Detroit Travel: A Bicycle Tour Through Corktown and Mexicantown

Sunday, July 22, 2012

My discoveries of Detroit were slowly but surely coming to an end, and I had seen so many interesting places already in my whirlwind tour over the last four days. Just before I was ready to hop across the border to Windsor again, I had one more adventure on my schedule: a biking tour of Southwest Detroit to cover Corktown and Mexicantown.
After a filling breakfast at the Inn on Ferry Street I took their complimentary shuttle downtown to Rivard Plaza, right next to the Detroit Riverwalk. At 10 am I met Kelly Kavanaugh, co-owner ofWheelhouse Detroit, Downtown Detroit’s first bike rental facility for more than 30 years. Wheelhouse also provides bicycle repairs and service and offers a variety of tours of different Detroit neighbourhoods.
Wheelhouse Detroit was founded by friends Kelli Kavanaugh and Karen Gage, two young women who have been active in the Detroit non-profit and urban planning scene for years. Equipped with advice from fellow entrepreneurs, start-up funding from the city’s micro-credit program and their own savings they embarked on their entrepreneurial venture and bought 30 bicycles which includes comfortable cruisers, city mountain bikes, kids bikes, trailers and even a tandem.
Their bikes are made by Kona, a philanthropically inclined manufacturer that donates bicycles to non-profit organizations in Africa. Along with other people I have met over the last four days, Kelli and Karen are an example of the new breed of Detroit entrepreneurs who combine their love for the city with hard work and entrepreneurial creativity.
On a brilliant but rather cool and windy October day Kelli and I headed off westwards along the the Detroit Riverwalk and quickly passed the General Motor Renaissance Centre and Hart Plaza, the civic centre of Detroit. The Detroit International Riverfront covers an area stretching from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle and encompasses numerous parks, restaurants, retail shops, skyscrapers and residential areas along the Detroit River. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised in the last few years to revitalize this extensive area.
The Detroit Riverwalk is a recreational multipurpose path that stretches 5.5 miles (almost 9 km) along Detroit’s riverfront and provides separate lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists or inline skaters. Wheelhouse Detroit is located inside Rivard Plaza, an outdoor space that features the Cullen Family Carousel, an inlaid granite map of the Detroit River, fountains and gardens. Rivard Plaza was opened in June of 2007 and also features the Riverwalk CafĂ©.
Cycling west on the Riverwalk, Kelli started to tell me about her venture and about her passion for cycling in Detroit. As the city is quite spread out and a lot of the traffic concentrates on the city’s characteristic sunken expressways, the downtown area is surprisingly free of traffic congestion and cycling-friendly. In my past four days in Detroit I did not encounter any traffic jams downtown, a surprising experience when you come from a congested place like Toronto.
As we pedaled against the wind we passed by several more Detroit landmarks - Cobo Arena, the Cobo Convention Centre and the Joe Louis Arena - home of the Detroit Red Wings. Leaving the downtown area behind we headed into southwest Detroit.
The first neighbourhood that greeted us was Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighbourhood, so named after the Irish immigrants from County Cork that settled here. The houses in this area date back to 1834 and feature nicely restored Victorian homes, many of them brightly painted. Corktown also has many cool gathering spots and eateries, including the funky Zeitgeist Gallery, a bar called Nemo’s which was voted No. 3 “perfect sports bar in the US by Sports Illustrated , and LJ.’s – a hip karaoke place, as well as a wide range of other diverse restaurants.
We snaked our way through this pleasant neighbourhood and crossed over a railway bridge that provided a perfect view of one of Detroit’s most stunning architectural structures: the Michigan Central Depot, also called the Michigan Central Station. Although now abandoned and in poor condition, the Michigan Central Station is a railroad station that was built in 1913 for the Michigan Central Railroad. Its main Beaux-Arts train station is flanked by an 18 storey office tower, a monumental building whose outline dominates South-West Detroit’s skyline. Due to its sheer size and its magnificent architectural detailing, the Michigan Central Depot is still one of Detroit’s most impressive buildings, despite its sad current state.
Past the railroad bridge we arrived in Mexicantown, a vibrant neighbourhood that has undergone significant economic growth in the last few years. Kelly showed me the Michigan International Welcome Centre, a brand-new commercial development in close proximity to the Ambassador Bridge. 85 businesses will welcome visitors in The Mercado, and they will cater to locals and out-of-towners alike with a broad assortment of merchandise.
Further west we cycled by a long strip of Mexican restaurants that include popular eateries such as Mexican Village, El Zocalo, Evie’s Tamales, Lupita’s and Xochimilco. A ride through this neighbourhood revealed an extensive collection of late Victorian homes fronted by large trees. The main streets in the area are Bagley Street and Vernor Street which are flanked by numerous storefronts and eateries.
Away from the main thoroughfares and tucked into the neighbourhood is St. Anne De Detroit Catholic Church, the eighth church in this location whose cornerstone was laid in 1886. The church was originally founded on July 26, 1701, two days after Antoine Mothe de la Cadillac (the founder of Detroit) and his French settlers arrived. Today it is the second oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the United States. Nowadays the congregation includes many Hispanic parishioners who come together to worship in this impressive Gothic Revival structure.
One stop on our bicycling tour included the Hotel Yorba, which inspired the hit single by Detroit garage rock band “The White Stripes”. Today this former hotel provides subsidized housing. We started cycling back to the main road and passed by Clark Park, a large public park on Detroit’s southwest side. Cycling back east on Vernor we saw another strip of Mexican-owned businesses.
On the way back we made a stop in front of the Michigan Central Station where Kelly explained that this is the departure point for the annual “Tour de Troit” event, a 40-mile cycling tour of Detroit that has been attracting biking enthusiasts since 2001. Both Kelli and her business partner Karen have been actively involved in helping to organize this popular biking event. Attendance increased from 650 participants in 2007 to 1100 participants in 2008. Kelly explained that biking is definitely taking off in Detroit. The Tour de Troit event also raises funds for dedicated bicycle trails.
We now turned onto Michigan Avenue, one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares. Stopping regularly we had a look at various bars, cafes and galleries that populate this stretch of the road. One of our final stops was at the Old Tiger Stadium, the former home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. The stadium was originally opened in 1912 and unfortunately partially demolished in 2008. A group of dedicated local citizens is fighting to keep the remaining portions of the stadium intact.
Our tour concluded with a ride through Detroit’s downtown business district and ended back atWheelhouse's location on Rivard Plaza. Given that I am an avid bicycling enthusiast myself, exploring Detroit on two wheels was a real highlight of my five-day stint in this city. Bicycling is simply the best way of discovering a city – allowing you to cover great ground at manageable speeds while getting much needed exercise. Being able to easily stop anywhere is a great added benefit for an avid travel photographer like me.
Now thoroughly invigorated I thanked Kelli for introducing me to a completely different side of Detroit and set off to have lunch in the open outdoor space in front of the Wintergarden at the Renaissance Centre. The “RenCen”, the international headquarters of General Motors, consists of seven skyscrapers centered around the 73-story central tower that holds the Detroit Marriot Hotel. This structure has also been the highest building in Michigan since 1977.
The top of the hotel holds Coach Insignia, a fine dining restaurant with the most fabulous views of the city. In 2003 GM renovated the entire complex at a cost of $500 million which added the five-story Wintergarden, a light-flooded glass-enclosed atrium that overlooks the Detroit River. I grabbed my lunch, went outside and enjoyed the fall sun and the magnificent view across the river to Windsor while reflecting on my five action-packed days in Detroit.
Shortly after I called the shuttle service of the Inn on Ferry Street and minutes later I got whisked away. I made a final stop in Greektown, one of Detroit’s most popular entertainment districts. Most of the houses along Monroe Street date back to the Victorian era and today feature restaurants and cafes on the main level. The Greektown Casino is a major attraction in the area.
This exciting morning had concluded my visit to Detroit. I picked up my suitcase, hopped in my car and took the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel back to Canada. On the way back to Toronto I reflected on what an exciting and fascinating destination Detroit had been. During these past few days I got to see so many different facets of Detroit, and I had a chance to meet several people who are truly passionate about their city. It’s always great to get to know a city from the perspective of an insider.
I had had a thoroughly great time in Detroit and over the past five days I had seen so many things I had never expected. And I realized there were so many more places I didn’t get to see.

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