of Tyree Guyton’s public art, head north from Heidelberg on Mt. Elliot and turn left on Canfield. This area was formerly known as “Poletown” and was a vibrant Polish community before much of it was torn down to build an automotive plant, and now it is mostly empty. Guyton’s “Rosa Parks” bus sits in a vacant lot at Canfield and Chene. There is some more art near that intersection. If you head north on Chene, you will proceed through a series of beautiful abandoned shops and storefronts. The surrounding neighborhood features some of the most striking urban prairie landscapes in the city.

John’s Carpet House Summer Jam/Big Pete’s Place 2133 Frederick St [map] [facebook] — Another only-in-Detroit institution, during the warm weather months a bunch of talented musicians get together in a field in the middle of the Poletown prairie, lay down some carpets, plug in their amps into their generators and play the blues. Toilet facilities are limited and the guy selling boiled peanuts only accepts cash.

Packard Plant Complex [map] — Situated just south of I-94 on Detroit’s east side, the Packard plant was designed in 1903 by Albert Kahn and included the first use of reinforced concrete for industrial construction in Detroit, making it the most modern automobile manufacturing facility in the world. It once consisted of 3.5 million square feet throughout 35 acres of buildings. Today, a good portion of it remains, empty but still breathtaking. If you find a Banksy piece inside, don’t tell anyone. Just hire a front-end loader and take the wall for yourself, then put it on eBay for $1 million.

Elmwood Cemetery [map] — 86 acres of landscaped grounds, designed in 1890 by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The Farnsworth Block (Farnsworth between Moran and Elmwood) [map] — Although in my experience they don’t like tourists (after bringing a Vice Magazine writer through there I received an e-mail from one of the resident artists saying, “The last thing we want are the billyburg hipster set invading our neighborhood. In the future, please don’t take it upon yourself to go sharing what we are doing on this block . . .” (which is kind of funny because a bunch of Brooklynites have since moved there), it’s a public street and an interesting place where art meets urban farming on a cooperative and intact block of an old Detroit neighborhood. Not all of the residents are so exclusive, and they’re especially welcome when hosting an art show, music performance or other open gathering.

Places to Shop
R. Hirt Jr. 2468 Market St [map] — One of my absolute favorite places in Detroit. Click here to read my detailed profile on the history and offerings of the store that’s been on this spot for 120 years. Cheese, bread, eggs, dairy, European chocolate, local Michigan-made goods, toys, home decor, kitchenware, holiday items and more wicker than you’ve ever seen. Needless to say, I haven’t been to a shopping mall in years.

Busy Bee Hardware 1401 Gratiot Detroit, MI [map] — Another Detroit gem which is profiled in depth here. Neighborhood hardware store open since 1918 persevering against all odds, largely due to the large personalities of the Crabb family and the employees they’ve brought into their family over the years. I am in here two to three times a week, and even if you don’t have any hardware needs, the place is worth a visit.

Eastern Market Antique Shops: Eastern Market Antiques 2530 Market St.; Marketplace Antiques Gallery 2047 Gratiot Ave.; Savvy Chic 2712 Riopelle St.

Cheap Charlies 1461 Gratiot [map] — Every auto repair shop and factory in three counties must send their unwanted garments here, and it’s all $1. Pants? $1. Coveralls? $1. They also sell giant piggie banks, shopping carts, gloves and socks.

Gratiot Central Market 1429 Gratiot Ave. [map] — Where Detroiters go to buy the freshest meat in town. Seriously, it was probably killed a couple blocks away. Also: an independent cheese/dairy shop, bakery, produce and liquor store are inside. Who needs Wal-Mart?

Liberal Arts Gallery 3361 Gratiot Ave. [map]

Gardella Furniture 2306 Gratiot Ave. [map]

Johanson-Charles Gallery 1345 Division [map]

Discount Candles 1400 Gratiot Ave. [map] — Hoodoo/witchcraft store, selling penis- and vulva-shaped candles, lodestones, goofer dust, oils that keep police at bay and candles that encourage a judge’s sympathy.

Where to Eat
Supino Pizzeria 2457 Russell St [map] — The Free Press recently declared this the best pizza in the metro area (I concur) and Detroit was ranked the 3rd best pizza city in the country by GQ. That means this is the best pizza in the third best pizza city in America. But I would rank it up there with the best I’ve had anywhere, including San Francisco’s Pizetta 211. Owner Dave Mancini works tirelessly at the ovens in his small and simple pizza shop, decorated with tasteful sculptures and cool industrial furnishings. Don’t order an ordinary pizza when Dave offers such delicious alternatives. Our favorites include the pancetta and egg-topped “Bismarck” or the spinach, ricotta and caper covered “Red White and Green.”

Russell Street Deli 2465 Russell St. [map] — Open for lunch and breakfast, excellent sandwiches and plenty of vegetarian options. This is right up there with Corktown’s Mudgie’s among the best of Detroit’s delicatessens, with a bit more of a localvore/vegan/healthy vibe.

Roma Cafe 3401 Riopelle St. [map] — Detroit’s oldest Italian restaurant, and it feels like it. I think it might also have Detroit’s oldest waiters. Dates to the 1890s, the food is a bit dull but the experience makes up for it.

Cutter’s Bar & Grill, 2638 Orleans St [map] — If you like your ground beef as fresh as it comes and don’t mind sitting on a vinyl stool repaired with 20-years worth of duck tape (possibly next to a butcher wearing an apron covered in fresh blood stains), this place serves probably the best burger in town. Don’t be afraid to order yours medium rare.

The Ivanhoe Cafe (Polish Yacht Club) 5249 Joseph Campau St [map] — For years I thought this was a private club, but later learned the inconspicuous landlocked “yacht club” is an operating restaurant in the middle of the urban prairie. Good for comfort food with Polish leanings.

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East Riverfront

Belle Isle [map] — For more natural beauty, head to this island park in the Detroit River designed in part by Frederick Law Olmsted. Starting at its western edge, Belle Isle features a magnificent fountain designed by Cass Gilbert, a casino and conservatory, both designed by Alfred Kahn, a boat house designed by Eero Saarinen, a huge playground, a creepy abandoned zoo, forests, athletic fields and a marble Art Deco lighthouse on its eastern tip. The island also boasts the Detroit Yacht Club, a nature center and a Great Lakes shipping museum.

Indian Village Neighborhood [map] — Still one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Detroit, an eclectic collection of early 20th-century homes. There are also a number of amazing Art Deco apartment buildings closer to Jefferson, particularly the Kean Apartments.

Pewabic Pottery 10125 E. Jefferson Ave. [map] — Detroit’s immense contribution to the international Arts & Crafts movement, this pottery school and studio founded by Mary Perry Stratton in 1903 still produces beautiful pottery and iridescent architectural tiles for use all over the world. The studio has a workshop, a small museum and an excellent store that not only sells Pewabic’s traditional vases and architectural tiles, but also a juried selection of the works of over 50 to 75 ceramics artists from all over North America.

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Far East Side

This neighborhood borders the posh suburbs of Grosse Pointe, once home to Alexander Girard and still home to a Marcel Breuer library that was saved from demolition a few years back. There is so much old money and English Tudor architecture in Grosse Pointe, every time I go there I want to say ‘Tallyho!” and drink warm beer before bashing myself in the head with a cricket bat.

Arts and Scraps 16135 Harper [map] — A great place to pick up lots of art supplies for cheap while contributing to a great cause.

Mack Ave. Antique Shops: E.J. Berry, Another Time Antiques, the London Gallery Antique Mall, Park Antiques and Spectrum Antiques.

Cadieux Cafe 4300 Cadieux Rd. [map] — Detroit’s center of Flemish culture, with Belgian food, Belgian beers on tap, and the only featherbowling lanes in the United States. I am particularly fond of the commissioned paintings of every featherbowl tournament winner from the past few decades.

Dish 18441 Mack Ave. [map]

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A separate municipality completely surrounded by Detroit, Hamtramck has its own police force, schools, city government, etc. Once an ethnic enclave for Polish immigrants working in the nearby auto plant, it became a haven for Ukranians, Macedonians, Albanians, Yemenis and Bosnians. Though traces of those populations remain, further waves of hipsters, Africans and huge numbers of immigrants from Bangladesh have made Hamtramck one of the most diverse places around. Hamtramck also has an art community organized partly in the HATCH collective.

Things to See
Bengali Architecture [map] — A drive along Conant Avenue provides a great glimpse of Hamtramck’s diversity. This is where most of the Bengali businesses have taken root, and there is some great adaptive Bengali architecture on some of the buildings. It’s also a great place for food and shopping for Indian and Bengali goods (including several Sari shops).

Hamtramck Disneyland 12087 Klinger St., in alley behind the house [map] — Overtaking his small city lot, this wild collection of folk art was built as a retirement project by Ukrainian immigrant Dmytro Szylak after 32 years working for General Motors. It started as a few small whirlygigs and grew to the massive collection of found objects. Unlike Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, Szylak actually found an ally in city hall when expanding his work (the former mayor of Hamtramck studied sculpture at Cranbrook).

Powerhouse/Design 99 Neighborhood (intersection of Moran and Lawley, Detroit) [map] — Though their retail location is sadly gone, the Design 99 store remains in business (online). Even more importantly, proprietors Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart have survived one helluva media blitz to focus their efforts on ongoing work in their neighborhood (as well as several high-profile museum exhibitions). Their neighborhood north of Hamtramck is now home to many more artists who’ve purchased those mythical $100 houses and includes a recent collaboration with Jxtapoz Magazine that involved artists Monica Canilao, Richard Coleman, Saelee Oh, RETNA, SWOON and Ben Wolf.

If you visit, please don’t disturb any of the residents. But if you see someone out working on their house or an installation, they might talk to you, especially if you lend a hand.

Public Pool 3309 Caniff [map] — A contemporary art collective/gallery opened in the former Design 99 space. Open Saturdays 1–6 pm.

Places to Shop
Polish Art Center 9539 Joseph Campau [map] — Kitschy collection of Polish imports, from dried Borowiki mushrooms to gorgeous Wycinanki roosters.

Record Graveyard 10201 Joseph Campau [map] — A vast collection of vinyl to spend a few hours browsing.

Detroit Threads 10238 Joseph Campau St. [map] — Storefront record store, vintage clothing shop, and Detroit-themed screenprinter.

Ross Coated Fabric 9451 Buffalo St [map] — A source for fabrics used in the auto industry. I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve been told you can get the really interesting fabric there at great prices.

Places to Eat
CAFE1923 2287 Holbrook St. [map] — An excellent little coffee shop across from the Kowalski hot dog factory opened in the owner’s grandfather’s 1923 storefront. I love the counter made from wood recovered from an old bowling alley.

Polish Food — Like Taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District, everyone has a favorite Hamtramck Polish dive. But almost all of Hamtramck’s Polish restaurants have their virtues. Try Under the Eagle 9000 Joseph Campau St. [map] or Polonia 2934 Yemans St. [map] for excellent handmade pirogies, stuffed cabbage, dill pickle soup, sausage and sauerkraut. We prefer Polonia.

Buddy’s Pizza 17125 Conant St. [map] — A Detroit institution. Square pies.

* * * * *

New Center

Things to See
Russell Industrial Center [map] — This former factory complex designed by Albert Kahn is enjoying a new life as a vast space for artist studios, including metalworkers, glass blowers, musicians, painters, photographers, architects, clothing designers and candle makers. The longest tenant is a guy who still makes parts for Ford Model Ts, which were once built just down the block. The Russell Industrial Center holds regular open studios, and this past year they held a successful “People’s Art Festival” with hundreds of artists and a full schedule of bands.

Piquette Factories [map] — The area around the Russell Industrial Center, particularly on Piquette Ave., was the womb of the modern industrial world. This was where Henry Ford had his first assembly line to build his first Model Ts. Other early car companies sprung up around it. Today, many of the industrial buildings have been lost, but some, like the vast white Fisher plant, remain.

Fisher Building 3011 West Grand Boulevard [map] — Given a blank check in 1927 to create “the most beautiful building in the world,” architect Albert Kahn’s grandiose plans were stymied by the Great Depression, but the Fisher Building, at least for a time, lived up to its promise. Its once-gilded roof is now covered in green terra-cotta, but when you step inside, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of small details. We are particularly fond of the tunnels that connect the Fisher to the Albert Kahn building and one of his other masterpieces: the four neoclassical skyscrapers of the former General Motors headquarters (now offices for the State of Michigan).

Motown Museum 2648 W. Grand Blvd. [map] — This small house known as “Hitsville, USA” was the birthplace and first recording studio of the influential record company.

Places to Shop
Pure Detroit [two locations] Fisher Building Lobby, 3011 W. Grand Blvd, Suite 101 [map]; Guardian Building Lobby, 500 Griswold, Suite 250 [map] — With locations in Detroit’s two most-striking Art Deco office buildings, this store carries their own line of t-shirts, Motor City Handbags and a large collection of Detroit-related books and products.

Vera Jane Fisher Building Lobby, 3011 W. Grand Blvd, Suite 113 [map] — Another retail spot from the people behind Pure Detroit, Vera Jane sells well-designed women’s coats, handbags and lingerie.

City Knits Fisher Building Lobby, 3011 W. Grand Blvd, Suite 113 [map] — Everything a knitter might need, including a full line of yarn from Michigan-based Stonehenge Fiber Mill.

* * * * *

Woodbridge/Briggs/Grand River

A neighborhood of well-maintained brick Victorian homes, Woodbridge is primarily residential, but there are several interesting stops along Grand River.

Things to See
Urban Farming District — In the old Briggs neighborhoods north of Corktown, land vacancy and abandonment has led to a large number of urban farms flourishing just a mile or so from downtown and blocks from one of the three casinos that were supposed to save Detroit. Brother Nature Produce is a project of urban farmer Greg Willerer, whose greens are legendary and sold both to local restaurants and customers at local farmer’s markets. There is also the Spirit Farm and a host of other initiatives in the neighborhood bordered by I-75 to the south, MLK to the north, Trumbull to the east and I-96 to the west. The beautiful Catherine Ferguson Academy (2750 Selden Street [map]) is a public school for pregnant teens and new mothers that boasts a working farm where the old athletic fields used to be that includes horses, goats and other livestock grazing and fresh produce growing.

For more information about Detroit urban agriculture, check out Grown in Detroit and the Greening of Detroit. And on the east side, Earthworks Urban Farm and the Georgia Street Community Garden.

Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd [map]

555 Gallery/Studios 4884 Grand River Ave. [map]

Trumbullplex 4210 Trumbull [map] — “A housing collective composed of artists, musicians and local activists . . . [with] an active showspace that has been operating for over 20 years.”

Places to Shop
Rachel’s Place 2124 Pine St [map] — Just a good, new vintage clothing shop focusing mostly on older, high-end women’s labels at reasonable prices (when I was in, she had a great collection of classy old coats and dresses from defunct Detroit department stores) although there was a small room of men’s stuff upstairs.

Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit 4885 15th Street [map]

Dabls African Bead Gallery 6559 Grand River [map] — A seemingly infinite number of imported African beads, with an incredible folk art exhibition out back.

Where to Eat
Woodbridge Pub 5169 Trumbull [map] — One of Detroit’s most beautiful and lively residential neighborhoods wasn’t served by a restaurant or bar with windows until a couple years ago, when local handyman Jim Geary turned a 1926 building (that had been a liquor store before being abandoned for 25 years) into this beautiful pub built almost entirely from salvaged materials found throughout Metro Detroit.

Neighborhood Noodle [location: a house in Trumbull in Woodbridge, look for the line of hipsters] — A new Detroiter whose underground noodle restaurant (based out of her kitchen) brings delicious, home-style Asian-inspired noodles with local ingredients to Detroit. Catch it before the health department decides to intervene.

The Pink FlaminGO Mobile Food Truck [location varies] — Kristyn Koth serves fresh, organic local food, cooked inside an Airstream Land Yacht that has a permanent home at the Spaulding Courts near the Brother Nature farm in Briggs but serves food from various locations around town.

Further Afield

The Detroit Metro Area is a vast range of suburban municipalities that stretch throughout southeast Michigan, from old money enclaves to impoverished industrial communities to trendy downtowns to characterless collections of strip malls, big box stores and McMansions. I figure the city needs my money most, so I try not to spend much outside the city limits of Detroit (I make an exception for Easter chocolate and Vietnamese food). I don’t know too much about shopping outside the city. I’m sure people can use the comments to contribute anything worth noting for Design*Sponge readers in the suburbs. I will include a couple places I do know about that are worthwhile from a design perspective.

Cranbrook Educational Community 39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills [map] — If you only go one place in the Detroit suburbs, this should be it. A sprawling campus of arts and crafts educational buildings designed by Eliel Saarinen, Crabrook’s art school was the primordial ooze where some of the best-known mid-century designers emerged. The shortlist: Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Carl Milles, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Harry Weese, Ralph Rapson and a young teacher Ray Kaiser, who was seduced by the married head of the design department, a man named Charles Eames.

The grounds include dozens of the elder Saarinen’s buildings and an English-manor-style house designed by Detroit virtuoso Albert Kahn. The art museum is currently showing an exhibit on Eero Saarinen, who lived just off the grounds, attended the school and maintained offices in Bloomfield Hills and nearby Birmingham.

General Motors Industrial Center E. 12 Mile Rd. and Mound Rd. [map] — This is the campus where GM designers and engineers plan and design innovative new cars (the fiberglass-body Corvette was designed here) and it may be Eero Saarinen’s greatest and least-recognized works of mid-century architecture. Highlights include the water tower, the central restaurant (with a huge wire sculpture by native Detroiter and Cass Tech alum Harry Bertoia), the auditorium and the sublime staircase inside the research and design lobby. Access to the complex is limited, and photography is almost impossible. There is a gallery in the design center featuring work done by GM designers in their free time. The exhibitions are temporary and accessible to the public by appointment only.

Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village Dearborn [map] — Both the museum and village have their cheesy elements, but there are a lot of pieces at both to interest anyone with an appreciation for early design during the industrial revolution, particularly anything with an engine. The museum houses an impressive collection of cars, planes, trains, furniture and mid-century nostalgia. Be sure to visit Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house.

*A word about safety: Inevitably, you’re going to hear something about Detroit being dangerous, or its status as the country’s “most dangerous city.” Remember that the vast majority of victims in Detroit (as elsewhere) knew their attackers. So if you’re careful and avoid selling drugs on someone else’s corner or messing with someone else’s girlfriend, you should be fine. It can be a rough town, but I have walked and biked all over Detroit and found it far more welcoming than threatening. Most of the city will feel more empty than dangerous. As with anything, your own perception of safety will vary with your experience. The vast, vast majority of Detroiters are warm, welcoming people who will be interested in why you’re here and what you’ve come to see. Many Detroiters have lived hard lives, but almost all will treat you with kindness and respect if you are willing to give them the same. As in any city, don’t leave your cameras or MacBooks in open view in your car. Just be smart.

Now, what did I miss?

Suggested For You


  • Jim is right — no ceramic antlers around here. But…drum roll, please…my favorite new shop, City Bird, does sell cardboard ones.

    (We’ve come a long way, baby! Now if only we could do something about those pesky freeways…)

    Speaking of which, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that this is a TRULY Detroit guide. Like the City. Of Detroit.

    Bless your heart, Mr. Griffioen.

  • So great to see positive press on Detroit. I’m a native of the Metro area and can’t wait to visit what I’ve missed next time I’m home.

  • I heart Detroit. I went to college in Detroit and lived there for a time, but I haven’t yet experienced many of the items on your list. Thanks for a fantastic guide.

  • Proud Michigander! Happy to see some good press about the D… a beautiful place that is surely under appreciated.

  • Also– a few things missing–what about RenCen and Greektown? Those may be obvious, but certainly central to the heart of Detroit

  • We live in Chicago and when last summer we told our friends that we were vacationing in downtown Detroit, they looked at us like we were nuts. It is an incredible city and your guide makes me want to plan another trip.

    And by the way, thanks for writing about the city of Detroit. Living in Chicago, every other 20 and 30-something I meet says they are from Detroit, but upon further inquiry, always are actually from the suburbs. It makes me wonder how many of the commenters here who say they are from Detroit actually are from the city or are they just from the burbs? Is this a common phenomenon?

  • @Thorndale,

    Yes, it’s common. It comes from years of telling people in other parts of the country that you’re from Michigan, and having people respond, “Oh, you’re from Detroit?” I grew up in rural Michigan and moved to the suburbs in my 30s. I use to get this all. the. time. and it’d irk me. So now I say I’m from Detroit.

  • Excellent job! I would just add two stores to the list for Mexicantown:

    1. Xochi’s Gift Shop (3437 Bagley Street) – One of the best little stores in Detroit, brimming with colorful, handmade gifts imported from Mexico


    2. Nice Price (5656 W Vernor Hwy) – A massive dollar store carrying everything you didn’t realize you needed at prices you can’t say no to

    Oh, and if anyone would like to learn more about the Briggs’ “Urban Farming District,” see here:


  • Thanks for the great trip in the D. It is humorous though, that the ‘burbs and their residents are somehow not “real” Detroiters, but the image for the article is by an artist from Ferndale.

    With solely jest,
    A non-cricket playing suburbanite who does love and support Detroit, our artists, our restaurants, and our secret surprises! Thanks for the positive light.

    • janet

      i don’t see what the photographer who took the photo has to do with the article. it’s a photo of detroit. i don’t see how the artist’s hometown effects the subject of the photo.


  • Todd, Rafal’s is closed, you’re right. I missed that one. If you’re in Eastern Market and have a need for spices, Hirt is picking up some of the slack with a small spice department in the back near the stairs. Also, the Saturday market now features two or three spicemongers.

    Janet, I had no role in choosing the photograph. The old guide used one of my photos, and I would have been more than happy to offer a new one for the update.

    The semantics of being a “Detroiter” can get pretty tiresome, but I will say this, I understand both why suburbanites feel entitled to it and why city residents feel defensive about it. city residents have to put up with a lot more to earn that title yet they do want suburbanites to feel attached to the city. the only time I get mad hearing suburbanites calling themselves “Detroiters” is when they do so to imply that makes them tough. A guy from Rochester Hills broadcasting to Brooklyn that he’s “a Detroiter” (and that it somehow makes him edgy) is, in my book, pretty annoying.

  • @grace, the photo is lovely, I went right to the artist’s etsy site after viewing it. It is especially touching since Ernie Harwell and Sparky Anderson (Detroit Tiger Baseball Legends) have recently passed away. My comment was in no way to be of offense of your image choice. It is a (like Jim says) touchy subject, Detroit and its suburbs. D*S is a highlight to my days, thank you.

    @ Jim, thanks for your thoughts, I can only add, there are many suburbanites who call themselves Detroiters, yet never set foot in the city. That’s the true, sad shame. It’s a great place to do tons of cool stuff. Thanks for writing the update.

  • Place to eat in Hamtramck: Alladin Sweets & Cafe (Bangladeshi). I have gotten multiple takeout meals from here and they’ve all been excellent! Have not eaten at the newer sit-down restaurant part of it yet, though.

  • I was fortunate to have the updated guide come out a few days before a planned visit. My days in Detroit are now 30 years ago (yes, in the city, North Corktown and then Blackstone Park) but I’ve always been a defender. Some of these places I would have found without the guide, but I probably would have missed the great treasures of Hamtramck without it. Thanks for the work and the update!

  • 1. I cannot find The Burton Theatre on your list. Is it missing?

    2. I am on the board of the “struggling mid-century synagogue,” and I prefer the word ‘thriving.’ Please, next time you visit Cafe d’Mongo, find me and I will give you a tour. Then I—or most likely, Larry—will buy you and yours a drink.

    3. Thank you for creating such an important resource!

  • Thanks again Jim for your updated guide. I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Detroit and sincerely miss the whole metro area. Live in Cincinnati now, but given a chance I’d move north to HOME!
    Always a Tigers fan!

  • wonderful work, Jim.
    I lived in Detroit for 25 years and then in the suburbs for another nearly 20. You captured the whole thing in a way that makes my heart skip a beat. Thanks.

  • tons of stuff to check out here. You did a lot of hard work. Thanks for the effort. Looking forward to the visit. Hopefully I have enough time!!


  • Great article, love the Cadieux Cafe! “I am particularly fond of the commissioned paintings of every featherbowl tournament winner from the past few decades.” My stepfather is actually the artist who did all of the paintings… His self portrait is on the wall there as he has won the tournament as well, twice.

  • Another great restaurant in the Midtown area is the Woodbridge Pub (www.woodbridgepub.com) on Trumball Street is also an amazing restaurant. They get all of their ingredients from local urban farmers and they have a really interesting and eclectic menu. I particularly like the Mushroom Ragout, the Hipster Burger and the Steve McFever. They also have a great brunch on Sundays!

  • Thank you so much. I downloaded this guide and had an amazing time in Detroit. What a heartbreakingly fabulous city. Probably my favourite American city. Loved the people I met, the Heidelberg project, the public art. Just astounded by the experience and telling everyone to visit. Huge love.

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