An Englishman in the D - first impressions

My (American) wife likes to introduce me as her English Husband. It’s understandable enough – I am indeed English and, after a nice vase, am probably her most treasured possession from her time in London.

Various questions follow her intro’s: do you like it? do you feel at home? are you Australian (they’re not always paying attention)?

Well I do like it. All I saw of Detroit in the British media was abandonment and bankruptcy! Here’s what’s impressed me most so far.

Music-wise I love everything I’ve heard by Guilty Simpson – such as Reputation and Motor City Movin’. For venues, it has to be Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (on Livernois near 8 Mile). Baker’s has got great live jazz, serves fine southern fare and see folks of all ages and races chatting – you kinda have to as it’s a snug old fit. It’s great – just ask Wynton Marsalis. Everyone tells me Cliff Bells is top-notch too, so it’s only a matter of time before I cheat on Baker’s and get myself down there.

External shot of Baker’s

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(source: Dwight Burdette)

Sports-wise the revelation for me has been watching the Detroit Red Wings’s ‘united nations’ team. Brits don’t really do ice hockey, but the sport is the most end-to-end I’ve seen. Skilfull too – players need to skate forwards (obviously), backwards (not so obvious), have excellent eye-hand coordination and reflexes (and be able to fight, heavily clothed, at a moment’s notice).

A Detroit-Montreal game from this March

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(source: David Guralnick / Detroit News)

The Detroit Institute of Arts, run by bow-tied-Brit Graham Beal, is a marbled and marvelous building that, like its contents, wouldn’t look out of place in any major World City. On my first visit I spent a morning just on the ground floor. The collection includes great American works (from Audubon to Warhol) as well as masterpieces from further afield (from Bruegel the elder to Whistler (American-born but a Londoner by choice)). Thinking of London, how many visitors would this place get if it was in that city – or New York or Paris?

Diego Rivera murals at the DIA

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(source: VasenkaPhotography on Flickr)

Monty Python’s John Cleese once said that he likes food – and, in fact, never eats anything else. Well he’d love Detroit then. Detroit has become the center of the international urban agriculture movement. And to buy food and flowers there’s the city’s hugely popular Eastern Market, once run by the city but now run by a social enterprise.

Diversity has thrown up wonderful restaurant districts such as: Polish and Bangladeshi in Hamtramck; Mexican in South West Detroit; and Middle Eastern in Dearborn. As for individual establishments, my favorites include: Beans and Cornbread (southern), Slows Bar-B-Q, LaFeria Tapas; Thai Fresh and Cedar Grille (Lebanese).

Most impressive to me are the 13 Metroparks. They’re fantastic – and big. Stony Creek and Kensington both exceed 4,400 acres. London’s largest, Richmond, is 2,360 and lacks the Metroparks’ water offer (I’ve become kinda kayak krazy since coming to the US).

I’ve been surprised by the many family reunions that take place in the Metroparks and, for that matter in City of Detroit parks,– usually centered on cook-outs under park shelters. The only British reunions are in churches – they’re called weddings and funerals! Britain’s loss I imagine.

Fishing at Kensington Metropark

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(source: Dwight Burdette, Wikipedia)

I’ve also been impressed by some very un-abandoned neighborhoods too – such as Boston-Edison (including the Henry Ford and Berry Gordy homes), Palmer Woods (including Frank Lloyd-Wright’s Turkel House), Grandmont-Rosedale and the Mies van der Rohe townhouses down on Lafayette Park.

What have I missed? What do you show visiting friends? If you let me know I’ll try and blog about it in future.

Gareth is currently looking to establish an organization to exchange international best practice around ways to sustain community and civic assets such as parks, libraries and museums. Prior to arriving in Detroit he undertook a German Marshall Fund international Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship (in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Baltimore) looking at these same issues. Before coming to the US Gareth worked in central government as a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office (Office for Civil Society and Strategy Unit). He holds a Ph.D. in economic geography (the role of universities in regional economic development), as well as a first degree in social policy and administration and a Masters in civic design (urban planning). Follow him on Twitter @garethpotts1.