A Day In The Big D

Driving back to Wisconsin after several days out East visiting my mom, I realized hey, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Detroit. It’s probably the only major American city I haven’t seen.

Well. Let’s change that.

Armed with suggestions from my Icepeep (and Detroit native) Brian as well as a few other friends, I tried to cram as much sight-seeing as I could into a single full day.

Unfortunately, my first stop was the zoo.

Let the three-hour delay begin.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no complaints about spending a good chunk of the day at the Detroit Zoo. It was great. It was in the 30s and had snowed a little overnight, and I think I was one of about ten visitors in the whole place.

You’ve heard of gorillas in the mist? I give you flamingos in the snow.

A lot of the warmer climate animals were off-display, but that was okay. In animal appreciation, much as in other areas of my life, I’m an upper latitude kind of girl.

The big draw for me was what’s billed as the largest polar bear zoo habitat in the world. It’s right next to the seal exhibit, and the two share an underwater “Arctic Tube” through which visitors can walk and observe the animals in the water. (To clarify, though both habitats are viewable from the same tunnel, they are separated from each other to avoid what would be rather bloody interspecies interaction.)

I was a little worried about this harp seal, who was just hanging out by an air vent, until the docent explained that he was blind, as were the other seals in the exhibit, all of them rescues (it did seem the Detroit zoo had more rescued animals than most), and he just seemed to really enjoy the sensation of the air vent, spending most of his time there every day. “It must feel like he’s swimming really fast,” noted the docent, which struck me as bittersweet.

I am pleased to report that, unlike my adventure in an underwater Antarctic tube, the Arctic tube did not involve major embarrassment and an unintentionally lengthy stay.

There seemed to be two docents per visitor at the zoo the morning I visited, and every one of them was extremely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. It was kind of cool, but also a bit more social than I had foreseen. They would just materialize out of nowhere and start telling me Nuka the polar bear was celebrating his eighth birthday and had received eight loaves of bread but the other male polar bear, Akila, who was 19 and sterile due to a congenital defect, had only been given one loaf of bread because he was gluten-intolerant and…

Oh-kay, let’s switch to decaf, buddy.

Da Bears. The one on the left is sterile and gluten-intolerant. The one on the right just turned eight. In case you were wondering.

The volunteer docents were all so earnest and nice that I couldn’t be surly about it. Little did I know it was a hint of what was to come.

I spent a good chunk of time watching Nuka the birthday boy playing in his private pool, the one that cannot, alas, be viewed from the tube. He had a large floating disk the size of a manhole cover that he liked to throw into the water and then jump in after it and try to submerge it.

Nuka in action.

When not trying to drown his manhole cover, Nuka appeared to be working on his synchronized swimming routine. It was ridiculously adorable.

Nuka with his favorite toy.

Have I mentioned how much I love polar bears? (Or also that the polar bear is my triathlon totem animal because, like me, they excel at and enjoy swimming in cold water, on land they have good endurance and are capable of very short bursts of speed but it ain’t pretty and, well, the word that comes to mind when cycling is “ungainly.”)

On a tip from one of the docents, even though “The Giraffe Experience” was closed due to the cold weather, there was an unmarked but perfectly legit back door into their house, so I got to see two young giraffes courting. The girl giraffe is just over a year, I believe, but the male turned five this week and was simply enormous, the largest giraffe I’ve ever seen.

Young Giraffe Love

After leaving the zoo, I drove down Woodward Ave., one of the main drags of Detroit. Of course, when all you’ve heard about Detroit is what a blighted wasteland it is, you kind of, well, expect to see blighted wasteland. And there were certainly stretches of abandoned buildings or ramshackle nail salon/liquor store/cash advance/thrift shop strip malls, but I didn’t see squalor and never felt in danger.

The birds and the (gluten-intolerant) bear.

By the time I arrived at DIA, the city’s big art museum, I was feeling like reports of Detroit’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s a nice city. Great zoo, fantastic museum…I set off on foot from DIA to check out a couple places Brian had recommended, Avalon Bakery (tasty organic fare) and the Traffic Jam and Snug, a bit of a pub with its own on-site brewery, dairy and bakery. I opted for a slice of mushroom duxelle focaccia at the former and a pint of Oatmeal Stout at the latter. Neither were particularly to my taste but both were well-made and well-priced.

And the people…at DIA, the two folks staffing the desk (I had accidentally entered the “group admissions only” door but they didn’t mind) recommended a few other things to see and do and, like a few of the zoo docents, thanked me for visiting their city. At Avalon, despite a crowd, the woman at the counter had all the time in the world for me to place my order. At Traffic Jam, the bartender got out his laptop and looked up opening hours and directions for me without me even asking.

Everyone seemed genuinely thrilled that someone was visiting their city. It was charming and…a little creepy. Having grown up in and around New York and lived or visited some of the earth’s snobbiest, snottiest cities, I’m used to more confrontation, less patience, more disinterest, less engagement.

Hey, this place is great! I don’t see why everyone always dumps on Detroit. The people are nice, there’s lots to do…and…and…

Then I went in search of the Heidelberg Project.

The project was another of Brian’s recommendations, and it’s an interesting idea, encouraging people in one of the city’s tougher areas to use found materials to create art. Sadly, I didn’t take photos because by the time I found it, the light was fading and my camera’s memory card was full of polar bears, but you can get a sense of the place from their website.

I’m not sure which camp I fall into over the project. Is it art or is it an eyesore? A bit of both, I think, but, given its surroundings, it is, if nothing else, a sign of life.

Because, you see, I got lost on the way.

Look, a Detroit Tiger sleeping on the job…why am I not surprised? Something for my San Francisco readers.

Now, I have been in “bad” neighborhoods and I’ve been in “dangerous” neighborhoods all over the world. I’ve been in places where I felt all my senses go on high alert. I’ve been followed. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been afraid. I’ve had to resort to physically defending myself, once, in eastern Turkey, when a guy came out of a building and grabbed me (application of one’s elbow to the attacker’s diaphragm with extreme prejudice is an excellent way to convey “leave me alone” if you don’t happen to speak his language). So I figured whatever I’d see in Detroit I’d seen before and it wouldn’t rattle me.

I was wrong. Once you get away from the main drags, from the attractions, from the areas where businesses still thrive, there are huge swathes of the city that I wouldn’t call “bad” or “dangerous” as much as spooky. Sad. Tragic.

Which would you rather see, gutted ruins of a once-lovely neighborhood or adorable napping Arctic foxes? Yeah. I thought so.

Beautiful old homes now burnt-out shells, sitting alone in an otherwise empty block of tall grass. Or, somehow even sadder, a single home cared for and decorated, a Christmas tree in its window, sitting between two derelict ruins. I passed a block of houses that were still homes, but surrounded by acre after acre of overgrown bushes and trash.

I passed a few other cars on the roads, but mostly the streets and sidewalks were as deserted as the neighborhood.

It made me sad, and angry, and, well, incredulous. I felt like I was on the set for some zombie apocaylpse movie, only this disaster was real, and clearly didn’t happen overnight. As Theoden put it: “how did it come to this?”

If you want to see images of Detroit’s urban blight, go Google it. Here instead is an image of a rhino in snow.

I know I’m an outsider looking in, and maybe if I didn’t see so much potential in the city, if the people I met hadn’t been so genuine, I would think “well, whatever, it’s their business, not mine.” But because my experience up until then had been so positive it just vexed me more than I expected.

Look elsewhere for images of Sad Detroit. Here instead are some lemurs.

I drove around the Heidelberg Project and then headed out, on the recommendation of one of the DIA people, to the Ford House on the lake. It was closed already, but she’d suggested driving back along the lake and ogling at the houses.


I guess I was expecting Milwaukee’s stunning Lake Shore Drive, where one early 20th century house after another delights the eye with perfect proportions and not a line amiss, with only the occasional later and often ill-conceived monstrosity in the mix. But the lakefront communities of Grosse Pointe, well…no offense to any native Motor City types reading this, but damn, that’s a whole lot of ugly. Plenty of mid-to-late 20th century “statements” that would have been best left on the drafting table, mixed in with glorified McMansions or sandwiched between older houses apparently revamped with gaudy, misproportioned windows. Ick.

This Japanese snow monkey best expresses my mood after experiencing the juxtaposition of the Heidelberg Project with Grosse Pointe excess.

By the time I got back into downtown, it was dark. I got dinner at a small Greek restaurant–with the most delish vegetarian stuffed grape leaves–and stopped in at Ikea to pick up a catalog for when I have my own place again, one day. It will not be covered in weather-beaten stuffed animals like one of the Heidelberg houses. Nor will it be a Grosse Pointe monstrosity. And I am thankful for that.

I’d like to return to Detroit to see more of the sights. It has a lot to offer and it’s rare to be able to say every single person I met seemed to be decent. I’m rooting for you, Big D. I have no idea how to turn you around, but I hope it happens. You deserve it.

Indeed. Taken on the Interstate in Racine County, WI. I would just hope The Almighty has a better grasp of punctuation.

4 thoughts on “A Day In The Big D

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