When I told friends and family I would be bicycling through Detroit, I heard one warning again and again: “make sure you wear a bulletproof vest”. Most of them, of course, were unfamiliar with Detroit beyond having read a list of “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Cities” on Facebook. But that has rarely stopped anyone from sharing advice.
Sure, safety in Detroit can be an issue, just as in any urban environment across the globe. But a visit to the one-time heart of US industry and innovation is essential – and doing so by speeding through neighbourhoods without a second glance feels wrong. Detroit calls for more intimate exploration. And there’s no better way to experience this iconic city once ruled by cars than on the saddle of a bike.
On our first day, my wife, Melanie, and I left our hotel downtown for a 1.7-mile ride north to the Traffic Jam and Snug Restaurant parking lot in the up-and-coming Midtown neighbourhood, where we were meeting a cycling tour run by Stephen Johnson’s Motor City Brew Tours. Already, I could see why cycling Detroit made too much sense to ignore: thanks to the negative space left by white flight in the 1950s, the city feels huge, with wide roads built specifically for cars that are too large to encompass on foot. And on an early Saturday morning, the streets are quiet as the Arctic. In other words, it is an open frontier for cyclists.
- Detroit’s quiet, broad streets make the city ideal for cycling. (Bill Pugliano/Getty)
After peaking in 1950 with more than 1,800,000 residents, Detroit’s population has dropped to approximately 681,000. The city lost a shocking 25% of its population between 2000 and 2010 alone, thanks largely to the financial struggles, and then bankruptcies, of both General Motors and Chrysler. Detroit’s downtown began emptying far earlier, however: starting in the 1950s, both residents and businesses followed newly constructed highways out to the suburbs. The coinciding lack of jobs and rise in crime caused more businesses and residents to leave, a cycle still seen today.
Cycling through the city now, I saw structures barely standing, their windows punched out. Anything even remotely valuable had been stripped. It was a glimpse of what the American Dream had wrought on the city that, ironically, produced the American Dream’s most cherished symbol: the automobile.
- A 1957 Ford Thunderbird, produced at the height of the city’s success, overlooks Detroit’s skyline from Belle Isle. (Andrew Burton/Getty)
We arrived at the Traffic Jam and Snug with a few minutes to spare. Melanie and I were the only ones on the tour to arrive by bike; everyone else lugged their bicycles from the backs of cars. Most would later admit that they are Detroiters who had never actually explored Detroit city proper – beyond Tigers or Red Wings games and the highway that got them there.
Johnson, appropriately wearing an illustrated “I Bike 4 Beer” T-shirt, gave a brief introduction to the tour: a history of Detroit brewing, one of several tours the company offers, including cycling the city’s auto history, but the promise of beer at the end proved too enticing.
We cycled east along Canfield Street toward the former home of Zynda Brewing Company, once a staple of Detroit brewing and, today, a mostly empty parking lot.
- By bicycle, get up close and personal with Detroit’s historic buildings. (Joe Baur)
Across the street was Forest Park, where locals mow the grass. With the city bankrupt, Johnson said, much of park maintenance has been turned over to volunteer efforts. Economic crisis or not, residents are not giving up on their city.
We caught more glimpses of life as we continued around St Aubin down toward the famous Eastern Market. A Detroit landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, Eastern Market dates back to 1841, when it was in downtown’s Cadillac Square; it moved to its present-day location along Russell Street between Mack Avenue and the Fisher Freeway in 1891. Today, according to the market, it houses the world’s largest bedding flower market, along with more than 150 food and specialty businesses. An estimated 45,000 Detroiters come each Saturday morning, and it shows as you cycle through.
- A child plays among Eastern Market’s flower beds. (Paul Warner/Getty)