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Motors and Motown: why Detroit is America’s comeback kid

Motors and Motown: why Detroit is America’s comeback kid

Downtown Detroit, the city's business district, by nightfall

It’s impossible to deny the huge impact America has had on modern culture. It’s arguably the world’s biggest superpower, and its exports have permeated life across the globe.

Two of the most important of these exports, motorcars and Motown, can both trace their origins to Detroit, the largest city in the state of Michigan. True, neither music nor motorized vehicles were invented in the city, but it was the city that brought them to the masses.

What’s more, Detroit’s an interesting alternative to cities such as New York or Boston and, for the moment at least, a cheaper one.

Detroit's Ambassador Bridge
Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge. Photo: Vito Palmisano

It’s also a city that’s been through the mill – it was, at one point, one of the wealthiest on the planet. The base of three automotive giants (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler), it weathered the Great Depression that followed the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and had a whole genre of music named after it. ‘Motown’ was a term coined by Motown Records’ founder, and it’s a play on Detroit’s nickname, ‘Motor City’.

But, of late, things haven’t gone quite so well for Detroit. Swathes have been written about the decline of Detroit, its fall inextricably tied to the faltering fortunes of the US car industry. The city filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and was only handed back control of its own finances a year later.

However Detroit’s a city that’s on the up. It’ll likely never return to its former industrial glory, but that’s no bad thing. It’s growing in a different way. Young people are being drawn to the city by house prices that have plummeted in recent years, as are artists and creatives who can’t afford city-center living somewhere like New York or LA.

Downtown Detroit's Greektown area
Downtown Detroit’s Greektown area. Photo: Vito Palmisano

Now’s a great time to visit Detroit. While it’s impossible to ignore the many dilapidated buildings and overgrown gardens, you can feel optimism in the air. This writer’s from East London, and it feels a little like Stratford did when construction started on the Olympic Stadium – seeds of change and all that.

It’ll be as interesting to visit again in a couple of years, when a new generation of Detroiters have really had a chance to make their mark. And of course, the best way to discover a city is to talk to the people who live there. Of all the places we’ve been in the US, it’s here where the locals are keenest to stop and talk to you about their city. They want to share the best of a city they clearly love deeply, and are happy to point you to the places a tourist guide can’t show you.

But what else to do when you’re in Detroit? Here are our picks…

The Slow Roll – Michigan's biggest weekly bicycle ride. Photo: Slow Roll
The Slow Roll – Michigan’s biggest weekly bicycle ride. Photo: Slow Roll

1 Cycle the city on a Slow Roll

Probably the best way to get acclimatized to both the city, and the people in it, is at the weekly Slow Roll. The Roll’s a cycle ride that takes place every Monday night and, in its own words, ‘takes a unique route throughout the city, including all the major and minor neighborhoods’ that they’re so proud of. It’s a tour of the city, but one covering places you might not see in the guidebooks.

Up to 3,000 riders take part in the Slow Roll, making it a perfect way to meet Detroiters and hear the city’s stories. It’s also a fabulous way to take in the views along the Detroit River, from which you’ll see Canada on the other side. And if you want shots of tumbledown houses next to mini-mansions, this is a great way to get them – it’s all of Detroit rolled into one.

The Detroit Marriott (center) at the Renaissance Center – the tallest building in Michigan
The Detroit Marriott (center) at the Renaissance Center – the tallest building in Michigan. Photo: Wiki

2 Check in at a motor-related hotel

Turning back to the title theme, Detroit is, first and foremost, Motor City. For all the ups and downs, this city’s past and present remain inextricably tied to the car. (The future, who knows?)

If you want to indulge your petrolhead tendencies completely, you can stay in one of two motor-related hotels. There’s the Dearborn Inn, A Marriott Hotel situated about 20 minutes out of Downtown Detroit and located on Ford’s Rouge plant (more of which later). You could also stop at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.

At 73 floors high, it’s one of the tallest hotels in the western hemisphere, and the views are simply incredible. Ask for one overlooking the river.

The Rosa Parks Bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. Photo: Bill Bowen
The Rosa Parks Bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. Photo: Bill Bowen

3 Cruise the city’s motor-related museums

The aforementioned hotel is owned by General Motors, and there’s a whole museum dedicated to the brand here in Detroit – the GM Heritage Center. GM owns some of the most iconic all-American car companies, including Chevrolet and Cadillac, and it’s well worth a look.

Car nut or not, a visit to Ford’s sprawling Rouge complex, (where the gargantuan F-150 truck – America’s most popular vehicle – is produced), is also a must. The plant offers an intriguing insight into modern day production at the place where Henry Ford invented the production line and brought motoring to the masses.

From there, take a trip to the Henry Ford Museum. It’s much more than a museum devoted to cars. It’s more a museum of everything, as seen through Ford’s eyes. Yes, cars feature prominently – from a Model T to the Lincoln JFK was in when he was shot. But there are also exhibits devoted to civil rights – you can sit in the seat Rosa Parks refused to give up (in the very same bus, obviously), through to construction and the history of America in the 20th century.

The Motown Historical Museum in Detroit's New Center. Photo: Bill Bowen
The Motown Historical Museum in Detroit’s New Center. Photo: Bill Bowen

4 Dance (in the street) to Motown

Or at least at the Motown Museum – a MUST for anyone visiting Detroit. Comprised of three of the eight houses on West Grand Boulevard, this is where the legendary Berry Gordy established Motown Records. The museum tells the story of Gordy, the label he founded, and the artists who were a part of it, as well as charting the genre’s history. It’s astonishing to be reminded of the artists who once graced the museum’s halls, from Diana Ross to the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder to Marvin Gaye, many of whom have since been inducted into music’s hall of fame.

The buildings really were houses, and you can sense the little acorn that the mighty Motown oak began life as. Some of the rooms have been preserved exactly as they were when the museum was still a functioning office, before the label outgrew the premises and moved, firstly into a purpose-built office in Detroit and then, eventually, to LA.

The Supremes in 1966
The Supremes in 1966. Photo: Wiki

You can see the desk that Diana Ross worked at (she was a secretary at the label before she became Miss Ross of Supremes fame), as well as the studios that Wonder, Gaye and others used to record the tracks that launched them on their journeys to superstardom.

The best things about this museum though, are the guides. The way they bring the stories to life is heart-lifting. We defy anyone not to leave to with a smile on their face and a song on their lips – this is helped by the fact that you and your group get to ‘record’ a Motown tune in a studio at the end of the tour.

One of Diego Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicting Ford Motor Company laborers. Photo: DIA
One of Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicting Ford Motor Company laborers. Photo: DIA

5 An injection of culture at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the most impressive museums we’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. Constructed at a time when Detroit was one of – if not the – richest cities in the world, its collection is world-class. It can hold its own against the V&A, Met or the Louvre in terms of scope, even if not in size.

As you’re visiting the USA, you really should tour the American art collections. The story of modern America, from its colonization by Europeans, through its fight for independence and civil war, as well as the slave trade and the experiences of native tribes are all documented. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking tale. If you can, seek out one of the incredibly intelligent volunteers, who are more than happy to talk you through some of the collection.

The exterior of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: DIA
The exterior of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: DIA

What makes the Institute, though, is the way its exhibits are presented – everything at eye level. You see each piece the way the artist would’ve done. You get up close and personal with its collection. There’s a ‘no barriers’ policy, meaning you can get up close to the art. We experienced a level of intimacy with a Caravaggio worth millions of pounds that you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. You can see the strokes the artist took and, indeed, if it’s quiet enough, you can imagine you’re there with them.

Virgin Atlantic flies once a day to Detroit from London Heathrow. Economy fares start from £569 ($859, 804)including tax. For more information call 0844 2092770 or visit

Holidays to Michigan can be booked through