Detroit lost half its population amid race riots and economic decline. However, having recently been named as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 cities to visit in 2019, the birthplace of Motown is enjoying a long-awaited revival.
It’s midweek, shortly before lunchtime and in Studio A where Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder once recorded their most famous tracks, slightly less beautiful music is being made.
Now part of the Motown Museum dedicated to the legendary record label and its founder Berry Gordy, a tour guide, blessed with the kind of sass you only get in Detroit, is leading a dozen of us in a rendition of The Temptations’ My Girl.
It’s an inharmonious culmination to an otherwise seamless ride through the history of the label, which was begun on an $800 loan in the dying months of the 1950s and which provided the soundtrack for a generation of teenagers.
The museum opened in the building known as Hitsville USA in 1985 and thanks to those tour guides it has been one of Detroit’s best visited tourist attractions ever since. However, for a while even their obvious passion couldn’t mask the evidence of the riches to rags story which lay outside its front door.
Just a few hours’ drive of Chicago, in the early decades of the 20th century this Midwest city in the heart of rural Michigan had come to symbolise the American dream. Long before Gordy’s music factory began churning out pop stars, Detroit had built its wealth on another production line and had gained a reputation as a place where good things happened.
Much of that was down to farmer’s boy Henry Ford, who in 1908, at the age of 42 and after various false starts, unveiled the Model T. Affordable and reliable, it got the country moving and made Ford – and Detroit – the envy of the world.
More car companies followed and it wasn’t long before Detroit was dubbed Motor City. The good times sadly didn’t last. The exodus began following the race riots of the long hot summer of 1967 and when later the motor industry all but collapsed in the face of cheap, overseas competition it was the final nail in the coffin.
By the time Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013 more than half of the population had left and its most recognisable landmark was the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant which had once employed 120,000 workers. Six years on and against all the odds, Motor City looks set to pull off the Rocky of all comebacks. In Motown’s 60th anniversary year, derelict buildings are being pulled down and replaced with shiny new office blocks, bars and restaurants are opening by the dozen and the Lonely Planet recently named Detroit the second best city to visit in 2019, Seville just squeezing it out of the top spot.
Arriving as night falls the twinkling lights suggest Downtown at least is on the up. However, if you really want to take the temperature of any US city it pays to head to a dive bar, which is how we found ourselves in the Baltimore where the welcome is friendly and the drinks are cheap.
“Things did get a little rough for a while,” says the barman. “It’s better now, much better, but those headlines live long in the memory. There’s a lot of people doing good things here. The art scene is really thriving and new restaurants are opening every week. In fact, if you’ve not got other plans, you should check this one out.”
Armed with hastily scribbled directions we head off in search of Standby and it’s only when we find ourselves in a deserted alleyway looking for an unmarked door that we wonder whether we’ve been hopelessly naïve. Fortunately, a kitchen porter grabbing a quick cigarette break points us in the right direction.
There’s no sign to Standby, a gas lamp on the wall outside is the only marker. Not that it looks like they need much advertising, the place is packed with an after-work crowd clearly in no rush to go home. We squeeze into the only free table where we join them in a few cocktails.
Similar transformations are happening across Detroit. There are plans to turn the old Michigan Central Station, which provided a gritty backdrop to Eminem’s 8 Mile film, into an innovation hub, and the historic Eastern Market is thriving with pop-up art galleries and street food stalls.
The future looks brighter than it has done in years, but for a glimpse at where it all began head to the Henry Ford Museum a few miles away from Downton. Established by the man himself, it’s a sprawling love letter both to the innovations which made modern American and the folksy way of life which was trampled on as a result.
It’s easy to spend a whole day wandering the exhibits, which include the limousine JFK was assassinated in, the shop where the Wright brothers – and their oft overlooked sister – took their fledging steps into flight and the oldest surviving steam engine in the world.
Back in central Detroit it’s worth checking out the Institute of Arts, home to 100 galleries and 65,000 pieces of work. This is a gallery gone large, so after an exhausting day checking out the exhibits try a relaxing evening in one of the city’s historic jazz clubs.
One of the best is Cliff Bells, an art deco affair straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. It first opened its doors in the 1930s, but like much else in the city the music stopped in the 1980s. It reopened in 2005 after a sympathetic restoration and now even on a quiet Monday night the bands play on again.
There’s an old adage around these parts that if Detroit is doing ok, the whole State is doing just fine. Good news for Michigan then as Motor City looks to be once again firing on all cylinders.
For more details on accommodation, events and things to do, visit the Pure Michigan website at www.michigan.org
Eight days’ car hire starting from Chicago with Hertz.co.uk costs from £28 per day.
For further USA road trip inspiration, downloadable maps and insider guides head to the Hertz American Road Trip Planner at www.hertz.co.uk/p/american-road-trip-planner.