Perhaps one of the most overlooked cities in America, a complex political past, a vibrant arts scene and a huge period of regeneration make the motor city a fascinating destination in 2019 and beyond– particularly for music fans. Charlotte Gunn tells you the must-see things to do in the misunderstood home of music.
A brief history lesson
Detroit has had something of a fractured past. Once the thriving motor hub of America, car manufacturing brought mass employment and financial growth to the city from the roaring 20s onwards but as time went on, financial pressures caused the big motor companies to relocate out of central Detroit and the population and economy suffered.
Detroit had also become a segregated city, with executives in the motor companies choosing to move out of the city to the suburbs and subsequently creating a racial divide between black and white neighbourhoods. With segregation, came civil unrest and fear. This culminated in 1967 with mass rioting across the city – the catalyst being unfair treatment of black citizens by police – but the reality being decades of poverty, unemployment and police brutality felt by Detroit’s black population.
In 2008 Detroit applied for bankruptcy. Much of the downtown area was abandoned. Unemployment – and crime – was high. The city was in trouble.
Ten years later, the story is very different. A huge regeneration project has breathed new life into downtown Detroit. A burgeoning food scene, new housing projects and Ford motors taking up residency, once again, in the downtown area has meant that incomes are rising, employment is on the up and crime is dropping.
One thing that was never lost, throughout all the city’s troubles, was the music. The home of Motown, Sun Records, punk bands like The Stooges and MC5 and now Third Man, music production and as a result, Detroit’s live music scene has always been strong. With a new wave of musicians coming through the city’s bars and venues, now is the best time to visit.
What to do in Detroit
Take a trip to Corktown
If you’re the type of person who wants to know where the hipster area of any city is, Corktown is it. With a strip of independent bars, restaurants and coffee spots, it’s a burgeoning area for the cool and creative to hang out. More on Corktown specifics in a while.
Visit the home of Eminem’s 8 Mile rap battle
A lot of people want to visit 8 Mile on a trip to Detroit, but in reality, it’s just a big ol’ road. You can however visit the Michigan Building which is where Rabbit’s Three One Third crew face off in the film. The once theatre was turned into a parking lot but remnants of the building’s opulent past can still be seen inside. Iggy & The Stooges even played their final gig here before breaking up back in 1974. If these walls, could talk.
Eat a donut in homage to J Dilla
Legendary rapper James Yancey aka J Dilla was born and raised in Detroit. Now, in the spot where he lived during the first years of his life, his uncle Herm has opened a donut shop in his honour. Dilla’s Delights is named after Dilla’s daughters and the store is a legacy to those he left behind. The donuts are mighty tasty, too.
Immerse yourself in Motown history
Take a trip to Hitsville USA and marvel at the magic that was created in a little house owned by Berry Gordy – founder of Motown Records – on West Grand Boulevard, Detroit. See the low-key studio where so many of the world’s greatest pop songs were made.
Catch a show at St Andrew’s Hall: home of Eminem’s first rap battle
Rumour has it than Eminem’s first rap battle took place in the basement of St Andrew’s Hall. When NME are in town we catch DMX play the iconic Detroit venue and let us tell you, it went off.
Sup on some local brew
Craft beer bars are popping up all over Detroit. Atwater Brewery, Jolly Pumpkin and Motor City Brewing Works are worth checking out.
See amazing street art at Eastern Market
From J Dilla to Eminem and D12, Detroit’s musical icons are captured on the walls of Eastern Market. But it’s not the only spot you can catch amazing street art in the once-abandoned downtown area. Keep your eyes peeled as you stroll around central Detroit and you’ll notice the incredible murals at almost every turn.
Visit the Heidelberg project
A uniquely Detroit art installation, the Heidelberg Project was created by local artist Tyree Guyton. On returning to the street where he was born in the 80s, Guyton found it ruined by poverty and crime. Instead of “picking up a weapon, he picked up a paintbrush”, and started to turn the abandoned lots surrounding his home into polka-dot, brightly coloured art pieces. Gathering up local trash, toys and oddities, his work started to spill out into the surrounding streets creating a joyful and bizarre collection of works in an otherwise desolate part of town.
Catch a show at PJ’s Lager House
If you’re visiting Corktown, check out what’s on at PJ’s Lager House, one of Detroit’s many live music venues still in operation today. From time to time you still catch a show with Dennis Coffey, one of Motown’s Funk Brothers: the session band who played on a whole host of Motown records.
Eat dinner at Takoi
The Corktown Asian fusion restaurant serves Thai-inspired dishes and killer cocktails. The food is outstandingly good. Go with a group and share everything.
Marvel at the wonder of Masonic Hall
Another very special Detroit music venue is the Masonic Temple, which hosts a range of bigger name acts as they pass through town. Jack White has sponsored the smaller theatre inside and it’s been renamed in his honour!
Visit Third Man Records
THE coolest store in Detroit, Third Man Records is home to a vinyl pressing plant, live shows and an epic collection of merch. The bright yellow store is Jack White’s Detroit base. Save some space in your suitcase: you’ll want to buy everything.
Ogle at The Guardian Building
Downtown Detroit is home to some incredible art-deco architecture but The Guardian Building has to be one of the city’s most gorgeous buildings. Take a walk through the lobby to see the Aztec-inspired design.
Eat delicious vegan chow at Detroit Vegan Soul
Missing out on all the tasty soul food Detroit has to offer? Go for a plant-based alternative at Detroit Vegan Soul.
Take a scooter downtown
Detroit hasn’t escaped the great scooter takeover of recent years but unlike NY, LA or Austin where traffic is heavy, Detroit’s chill streets are sort of the perfect place for a fledging scoot. Make the trip from Corktown back to downtown. But do not scoot when drunk, you have been warned!
Where we stayed:
NME stayed at the newly opened Element at the Metropolitan, Detroit. Nestled in the downtown area, the hotel is an example of a beautifully restored art deco building and walking distance to lots of bars and restaurants, too.