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Motor City

[Detroit, MI, Apr 17, 2019]

My conference ended on Wednesday, but I was staying through Thursday. This year, I finally got on the board of HEDW, the all-volunteer board that organizes the conference. The first of their two board meetings of the year is held on the day after the conference. This left me with a free half-day on Wednesday. I planned on exploring Detroit, and I was super happy that my friend Martha could join me. She was my old boss at my job and she was also on the HEDW board, although this was her last year on it. She didn’t think she could join me at first, but then her schedule freed up and I suddenly had company for my little city adventure.

When I went to a different conference last year, I discovered that some hotels have rental car desks. This can be a huge time saver if you only need a rental car for a limited amount of time. Luckily, our conference hotel had a rental car desk, and I had reserved one a couple of days before. The online reviews for this location were sketchy; people complained of dirty cars that smelled like smoke. Our car was pretty clean but it did smell like smoke. Oh well.

Our first stop was The Henry Ford – the museum honoring the industrialist who founded the Fort Motor Company here in 1903. Through the first half of the 20th century, Detroit experienced incredible growth due to Ford’s success, and the city became the automotive capital of the world. The nickname “Motor City” capitalizes on that heritage.

Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line, but he utilized it to mass-produce the Model-T, thus making it the first automobile affordable to the middle class. I knew we could get to ride a Model-T in Greenfield village – the outdoor section of the museum – so we headed there first. The village contains nearly one hundred buildings moved here from their original locations, including Thomas Edison’s lab from New Jersey and the Wright brothers Connecticut home. Although seeing all that would have been wonderful, we did not have a lot of time, and the weather was a bit cold and windy. Riding a 1925 Model-T instead was a great alternative.

Back inside, we went through the Presidential Limousines exhibit. The first “limousine” was Teddy Roosevelt’s horse carriage, but we also got to see Kennedy’s car – the same one he rode when he got assassinated.

Also in this section we found Rosa Parks’ bus – the exact one she rode when she staged her protest against racial injustice by refusing to move to the back of the bus in 1955. The bus was open for us to climb in, and a docent explained to us in detail how the events of that day unfolded. He pointed to the seat Rosa Parks occupied when she was asked to move. He also explained that black people were not allowed to come through the front of the bus. They would come in the front door to pay the driver, then go back out and enter the bus from the back door. Drivers would sometimes wait for a black person to pay, then leave before they could get in through the back door. This exact thing had just happened to Rosa Parks a few days before her protest. When she was asked to move to the back of the bus, it was the drop that spilled the cup – she was tired of the injustices and refused. I asked how the bus had come into the museum’s possession, and that turned out to be an interesting story. A private citizen had purchased the bus and used it on his farm as a place to store his tools. The Henry Ford purchased it in 2001 after verifying its provenance.

We completed our visit with a furniture exhibit and a trip to the gift shop.

It was late afternoon by then, and we debated whether we’d have time to go to the Detroit Museum of Arts. It turned out it was on our way to dinner, so we decided to give it a shot.

We found parking right next door and had just enough time to see the Detroit Industry Murals by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. A series of 27 panels depicts industrial scenes, some at the Ford Motor Company. The murals were painted between 1932 and 1933 on commission from an industrialist. I thought the description of the murals provided by the museum summarizes them very well, so here it is. “These murals reveal Rivera’s fascination with industrial processes – and his critique of the political and social realities of capitalist enterprise. The murals assert the benefits of industrial processes, but warn of their destructive side effects. The aviation industry produces planes for war as well as for travel. Scientific discoveries allow us to fight disease – and create poison gases. Rivera also reminds us that all human endeavor is rooted in the natural world. The scenes of Michigan industry – from chemical production to car manufacturing – are all accompanied by images of natural structures and processes.”

We also had time to meander through the first floor, where I spotted a Bernini statue of Pope Clement IX. We also viewed some Renaissance works.

The museum closed at 4:30 pm, leaving us with two hours to kill before our dinner reservation. We left the rental car at the dinner place, which was on the last floor of the MotorCity Casino Hotel. At this point we were just a mile from downtown Detroit, so we decided to walk there. The area between the casino and downtown was desolate, although I did not feel unsafe. We walked over to a stop for the people mover, which turned out to be a great way to see downtown in a jiffy.

Waiting at the people mover stop. I got in trouble for getting this close to the track to take this picture. All of a sudden, a stern voice came over a PA system to tell me step behind the yellow line!

The Detroit People Mover is a 3-mile single track elevated system that encircles downtown Detroit. It is one of two people mover projects that came to fruition out of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) program from the 1960s and 1970s, the other one being in Miami. A ride costs $0.75.

It was hard to take photos from the train because the windows were dirty, but some of them came out. I enjoyed seeing the Canadian city of Windsor just across the Detroit river. Detroit is one of the few places in the US where Canada is to the south.

Windsor, Canada

From the people mover, we also enjoyed views of the Bricktown historic district, Greektown, Tiger stadium and Comerica Park, and other downtown neighborhoods.

We ubered back to the casino and settled in for dinner at the top-floor restaurant, Iridescence. We got a table right by the window and enjoyed great views of downtown.

We split a Caesar salad and I got the scallops. We also ordered a dessert – the melting chocolate sphere, which was delicious but so rich!

We went through a rain storm on our way back to Ann Arbor, but luckily it stopped raining right as we were pulling into our hotel. It was so much fun catching up with Martha and sight-seeing all at the same time! What a great way to wrap up the conference!

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