Detroit As An Oakland Doppelganger

Motown in autumn is orange, gold, and red-hot—and like Oaktown for arts and culture.


Architecture is a Detroit plus.

Jesse Welter


This story from our October issue will be available online Oct. 22. Copies of our print issue are available by calling 510-238-9101.

If you tell someone you’re visiting Detroit, they’ll probably ask you why. In fact, its reputation as a hellhole is completely undeserved. It’s a city on the cusp of rebirth as a vital center of local arts, culture, and business—much like Oakland, but a lot cheaper. OK, and with snow.

On a sunny day, the first thing that strikes you about Detroit is how green it is. Detroit has lost more than half of its population since its economic heyday in the 1950s. While that’s crummy for the tax base, it makes for a very livable terrain. Vacant lots comprise more than half the properties in town. These aren’t trash-strewn messes; they’re opportunities. Some are tangled habitats for wildlife, lush with trees and grass nurtured by summer rainstorms. Mini-parks, vegetable gardens, and orchards are cultivated by neighbors, thanks in part to the Adopt a Lot program that lets residents register easy-to-use city-owned properties for just $15 a year.

And then there’s the Heidelberg Project, a three-block “open-air art environment” in which artist Tyree Guyton has fashioned trash and abandoned household items—as well as houses themselves—into building-scale works of art. Picture a 30-foot-tall tree trunk plastered with stuffed animals and topped with two shopping carts in front of a polka-dotted frame house. Fabulous First Friday celebrations—not unlike Oakland’s—include food trucks, beer, and rotating art exhibits flanking Guyton’s permanent but ever-changing installation, which visitors can walk through year-round. 

Given the prevalence of street art, you might be tempted to give the Detroit Institute of Arts a pass. Do not. While most of its collection is so-so, a central court holds what could be Diego Rivera’s most subversive work of art.

You have to wonder what Edsel Ford, who commissioned the mural, really thought of it, but he evidently supported Rivera’s 1933 mural, Detroit Industry, which was supposed to be a paean to Ford’s River Rouge plant but depicts the factory as supplanting and poisoning the natural world. In one panel, grayed-out workers exhaustedly march in line toward a vast parking lot filled with featureless cars. In another, men whose skin has a sickly greenish pallor—presumably thanks to working with toxic chemicals—labor under the grim gaze of their boss. 

Other wonders from the city’s rich heyday include two Art Deco skyscrapers: The Mayan Revival Guardian building is faced with tangerine-colored brick and polychromed architectural tiles. Its soaring lobby with glass mosaics and murals includes a glitzy café along with a gift shop selling typical souvenirs and the works of local artisans. Located in Detroit’s newly trendy Midtown district, the Fisher building is studded with 30 kinds of marble and gleaming gold leaf, and includes a theater hosting touring productions of Broadway shows as well as the Zenith, a Mexican-Southern fusion restaurant and tiki lounge that features an Etsy-worth assemblage of oddball tropicalia. 

John K. King Used and Rare Books is a four-story former glove factory housing almost one million books in suitably musty warrens dotted with vintage bric-a-brac. Belle Isle is a 982-acre paradise in the Detroit River, facing the esplanade of Detroit Riverwalk. Hit the Eastern Market on Saturday for fresh produce, art galleries, and brunch. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge has been swinging jazz and slinging dinner since 1939, making it the one of the world’s oldest jazz clubs. The Motown Museum, aka Hitsville USA, is the original home of Motown Records; visitors can even tour founder Berry Gordy’s upstairs flat.

 Every part of the city is bikeable, thanks to broad, flat, divided streets with light traffic, but to cover a lot of ground, you’ll probably want a car. There’s no need to fear driving in the Motor City. Even on a weekday, even in the very center of the still-vital downtown, traffic is manageable and parking is available.

 Rent a bike at Wheelhouse Detroit to explore on your own, or take one of WD’s themed tours focusing on architecture, music, public art, or urban farming. To safely investigate some of Detroit’s majestic urban ruins, sign on for a tour with Motor City Photography Workshops. 

Autumn travelers can enjoy yet another urban wonder, as the city’s maple, ash, oak, and birch trees flush crimson, orange, and yellow. You could see the fiery foliage as a symbol of the fierce pride that longtime Detroiters feel. Many of those who have stayed through the bad times did so because of an ornery and very Oaklandish love of their sometimes-hardscrabble burg. Life is looking up here, and it’s a good time to look up Detroit.

Travel Sources
Heidelberg Project,
Tyree Guyton,
Fabulous First Fridays,
John K. King Used and Rare Books,
Detroit Institute of Arts,
Motown Museum,
Wheelhouse Detroit,
Motor City Photography Workshops,

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