Detroit Travel – First Impressions, a Driving Tour and Dinner at Sinbad’s at the Waterfront

After my explorations in Windsor, I had about an hour and a half to explore Detroit on my own before my scheduled driving tour of the city. With its impressive 20th century architectural heritage, Detroit had long fascinated me and I was going to take the next four days to explore this city up close.

One of the buildings making up Detroit’s skyline that has always captured my imagination is the Michigan Central Depot, an imposing 18-story former Beaux-Arts railway terminal that dates back to 1913. Somehow railway terminals have always held this aura of excitement and mobility, connecting people with far-away places. Although now long out of use, sadly run down and fenced off, I wanted to see the beauty of this magnificent building first-hand. I located it right away on my map and drove there to see it up close. This imposing and gorgeous building has been empty since 1988 when the last Amtrak train departed from here, and the ravages of time and human vandalism have taken their toll. Nevertheless, The Michigan Central Depot remains a gorgeous component of Detroit’s skyline and is a must-see for any architecture fan. Even in its current condition, it is easy to imagine the former glory this now defunct transportation hub.

After my first exposure to Detroit’s magnificent architecture, I drove across town to Belle Isle, a 982 acre (4 km2) island park in the Detroit River, east of downtown. It features a variety of attractions: the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the beautiful James Scott Memorial Fountain with three levels of water displays and numerous sculptures designed by famous architect Cass Gilbert.

I drove back downtown for my meeting with Jeanette Pierce, co-founder of Inside Detroit, a non-profit organization that runs the Detroit Welcome Centre and provides numerous thematic tours of Detroit and sells various products created by local Detroit artists. Jeanette is one of the most vocal proponents of Detroit and started to show me several destinations along Detroit’s eastern waterfront.

Along the way Jeanette told me a bit more about herself: together with her friend Maureen Kearns, Jeanette founded Inside Detroit in 2005 with the intention of introducing locals and out-of-towners to the city from an insider’s perspective. Maureen and Jeanette offer various custom tours and outings to get to know the city which connect participants not just with the city’s history and architecture, but also with pubs, bars, theatres, art galleries and other cool city hotspots. Some of the tours are targeted to locals to show them how to get the most of living, working and playing in the Motor City. These two entrepreneurs have even come up with a concept for a Detroit Scavenger Hunt that leads participants all throughout Downtown Detroit in search of information.

Obviously I could not have found a better local expert and urban enthusiast than Jeanette Pierce, so off we went on our driving tour of “the D”, one of Detroit’s nicknames. Heading east from the downtown business district, we made stops at Stroh River Place, a 25 acre mixed use campus development that brings together business amenities and upscale housing. All along Jeanette gave me an overview of Detroit’s history and background. Further east we made a stop on Belle Isle, Detroit’s urban island park.

Located as an island in the Detroit River, Belle Isle is connected with the mainland through the MacArthur Bridge. One of the highlights is the stunning marble James Scott Memorial Fountain which was designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert in 1925. James Scott was a controversial entrepreneur who left $200,000 to the City of Detroit to create a fountain in his name. From here we embarked on a slow drive past the major sights on the island, including the Belle Isle Casino and the Nancy Peace Brown Carillon Clock. On the north side of the island we stopped to have a look at the Detroit Yacht Club which began in the late 1870s. The imposing present-day clubhouse had cost more than one million dollars when it was opened in 1923.

From upscale Indian Village we drove into a more working class area that featured many run-down houses. Since the 1950s the City of Detroit has experienced an extensive decline in population, as the advent of an extensive highway system led many urban residents to move into the outlying suburbs. As a result, large numbers of residential houses and apartment buildings were abandoned and demolished in order to curb crime. What is left behind is a phenomenon called “urban prairies”, large stretches of empty grassland in the middle of the city that often remain unused.

Jeanette wanted to introduce me to an innovative use of some of this vacant urban land. Next to the Gleaner Community Food Bank is a community garden that uses empty green spaces for urban agriculture. The Gleaner Community Food Bank helps to feed hungry citizens, and some of the fresh vegetables and fruits come from the community garden that is located right across from the warehouse.

Our next stop focused on a really unusual space: the Heidelberg project, an outdoor art installation in an African-American neighbourhood on Detroit’s east side.

This extraordinary environment includes an entire city block as well as several houses and integrates bright paint colours and a large collection of found discarded objects. Creator Tyreee Guyton grew up on Heidelberg Street and was displeased with the deterioration in his neighbourhood. As a form of social protest he painted his grandfather’s house with bright polka dots and created the now famous “Dotty-Wotty House” in 1986.

Together with his grandfather and his former wife, Tyree Guyton began to clean up the neighbourhood and transformed the refuse they collected into massive art installations. Since the beginnings many other houses and outdoor creations have followed. Even city-ordered demolitions in 1991 and 1999 could not stop the success of the Heidelberg Project. Creator Tyree Guyton has been featured on various television programs (including Oprah) and won numerous awards for his work.

During our brief stroll on Heidelberg Street we saw a group of joggers come through as well as various international visitors from Toronto and Boston. Another example of creative use of space in Detroit, the Heidelberg Project today attracts around 275,000 visitors a year, and creator Tyree Guyton travels all over the world giving presentations about this project. We even ran into the artist himself who graciously talked to us and told us about the significance of this project which has transformed vacant lots into colourful and meaningful urban art.

After unsuccessfully trying to reach some friends of Jeanette’s, artists who live in a local loft, we briefly stopped at Detroit’s Eastern Market which truly comes to life on Saturday mornings. We stopped into the R. Hirt Jr. store which features cheeses and delicacies from all over the world. Market activities have been taking place here since the mid 1800s and the sales sheds seen today date back to 1891. Detroit’s Eastern Market is the largest historic public market district in the United States.

From here we drove north through Midtown Detroit, also referred to as Detroit’s Cultural Centre which is anchored by Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Science Center, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Museum of African American History as well as the Max M. Fisher Music Centre. We stopped in at the Bureau of Urban Living, a hip local urban general store. Right next door are the Motor City Brewing Works, a microbrewery with a bar and an upstairs deck. Jeanette successfully demonstrated that Detroit is a hotbed of young urban entrepreneurs who are taking opportunity by the horns.

Further north we visited the area of New Centre whose main highlight is the historic Fisher building, an ornate 1928 skyscraper and Art Deco jewel designed by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn. The structure was originally designed for the Fisher Body Company which had become General Motors’ in-house coachbuilding division in 1926. Forty different kinds of marble decorate the lavish three-story barrel vaulted lobby which today holds a shopping concourse with various cool stores and cafes. The Fisher Theatre, with its lavish Aztec-style interior, is a popular destination among theatre lovers.

Then Jeanette took me across the street to Cadillac Place, another stunning example of 1920s architecture. Designed by Albert Kahn in 1923, it was the second largest office building in the world. It was the headquarters of General Motors from 1923 to 1996 when GM moved to the Renaissance Centre downtown. This ornate high-rise office building features 31 elevators and has been a designated National Historic Landmark since 1978.

After this extensive insider’s overview of Detroit our tour had come to an end I thanked Jeanette and dropped her off at the Detroit Welcome Centre. By now it was late afternoon and I had not had anything to eat since breakfast, so it was seriously time for an early dinner. I had wanted a waterfront dining experience and back home had already done some research into riverside dining options in Detroit. One place called “Sindbad’s at the River” had caught my attention since it was located right by the river and has been a family owned business for almost 60 years.

So I headed off east again to locate Sindbad’s restaurant for a waterfront dining experience. Owned since 1949 by the Blancke family, the second generation of Blanckes, Marc, Denise, Linda and Brian, run this river-front restaurant as a team. I settled down at a cozy table and was waiting for a chance to talk to the owners and find out about this culinary landmark in Detroit.

Denise and Marc sat down with me and started telling me about this venerable institution. In 1949, the siblings’ father, “Buster” Blancke together with his brother-in-law “Van” VanHollebecke opened Sindbad’s in a ramshackle building at the Detroit River. (In true Belgian tradition, the gentlemen’s real names were Prudent Octave Blancke and Hilaire VanHollebecke, but the shorter nicknames were much easier to pronounce). “Van” had worked for Hiram Walker and looked after the Detroit sales of the distillery. Grandpa Boudewyn Blancke had owned a meat market and lent the young gentlemen some money to set up their new business.

In the early years the restaurant served mostly hamburgers, sandwiches and steaks, but over time the restaurant developed a specialization in seafood. Marc added that he only buys the best ingredients and explained to me that the scallops come all the way from George’s Bank, a hundred miles off Cape Code. He added that they are full of nutrients and always perfectly fresh. His menu even carries a fiercely named creature called “wolf of the sea” (loup de mer). Sunday brunch is also very popular and offers a variety of eggs, made to order, as well as smoked salmon, fish, pasta and chicken dishes.

Sindbad’s customers mostly come from Detroit and the surrounding counties, and due to its riverside location and the fact that Sindbad’s also functions as a marina, many of the restaurant guests arrive by boat. Sindbad’s is particularly popular during special events such as the Detroit Grand Prix and the Red Bull Air Race, an exhilarating high-speed obstacle course for lightweight racing planes. Hundreds of weddings and special events are held at Sindbad’s every year.

To give me a feel for Sindbad’s expertise in seafood, Marc put together a seafood platter for me that consisted of local fish such as perch and pickerel as well as of the famous scallops which simply melted in my mouth. Campeche shrimp and coconut shrimp rounded out the seafood platter. Accompanied by deliciously spicy Jalapeno Poppers I had a very satisfying evening meal and could start to relax a little after a full day with a hugely packed schedule.

After a very filling seafood medley and a nice chat with Marc I headed off for a good night’s sleep at the just reopened luxurious Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, my abode for the next two days. After being shuttered for about 24 years, this stunning 1924 Art Deco jewel has just undergone a complete renovation at a cost of about $200 million. I was already looking forward to seeing more of this historic hotel in the next few days.