Detroit Rock City? Kiss isn’t even from D-town, yet they named a song after the cesspool. Why? Because Detroit is hardcore. Anyone who lives in Detroit proper has skin as thick as John Holmes.
I’d always considered Detroit the armpit of America. Seriously, look at a map and you will see what I mean. I suppose, this anatomy analogy could also apply to Cleveland. Either way, both cities stink. Cleveland probably smells more in the literal sense and Detroit in the figurative. I digress. Anyway, I like to do stupid things and obviously write them too. So instead of riding a Victory Vision from Chicago to some place I knew for sure was rad, like maybe Nashville, I headed for the grittiest, shittiest city I could think of: Detroit. I’d heard it had some cool qualities hidden amongst all of its burned out residents and buildings, so I thought why not investigate. Plus, my buddy Bill Danforth, who is a legendary pro skateboarder from the ’80s, lives there for some God-awful reason. He invited me out to ride and enjoy a nefarious extended Halloween weekend in good ol’ Detroit Rock City. Why not?
I’ll tell you why! There are no jobs to be had, and downtown is as vacant as if a great Midwestern blizzard had torn through, forcing everyone to stay at home safe and cozy by the fire leaving lots of open roads to be explored. But the residential districts seem void of lit windows. In actuality, the blocks are either half burned down or half plain weird. Indeed, Detroit was a rocking town back in the day. Considered the fourth-largest major metropolitan city in America in the ’50s, its residents brought home healthy paychecks, and talked about cars, cars, cars. Now, the Motor City—at first appearance—seems a heap of ashes, the remains of dreams and all that went with them: jobs, nice homes, an education, opportunity, and safety. Moto City’s unemployment rate was at 22.5 percent for October and the 2010 violent crime rate is one of the highest in the US. Detroit’s identity has long been based on America’s automobile industry boner. But now with the industry’s recent erectile dysfunction, the city is slowly changing, or at least trying to.
The rare pop of color sticks out amongst the decay like a bridesmaid, who accidentally showed up at a funeral. Detroit is slowly evolving into a mecca for young artists. Young folk are buying up entire blocks and warehouses. Decent looking homes sell for cheap, some as low as $15,000. People are even moving back into the hoods. These new residents are changing the landscape by turning empty lots—where buildings have been condemned and torn down—into food plots. Plowing the fields, some would say. Tiny, random fields of corn, leafy greens, carrots, and potatoes now grow in the ghetto. You can probably guess that some people grow some high-grade smoke, too—thanks for the hookup.
I caught wind of the Heidelberg Project a while back and had always wanted to check it out. We cruised over on our bikes and were stunned by how cool garbage could look. Tyree Guyton has been sort of a pioneer of art in the ghetto since the late ’80s. Tyree, some of his family members, and neighborhood kiddos cleaned up Heidelberg Street back then and used some of the trash—and treasures—they found to create interesting décor out of the abandoned houses. I guess the way he saw it was that everyone around him was moving out, and the crackheads were moving in. Tyree didn’t want to leave his neighborhood even though it was going to hell. He needed a way to keep the crack whores, junkies, and random scumbags off of his block. So he did the only thing that as an artist he knew how to do: get creative. He turned some of the houses on his block into giant sculptures by gluing stuffed animals to one of them and painting his trademark giant polka dots on another. By doing this he brought attention to the neighborhood. The more stuff he made, the more attention the area began to get. Crackheads don’t like attention. The Heidelberg Project has now spread across the city, and you can see polka dot houses dotted in random hoods.
I am certain that as more people like Tyree tap into their creativity and recycle the guts and rot of the city into tourist-luring industrial art, Detroit will rock once again. On my cruise around the neighborhoods, I noticed custom bike builders opening up here and there already, and I can’t wait to see what kind of machines they begin to churn out.
After exploring the Heidelberg, Bill showed me all of the worthwhile neighborhoods. We headed downtown to Corktown to hit a few balls on the old Tiger Stadium. The stadium is long gone, but the stadium’s actual playing field remains. I dove onto the field and parked my Victory Vision 8-Ball right on the same pitcher’s mound that Babe Ruth cracked his 700th career home run over. Danforth picked up a souvenir of a piece of roof tile from the extinct stadium only to find out later that it was a chunk of raw sewage pipe.
Detroit’s neighborhoods have very concrete borders. One block will be a post-apocalyptic mess and the next block into a different neighborhood would be Michigan’s version of 90210. Gross Pointe takes you along the shoreline of Lake St. Clair and fancy homes, like the Ford House. Nearby is Boston-Edison Park packed full of mansions and Indian Village with the homes of Mr. Dodge and Mr. Stroh. All of the roads are in perfect condition and have plenty of cops making sure the nice part of town stays safe from speeding motorists.
Belle Isle is America’s largest city-owned island park, even larger than Central Park. Bill told me not to go over the 20-mph speed limit as we cruised around the fresh black-topped island road. We stopped to check out the view of Canada across the water and scoped out the shoreline littered with various empty bottles of malt liquor.
Detroit’s transformation will no doubt be slow. Personal safety and the safety of your personal property are still huge concerns. I wanted to head out for a ride on Devil’s night, which is the night before Halloween. The eve has been a tradition in Detroit forever, and people burn homes and cause other destruction. Bill was very concerned about his abode, which is now only worth about $20,000 even though he bought it for nearly $100,000 several years ago. I was convinced he was a just being a paranoid freak. But as we drank, enjoyed the fruits of the local farm plots and watched the news with his wife, Mary Jane (yes, that is her real name), we saw video after video of flaming homes B
World’s First Concrete Mile
Located at Woodward Avenue between 6 Mile and 7 Mile is the first full mile of concrete road ever built in the US.
Nation’s First Modern Highway
Davison Freeway is considered to be the Nation’s birthplace of the Super Slab, (M-8) between the Chrysler (I-75) and Lodge (M-10) freeways. The six-laner was built in 1942.
Detroit boasted some of the US’s the first traffic lights in 1910, the first white centerline on River Road in 1911, and the first stop signs in 1915. With the introduction of automobiles, Detroit Police Officer William Potts decided to adapt railroad signals to help control street traffic. He used red, amber, and green railroad lights and lots of wire and electrical controls to make the world’s first electrical traffic light. His light was controlled manually and was installed in 1920 on the corner of Woodward and Michigan Avenues in Detroit.
Get Out of Town
The Henry Ford Museum houses an array of exhibits showcasing the results of American genius at work. In addition to one of the finest automotive history collections in the country, exhibits include the world’s most accurate replica of the Wright brothers’ Flyer, the only remaining prototype of the Dymaxion house, and John F. Kennedy’s fateful Dallas limousine.
Henry Ford Museum
20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI
Rock City Playlist
Kiss isn’t the only one to sing about Detroit. Here is a playlist for your Detroit journey (Journey made a song about Detroit as well called “Don’t Stop Believin’”: “Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit”).
• “Detroit” – Primal Scream
• “Detroit” – Rancid
• “Detroit” – The White Stripes
• “Detroit 442” – Blondie
• “Detroit Breakdown” – The Bellrays
• “Detroit Breakdown” – The J. Geils Band
• “Detroit Breakdown” – The Gories
• “Detroit City” – Alice Cooper
• “Detroit City Blues” – Fats Domino
• “Detroit Has a Skyline” – Superchunk
• “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” – Sufjan Stevens
• “Detroit Rock City” – KISS
• “Detroit Rock City” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
• “Doctor Detroit” – Devo
• “Don’t Stop Believin’” – Journey
• “Dog Eat Dog” – Ted Nugent
• “The Heart Of Rock & Roll” – Huey Lewis And The News
• “Hello, Detroit” – Sammy Davis, Jr.
• “I Care About Detroit” – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
• “It’s Still East Detroit to Me” – Kid Rock
• “Broke in Detroit “ – The Dirtbombs
• “Motor City Is Burning” – MC5; John Lee Hooker
• “Motor City Madhouse” – Ted Nugent
• “Murder City Nights” – Radio Birdman
• “One Piece at a Time” – Johnny Cash
• “Panic In Detroit” – David Bowie
• “Passport to Detroit” – Joe Strummer
• “Son of Detroit” – Kid Rock
• “Worse Than Detroit” – Robert Plant
• “8 Mile” – Eminem
Highway to Hell
You may be surprised to find out that people do live in Hell. We’re talking, of course, about the city of Hell, Michigan, located 60 miles west of downtown Detroit. But before you think about making a prank call and asking how hot it is or when Hell will freeze over, you need to know that residents here have heard it all. They would much rather you make a personal visit to find out for yourself. And you should, because the Road to Hell is indeed paved and is actually quite a pleasant drive. Making the journey here has been a cult favorite of Metro Detroiters for years and a highly popular route for motorcyclists and road bikers due to its mix of winding roads, rolling hills, rivers and lakes, and stops in several great southern Michigan towns. Whatever route you take, the ultimate objective is to meet your destiny in Hell where a few unusual attractions await you. Fortunately, everyone we know has made it to Hell and back alive and well!
Michiganders aren’t really known for their food. Here are a few items that claim to be invented near Detroit.
An ice cream soda drink made from Vernors and vanilla ice cream and named after Boston Boulevard in Detroit. Pretty much only found in Detroit.
The brightly colored soft drink that the Insane Clown Posse loves to drink.
The polish version of a donut is the traditional food to eat on Fat Tuesday in the Hamtramck neighborhood.