There’s no simple way to define Detroit’s culture. How can one properly summarize a city that draws from so many different cultures to begin with?
There is no way to wrap it all into a phrase other than to say this: Detroit is a city with a heartbeat that echoes it’s earliest days, even with the influx of new restaurants, apartment complexes and global corporations.
Yes we all love hitting up a new brunch spot or finding a cute outfit at the newest trendy boutique, but if you really want to start to understand the city’s roots and the people who made it what it is, check out some of these cultural touchstones to spark some interest.
Of course Detroit was a major contributor to the jazz and the blues scene in the early 20th century, but Motown records was homegrown in the city of Detroit. Local songwriter Berry Gordy started the hit-making machine. The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye all came out of Motown, and their influence can still be felt today. The Motown Museum, formerly known as Hitsville USA, was the original headquarters and recording studio of the record label and was open 22 hours a day, with famous and upcoming artists cycling in and out on a regular basis. The museum, located on West Grand Boulevard in New Center, now features iconic photos, costumes and records from the era, and the three-home lot even created exhibits out of the recording studios and Berry Gordy’s upstairs apartment. This is one of the most popular tourist destinations of Detroit and a visit really brings to light Detroit’s place in popular culture.
When Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derick May, three young black teenagers from Belleville, Michigan, better known as the Belleville Three, started making electronic music in their basement, who could’ve guessed that they’d create the city’s most influential music since Motown, and one of the most ubiquitous music genres worldwide today. While the techno scene in Detroit is often underground (and goes into the wee hours of the morning), TV Lounge is a popular nightclub to get a taste of Detroit’s biggest music scene. It has a sophisticated atmosphere, great cocktails, and an energetic outdoor dance floor. Some of the world’s best DJs play here, and the innovators of techno themselves have even been known to make an appearance from time to time. If you want to see how the city really moves, this is a great place to start.
Southwest Detroit is a vibrant area of the city known for its thriving businesses, colorful buildings and a friendly community. Mexican culture is a major component of the town and several authentic eateries line the streets. Visit Taqueria El Rey for the freshest, most delicious tacos served with three heavenly sauces. After dinner grab a frozen banana or frozen strawberry bar at La Michoacana Ice Cream and take a stroll through Clark Park. It’s the perfect way to spend an evening in this bustling and thriving part of the city.
Hamtramck is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the Detroit area. But in the early 20th century, 90 percent of its population was Polish. Just as several ethnic groups answered the call for workers during Detroit’s industrial boom, the Polish found their haven of the city just northeast of downtown near the Dodge brothers automobile plant. The city’s Polish roots can still be spotted throughout the city in street names, delicious restaurants and a smaller Polish speaking population. A paczki at any of the local Polish bakeries is always a treat as well and if you happen to be in town on Fat Tuesday, plenty of bars and restaurants hand them out for free. Today the city is incredibly diverse ethnically and religiously with large numbers of Middle Eastern and Bangladeshi residents and a high concentration of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Plenty of dining and takeout restaurants serve delicious food from these regions -- Yemen Café is a standout. A walk down Joseph Campau St. will give you a sense of the many locally owned businesses this city has to offer, and the lively yet quaint energy of the downtown area. The residential neighborhoods showcase beautiful two-story, town home apartments for several blocks, making for a picturesque walk any time of day, but especially as the sun is just setting.
There are many culturally significant buildings and landmarks in the city of Detroit, and if you find yourself in one of them, there’s a good chance this ceramic studio and school contributed an architectural component or ceramic piece.
Pewabic Pottery was founded by the “artistic and marketing force” Mary Chase Perry Stratton and her business partner Horace James Caulkins in 1903. Since then, the studio has influenced ceramic design both locally and nationally. The studio’s signature ceramic tile and iridescent glazes can be seen all over the city of Detroit, famously at Belle Isle Aquarium, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library, and the Guardian Building. The intricacy of the tile designs bring life and color to the public spaces they inhabit; the tile in the Detroit Public Library, for instance, surrounds the fireplace in the children’s section, with whimsical designs of humans and animals interacting in the forest. Perhaps the studio’s most colorful display can be seen at various stations for the People Mover, with bright purples, pinks and yellows in swirling and arching designs. The studio is located off of Jefferson Avenue offering ceramic classes and exhibits open to the public that showcase the company’s role in the city of Detroit and the arts and crafts movement in America.
Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals
To see a piece of art that truly stands the test of time, go see Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals. They're located in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts and are an absolute must see. As both a commentary on the benefits and dangers of advancements in technology and a booming automobile industry, Rivera shocked audiences upon the completion of his ambitious frescoes. Spanning 27 murals over 4 giant walls, Rivera depicts the modern industrial culture of the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant, showing solidarity with striking workers during the Great Depression by aiming criticism at some of Edsel Ford’s labor practices. Rivera also draws from religious imagery to portray a modern world driven by science and technology rather than spirituality. While critics at the time saw it as propaganda, there’s no doubt that Rivera was both excited and wary of the modern world for good reason. Between the bright colors, the laborious attention to detail and the striking imagery drawing from modernity, religion and Aztec culture, you cannot leave Detroit without seeing this masterpiece. Rivera saw Detroit for what it was and still is in many respects: a city of hard workers with ambitions and dreams that was ahead of the world.
Going out to eat and shop is fun, but simply walking down the streets of Detroit can become a deeper experience when you have explored the diverse cultural spaces that made what it is. Make it a priority to get informed and have fun on your next visit to this wonderful city. Detroit is pulsing with creative and vibrant energy that keeps the city moving — don’t miss out on checking these spaces out.