DETROIT The little girl was 3 or 4 years old, wearing a blue sundress, and she was drenched. As she made her way along the rows of water jets burbling out of the interlocked paving stones along the riverfront, she made sure to step on every single jet, splashing herself and giggling madly as she did so.
A brawny man in shorts and a T-shirt followed her along the edge of the water, smiling broadly. He was close enough to keep an eye on her, but just outside her splash zone. After a while, he told her it was time to go.
Not yet, Daddy, she replied in that half-pleading, half-demanding way that little children have. That got her a reprieve of another minute or two, but finally, Dad waded in to retrieve his little water sprite, stepping gingerly between the spurts but getting soaked just the same.
As he wrapped her in his arms and walked off with her into the evening shadows, an older couple walking nearby smiled at the scene. It s nice to see folks enjoying themselves down here, the woman said.
Plenty of people seem to be doing that these days on the banks of the Detroit River, along a stretch of the city s newest downtown attraction, the beautifully paved and landscaped RiverWalk. What we witnessed that night was as good a tableau as any to illustrate the new, visitor-friendly face that s being put on one of the Midwest s oldest and most challenged cities.
Like many of the large industrial centers of the Rust Belt, Detroit has suffered job loss, urban decay, and a shrinking population and tax base over the years as businesses closed and those residents who could afford to fled to the suburbs. Detroit s population of around 870,000 is less than half of what it was 50 years ago.
The city s has tried, in fits and starts, to rebuild itself, and the results have been, to put it charitably, uneven. Dozens of neighborhoods and downtown office buildings remain empty and run down, a brittle testament to years of neglect and an auto-based economy that has forever lost its pre-eminence.
But something peculiar has begun to take hold in Detroit of late. There are signs of a new optimism in the city, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in renovation projects in the metro area, particularly downtown. New businesses, restaurants, and shops have opened, and a number of vacant commercial and industrial buildings have been converted to residential units, with thousands of condos, lofts, townhouses, and apartments created over the past five years.
Helping focus and accelerate redevelopment efforts in recent years have been a number of high-profile sporting events a Super Bowl, a World Series, and an All-Star Game, to name a few which brought thousands of visitors to Detroit and trained a bright spotlight on the city. (And speaking of sports, Sporting News magazine just released its annual list of Best Sports Cities in North America, and thanks to its Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings, and yes, even its Lions, guess which city topped the list.)
There s still plenty to be done, but Detroit has succeeded to a surprising degree in remaking itself into a lively and interesting destination for leisure travelers. Based on the results of focus groups in several cities in the region (including Cleveland and Columbus), local tourism officials recently launched a campaign for marketing the metro area that aims to emphasize a handful of attributes. They ve taken to referring to Detroit as The D, and they list the elements of its identity as Cars, Culture, Gaming, Music, [and] Sports.
3 Days in the D
The first big chance to show off the new branding effort will be the upcoming Labor Day weekend, with a promotion called 3 Days in the D. Among the major events in the area that weekend will be the 28th annual Detroit International Jazz Festival (Aug. 31-Sept. 3); the Belle Isle Grand Prix (Aug. 31-Sept. 2), featuring both Le Mans and Indy car races; Chrysler Arts, Beats & Eats (Aug. 31-Sept. 3) in Pontiac, and the Michigan State Fair (through Sept. 3) in Detroit.
Last month my wife and I tried our own version of 3 Days in the D, and we came away with some very favorable impressions of Toledo s nearest big-city neighbor, just 60 miles or so up I-75. We stayed at the Courtyard Detroit Downtown on Jefferson Avenue. The Courtyard s rooms are more spacious than most, and a recent remodeling has made it into one of the city s most modern hotels, but we chose it more because of its central location. It s in the heart of downtown, right on the route of the People Mover elevated rail line, which circles a large chunk of the downtown. For 50 cents, riders can be whisked off to Comerica Park, Ford Field, Greektown, Joe Louis Arena, Cobo Center, and other locations.
The Courtyard is also connected by skywalk to the gleaming circular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, or Ren Cen, the city s signature skyscraper and, since 1996, the headquarters of General Motors.
It s also just a block from the three-mile-long RiverWalk, a series of promenades, paved pedestrian pathways, and parks that has transformed what had been ugly former industrial sites and parking lots on the banks of the Detroit River. Like Indianapolis, San Antonio, and many other cities, Detroit has finally realized that putting a new face on its riverfront is worth the investment, both for local residents and out-of-town visitors. More than 700,000 people attended the inaugural River Days Festival in June.
Like the city itself, the RiverWalk is still a work in progress, but the nonprofit RiverFront Conservancy plans to eventually extend it about five miles, from the Ambassador Bridge on the west to the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle at the east edge of downtown.
The plazas and pavilions of the RiverWalk have concession stands, restrooms (including an experimental self-cleaning one from Germany), wireless Internet service, and plenty of benches and tables. At other places along the walk, there s also a butterfly garden, a brick maze, and a carousel where riders whirl around perched atop fish, ducks, frogs, and herons, as well as the occasional mermaid.
The nearby Ren Cen is quite an attraction in its own right. Conceived by Henry Ford as a way to revitalize the city s economy, it was built in 1977. It went through a series of owners until being purchased in 1996 by General Motors, which has spent more than $500 million renovating it.
Today, in addition to housing 6,000 GM employees, the Ren Cen includes a hotel, offices, shops, and restaurants. It can be confusing for visitors to navigate, but while wandering around there one afternoon, we stumbled across a neat little place called the Corporate Mind & Body Spa. Unlike most day spas, this one doesn t offer facials, manicures, or pedicures.
What LoResa Robinson and her staff do offer are chair and aqua-table massages, facial misting, oxygen therapy, and sound and light therapy. No oils or lotions are used, and patrons remain fully clothed. The prices are reasonable at just $10 for a 15-minute service, with additional services for $5 each, no appointments needed.
Mini Mac attack
One morning we stopped at the Detroit Science Center on John R Street to check out its newest exhibit, an 80-foot-long replica of the Mackinac Bridge. The exhibit the largest and tallest display in the science center s permanent collection is part of the state s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Mighty Mac, which connects Michigan s Upper and Lower peninsulas. The Mini Mac, which illustrates the complexity of a suspension bridge, is now the primary walkway over a science stage located one story below it.
Unfortunately, one of the city s signature cultural attractions, the Detroit Institute of Arts, was closed during our visit while the finishing touches were being put on its a six-year, $158 million renovation and expansion project.
But we were able to sneak in to get a peek, and museum spokesman Pamela Marcil explained the effort to reorganize the Woodward Avenue facility s world-class collection of art to make it more visitor-friendly.
We ve completely rethought the way we present our collection, she said. When we reopen, things will be displayed so that people can connect more easily with the art, and they ll understand it in the context of the time and place it was created.
The museum will reopen Nov. 23.
In 1999 and 2000, three temporary casinos were allowed to open in downtown Detroit, with the understanding that they d eventually be replaced with permanent facilities that would include hotels. All three the MGM Grand, MotorCity Casino, and Greektown are now building their hotels and expanding their gaming areas, and the hotels, each with 400 rooms, will open late this year or early in 2008.
After a terrific dinner at MotorCity s Iridescence, the city s only AAA Four Diamond restaurant, we walked through a model of one of the high-tech hotel rooms that will be featured in MotorCity s 17-story hotel. David Nehra, casino spokesman, pointed out some of the room s technical innovations, such as self-regulating thermostats that set themselves depending on whether a guest is in or out of his room.
Housekeeping employees will be alerted electronically when the room is occupied to reduce interruptions, and guests can get private phone numbers and use special phones that work anywhere in the hotel-casino complex.
Nehra called the high-tech approach a new paradigm, the need that a hotel like ours has to be more service-oriented.
Adventures in dining
Dining out is an adventure in Detroit and I mean that in the most positive sense.
One night we splurged for dinner at Seldom Blues, a sophisticated, high-end jazz and supper club located in the Renaissance Center. Big windows provide fabulous views of the Detroit River and the Canadian shoreline on the other side, and the restaurant features steaks, seafood, and live jazz and blues every night of the week.
It s owned by retired Detroit Lion Robert Porcher, jazz musician Alexander Zonjic, and entrepreneur Frank Taylor, and its entertainment can range from local musicians to nationally known names such as Earl Klugh, Patti Austin, Bob James, and even Stevie Wonder, who showed up for an impromptu performance one night.
Stevie wasn t on hand the night we were there, but we did get to meet Robin Givens, an actress who was once married to boxer Mike Tyson. She was at Seldom Blues to sign copies of an inspirational book she d just written, called Grace Will Lead Me Home.
For lunch one afternoon we dropped in at Small Plates, a popular bistro on Broadway. It s located inside the old Eureka vacuum cleaner headquarters, just across the street from the Detroit Opera House and a short walk from Comerica Park and Ford Field.
The menu is based loosely on the Spanish concept of tapas small, appetizer-sized dishes that can be passed around and shared by a number of people. Among its moderately priced offerings are chicken skewers with Asian rice noodles, veggie spring rolls, pan-seared scallops, and empanada filled with goat cheese and peppers.
Some of the herbs used in the restaurant s dishes are grown right on the premises, in boxes that ring the sidewalk cafe area in front of Small Plates. Co-owner and executive chef Aaron True says that even though it s on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, passers-by leave his herb garden alone. They figure they might be eating here sometime, so nobody messes with it, he said with a laugh.
One of the metro area s newest cultural attractions is the Arab American National Museum, located right across the street from city hall in Dearborn, home to the nation s largest concentration of Arab Americans. The facility, which opened in 2005 in a nondescript, two-story building, includes a main hall dominated by an interactive map of the Arab world and exhibits that spotlight Arab culture and history, along with contributions to the fields of science, medicine, architecture, and law.
There was a dazzling display of traditional Palestinian costumes, but what I found most interesting was an exhibit highlighting dozens of Arab Americans who have made a name for themselves in this country. I was familiar with the Arab background of some of them, such as radio host Casey Kasem, American Idol s Paula Abdul, and actors Danny Thomas, Jamie Farr, and Monk s Tony Shalhoub.
But the heritage of others came as a surprise. Among them: singer-songwriter Paul Anka, Heisman winner and ex-NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, Indy car racer Bobby Rahal, actress Salma Hayek, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Rock stars cars
While in Dearborn we also visited a slightly better-known attraction the Henry Ford, the country s largest indoor-outdoor history museum complex. The sprawling place is filled to overflowing with priceless pieces of history: Lincoln s blood-stained chair from the Ford Theatre, JFK s limo from Dallas, the Rosa Parks bus (where visitors can climb aboard and sit in the same seat she did), Edison s laboratory, and the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, to name a few.
We wanted to check out a traveling exhibit there called Rock Stars Cars & Guitars, which features dozens of vehicles and instruments used by rock-and-rollers of the past and present.
Among the flashy rides is a bright yellow, psychedelically painted 1965 Rolls Royce owned by John Lennon; a shiny blue 1932 Ford coupe that appeared on the cover of The Beach Boys album Little Deuce Coupe, and a sleek yellow 1971 DeTomaso Pantera owned by Elvis Presley that still sports a bullet hole in the steering wheel made when an irate Presley opened fire on the car one night.
The gleaming guitars include those used in performances by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and members of Metallica, Cheap Trick, and ZZ Top.
To top off our visit to The D, we boarded a People Mover train on Friday night for the short trip to Comerica Park to take in a Tigers game. The downtown jewel of a park, which opened in 2000, is one of baseball s most family-friendly venues, with a Ferris wheel, a wheelchair-accessible carousel (featuring tigers instead of horses, naturally), fountains choreographed to music, and a spectacular view of the surrounding downtown skyline. There are giant concrete statues of tigers the four-legged kind all around the park, plus statues of former Tiger greats like Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, and Hank Greenberg.
The home team, which is the defending American League champion, was pounded by the visiting Kansas City Royals that night, but fans who stuck around and plenty of them did were treated to the traditional Friday night post-game fireworks display.
During our personal 3 Days in the D, we barely scratched the surface of what the metro area has to offer, but we saw enough to make us want to schedule a return visit before long.
Maybe next time we ll get to see the Tigers win.
If you go:
Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, 313-202-1800, www.visitdetroit.com
Courtyard by Marriott Detroit Downtown, 313-222-7700, www.detroitdowntowncourtyard.com
Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, 313-566-8200, www.detroitriverfront.org
Renaissance Center Tours, 313-568-5624
Detroit International Jazz Festival, 313-447-1248, www.detroitjazzfest.com
Belle Isle Grand Prix, 866-464-7749, www.detroitgp.com
Chrysler Arts, Beats & Eats, 248-334-4600, www.artbeatseats.com
Michigan State Fair, 313-369-8250, www.michiganstatefair.com
Detroit Science Center, 313-577-8400, www.detroitsciencecenter.org
Arab American National Museum, 313-582-2266, www.theaanm.org
The Henry Ford, 313-982-6001, www.thehenryford.org
Seldom Blues, 313-567-7301, www.seldomblues.com
Small Plates, 313-963-0497, www.smallplates.com
Detroit Tigers, 313-962-4000
Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.
Contact him at: email@example.com.