Motor city a big hit: Reborn Detroit moves up a gear

Sixto Rodriguez made two superb protest albums thought to be the equal of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens.

But they bombed in his hometown of Detroit and the US. Nobody had heard of him. Searching for Sugar Man, named after a track, found him in Detroit, unaware his albums sold millions in apartheid-stricken South Africa.

He drinks in a microbrewery bar at the Motor City Brewing Works and for years helped restore derelict houses and buildings in the city the world forgot. But like Sixto, The D is now being rediscovered.

Just four years ago it was declared bankrupt and blocks of property were sold for $50,000. But now downtown Detroit is buzzing again.

Unwanted office blocks are being turned into condos and new restaurants, clubs and pubs are opening. A new tramline opened last year, complements the overhead People Mover transit.

Yes, the Motor City is motoring once again. I stayed in the once-derelict art deco Wurlitzer building, restored as a boutique hotel, aptly called The Siren.

It’s on Broadway Street, ideally placed for the Opera House and Fox Theatre. Budget Icelandic airline WOW air is now flying there from Stansted via Reykjavik, four times a week.

They are confident travelers will want to visit the birthplace of Motown, techno and the city which gave us the first mass produced Ford Model T. Detroit is also rapper Eminem’s home city.

The Shelter venue helped launch his career and the city features in his 2002 movie 8 Mile. The city’s industry and its fabulous music are inextricably bound.

Motown boss Berry Gordy worked on the car production line and dreamed up hits about the industry, like Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite. Smokey Robinson told him he’d never make money just writing so he formed Motown (a shortening of Motor City Town).

And you can visit the house where he converted a garage and a kitchen into a studio/ control room where superstars made music that wowed the world. Check out the Henry Ford museum.

Here you can see a stack of old Ford cars, the first triengined plane and the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to move from a seat for a white passenger and fired up Martin Luther King’s campaign for racial equality.

There’s also the chair President Lincoln was killed in and the limo John F Kennedy was shot dead in. Outside families can enjoy the Greenfield Village, which Walt Disney copied the layout for his Disneyland.

Just 18 years ago the original Ford Piquette Plant factory was under threat of demolition, but it was saved by voluntary donations and now houses very rare cars including the famous Model T. It has now National Historic Landmark status.

You can also wander through Ford’s son Edsel’s Gross Point Cotswold-style mansion overlooking Lake St Clair, which houses works of art by Renoir and Cezanne.

It is worth the admission fee to see artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals covering the four hall walls in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which also houses Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait and Pieter Breugel’s Wedding Party.

At the weekends, 45,000 people descend on the US’s oldest market to snap up bargains and eat and drink at the new eateries and bars. Just last September the Detroit Eastern Market Brewery opened, and you can have tastings of their fine craft beers.

For lovers of a hearty breakfast, the Hudson Cafe serves up tasty food for around $11. The La Lanterna offers trendy dining, where I had a bolognaise washed down with a cocktail of Bourbon, fig, lemon juice, balsamic glaze and bitters.

Not far away is the Lumen, opened a month ago, but packed with customers. There I had a selection of cheeses, breads and meats. Or go to the Traffic Jam & Snug, which brews its own beers, makes its own cheese and bread and grows herbs and hops.

For $11 I tried all five of their beers in small glasses. If you really want to have a blast with the family or friends, there’s only one place to go – the Punch Bowl Social on Broadway Street.

It’s a massive bar-eatery with 10-pin bowling alleys, arcade machines, pool, darts and karaoke rooms. Superb. Detroit is back and buzzing – get it while it’s hot.

>>Return to Newsletter

The Daily Star UK