"Can't forget the Motor City," Martha Reeves sang in the 1964 Motown hit "Dancing in the Street." The woman had a point.
It's true that Detroit is in a rough patch, largely due to the collapse of the auto industry that gave the city its nickname. Signs of that are almost everywhere. But so are fun things to do and delicious things to eat.
A good place to kick things off is where Martha and the Vandellas got their start: Motown Records, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. The former home of the legendary record label — which occupied a row of eight houses on W. Grand Boulevard, a residential street in northern Detroit — has been turned into a museum. It's in two of the homes, although there are plans to turn them into the entrance of what would be an enormous addition behind them.
I do wish the Motown Museum were larger. The guided tour takes about 45 minutes in zipping you through glimpses of Motown's history, including a Michael Jackson glove that seems creepy in the post-"Leaving Neverland" world, and ending in the basement recording studio. Dark and surprisingly small, it's still littered with music stands and other ephemera, and there is a palpable thrill from standing on the spot where Diana Ross asked us to stop in the name of love and Marvin Gaye wondered what's going on. Buy $15 tickets in advance, especially if you go on a weekend (motownmuseum.org).
A group of friends and I lucked into a hotel — the Victorian homes that make up the Inn on Ferry Street in Midtown (innonferrystreet.com) — that was within a few blocks of many museums, so we packed a couple into our visit.
The Detroit Institute of the Arts (dia.org) is the star, dominated by Diego Rivera's enormous, richly hued murals depicting the workers who built the city. The DIA has one of those turn-left-and-you're-in-pre-Colombian-pottery, turn-right-and-it's-the-Hudson-School collections, with a strong showing of Impressionists.
We also walked to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History (thewright.org), the venue for a public viewing last year for the late Aretha Franklin. The centerpiece of the museum is a sobering exhibition tracing the African diaspora — its displays organized so that it feels like you're making your way through a slave ship.
We were also within a couple of blocks of the Detroit Historic Museum, the Hellenic Museum of Michigan and the Michigan Science Center, but they await a future trip.
You can't visit Detroit without nodding to its music history. In addition to Motown, former White Stripes singer-guitarist Jack White has his Third Man Records in the hip Corktown neighborhood (thirdmanrecords.com). But we went in a bebop direction with a visit to Baker's Keyboard Lounge, supposedly the oldest jazz lounge in the world. The place is tiny and the comfort food so-so, but we loved the six-piece band that played classics from Miles Davis and Art Blakey. If you sit in one of the upholstered banquettes, you feel like you're in a miniature Caesar's Palace (theofficialbakerskeyboard lounge.com).
Baker's is located next to 8 Mile Road, the traditional dividing line between the city and the suburbs, and the neighborhood could charitably be called transitional. (I'm going to assume that if there's someone in the parking lot guarding cars, it's because the cars need to be guarded.)
We also ventured into a many-abandoned-buildings neighborhood to check out Detroit-style pizza where it originated, Buddy's. A dense-but-snappy crust and a thick blanket of mozzarella that gets all crusty and caramelized at the edges make for a distinctive, rectangular pie, and the friendly staff is very welcoming (buddyspizza.com).
We also wanted to check out Detroit's acclaimed architecture, using a walking tour I found online at detroit.curbed.com. Several of the listed sites are handsome, but the showstopper, if you have time to pop into just one, is the Guardian Building (guardianbuilding.com), designed by Wirt C. Rowland and completed in 1929. Its ceramic tiles, in vivid blues, oranges and greens, make for a vast lobby that's part Art Deco, part Aztec temple, all stunning.
A weekend wasn't enough time to pack in everything we wanted to do, but it was a dandy intro to the city. I'd return for more time in Corktown, a Twins-at-Tigers baseball game or a quick trip across the Detroit River to Belle Isle Park. Maybe sooner rather than later?
Again citing the words sung by travel adviser Martha Reeves:
"Summer's here and the time is right."