Detroit Travel: A Walking Tour of Brush Park and Dinner at the Ren Cen

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Susanne Pacher
After having learned so much about architecture during my morning walking tour of downtown Detroit, we embarked on another urban discovery: a walking tour through Brush Park, one of Detroit’s historic residential areas with a location very close to downtown. Bob Goldsmith, our local expert from Detroit Tour Connections, met us at 97 Winder Street, location of a recently restored bed and breakfast, and started explaining the history of the area to us.
In its Victorian heydays, Brush Park was an affluent neighbourhoood with numerous mansions for upper-class families. The area’s beginnings date back to the 1850s when local entrepreneur Edmund Brush started subdividing his family’s property. Construction activity peaked in the 1870s and 1880s, and in 1906 one of the last mansions to be built was renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn’s personal residence.
The neighbourhood stretches for 24 city blocks and originally included about 300 homes of which 70 were Victorian mansions. As transportation and the use of the automobile expanded in the early 20th century, people started moving further afield, and the Brush Park area started on a long road of decline. Many of the houses were subdivided into smaller apartments during the Great Depression, and during the post-war years numerous houses were abandoned altogether and fell into disrepair.
Many of the abandoned mansions started to attract criminal activity and in many cases the city moved to demolish the homes, leaving large empty lots of land behind. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “urban prairie”. At the turn of the new millennium, less than half of the original structures were still standing in Brush Park.
Bob, a true Detroit connoisseur, came equipped with a series of articles about the various historic structures, many of which outlined the new owners’ story and the cost and extent of the renovation effort. Brush Park was truly an interesting experience, with its mix of beautifully restored mansions that might sit right next to a burned out ruin which in turn might be located adjacent to an empty plot of land where one of the former buildings had been taken down.
The highlight of our tour was when a local resident invited us to come inside her apartment: Lisa Rush, a friend of Bob’s, recently bought a renovated studio apartment in one of the historic apartment buildings in Brush Park. As we were walking through the neighbourhood, Bob called her and she invited us in to show us the apartment. She even offered us to use her washroom if we needed to.
Lisa’s apartment is a sleek studio with a living room area and features a kitchen with an island and a bedroom area that are all aligned in a long rectangular space. Off to the side was the bathroom. Lisa is a member of Preservation Wayne, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, promoting and protecting Detroit’s defining neighbourhoods and structures. Lisa was just celebrating with a few friends, and I was amazed that she would invite three complete out-of-town strangers into her beautiful apartment. This local connection was definitely unexpected and totally exceeded my standard expectations of hospitality.
Walking further north on John R Street we turned left and walked by a mansion that is owned by a University of Windsor professor who restored a beautiful Victorian era home that dates back to 1870. Similar to Lisa, this professor has also invited Bob’s tour participants into his personal home to show them his art collection. A welcoming attitude like this where locals open their private homes to complete strangers would probably be unheard of in many other places.
We also saw two churches, right next to one another, one boarded up and out of use for several years now while the neighouring church was a fully intact impressive Richardson Romanesque sandstone building. A few steps further up the street is the Bonstelle Theater, which was originally designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn as Temple Beth El in 1903. Historic buildings abound in this area of Detroit.
On our way south on Woodward we stopped at the upscale Zaccaro’s Market at 3100 Woodward Avenue which offers a variety of delicatessen and fresh, organic foods. Detroit has a marked absence of large supermarkets, so stores like Zaccaro’s fill in an important need for local residents.
Our tour was slowly coming to an end and Bob took us back to Winder Street. This walking tour had certainly started to introduce us to some of the historic and socio-economic issues of Detroit as well as some of the recent rejuvenation efforts that have happened over the last 10 years.
After a coffee inside the stunning Guardian Building and a brief rest at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel my travel partner Linda and I were ready to head out again and decided to explore another Detroit landmark: the Detroit People Mover. This 3 mile (4.5 km) long transportation system hauls people through downtown Detroit on a single-track one-way loop. It only moves in one direction (at present in a clockwise direction) and encompasses 13 stations throughout the central business district.
We entered the People Mover at the Renaissance Center, and the two rail cars were absolutely packed due to a Detroit Red Wings game. Detroit is a big sports town, with six professional sports teams, the most well-known of which include the Detroit Tigers (baseball), the Detroit Lions (football) and the Detroit Red Wings (hockey). Fans dressed in red hockey jerseys were entering the vehicle, and things were getting crowded. For tourists, the heavily subsidized People Mover transportation system is a great way to get around the downtown area and even do some sightseeing from the elevated vantage point. At a cost of only $0.50 per ride it is an absolutely affordable and fun way to see different parts of the city.
The entire People Mover loop took us about 20 minutes and brought us right back to where we started. We went inside the Renaissance Centre, the world headquarters of General Motors since 1996. The seven building complex includes the 73-storey Marriot Hotel which is the highest hotel in the Western hemisphere. The top of the Marriott is crowned by the Coach Insignia restaurant, which is also the largest rooftop restaurant.
We admired the large GM showroom on the main floor as well as the five-storey Wintergarden, an airy glass enclosed space which provides access to the Riverfront and a great view of Windsor across the river. Now hungry from all our explorations we headed straight to the rooftop to see if we could have dinner at Coach Insignia.
Although the restaurant was packed and we did not have a reservation, we were able to get a seat by the bar and were fascinated by the gorgeous view over the Detroit River, Windsor and the Detroit business district. Belle Isle was visible in the north and the Ambassador Bridge dominated the view in the south. We enjoyed a tasty series of vegetarian appetizers of which the asparagus with sauce hollandaise and the Caesar salad truly stood out.
We spent a fabulous evening at the top of Detroit and enjoyed the slowly sinking sun and the golden glow it cast over the city. Tired and satisfied after a long day of explorations we headed back for a good night’s sleep to the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. We definitely needed to rest up since tomorrow our discoveries would take us to The Henry Ford Museum and the recently renovated Detroit Institute of Arts.

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