Road Trip from DC to Detroit
Cities visited: Cumberland, MD; Fallingwater, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; Toledo, OH; Detroit, MI; Dearborn, MI; Akron, OH; Kent State University, OH; Hagerstown, MD
Last fall, when I was still a U.S. government employee, the government shutdown kept me at home for two weeks. Rather than just sit at home and wait for the call to come back to work, I decided to get off the couch and embark on road trip to a city I had heard so much about but never saw for myself: Detroit. Aside from this ultimate destination, I felt a broader urge to get on the road and just drive west. On the way to the Motor City, I stopped at a bunch of different locations.
My first stop on the way out west was Cumberland, MD. Cumberland is a working class town with a nice little downtown grid and a bunch of church spires perched high above the city. I have passed Cumberland on several trips out to West Virginia before, but never got off the highway to explore it. I spent about 30 minutes in the town–certainly not enough learn a lot about it.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater, was my next destination. I visited at the peak of the fall foliage season so it worked out perfectly. The site is in the middle of nowhere in south-central Pennsylvania. I arrived in the late afternoon and booked a tour of the house. Wright built it into the surrounding landscape, even using the river an architectural touch. The living room has stairs that lead down into the river. I would love to live in this house.
The home of the Steelers was my next stop, where I decided to spend the night after a good five hour drive. I figured I’d stay in Pittsburgh on Thursday night, watch the news in the evening, and head back to DC if the government opened up again. I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to, so it looked like I had at least the weekend. I stayed at the Omni Pittsburgh downtown. I got a good rate and loved the old-time decor of the lobby. I spent the night walking around Pittsburgh’s compact downtown, ending at the point of Three Rivers Park at sunset. I like Pittsburgh for its walkability, lack of pretension, and good food. I used Yelp to find Primanti Bros, where I loaded up on a good burger and a couple of beers.
The next morning, I did the long slog through Ohio all the way to Toledo, a great example of an American Rust Belt, post-industrial city. I took this picture below from across the river looking towards downtown. I stopped downtown and walked around for a little bit. It was Friday afternoon, but the city felt deserted. In fact, there was one skyscraper, the Fiberglas Tower, that was completely abandoned and boarded up–right in the middle of downtown. I gathered that Toledo was Detroit at a smaller scale.
I got to Detroit right as the sun was setting–I didn’t want to arrive in the darkness and end up getting mugged or something as I fumbled for my suitcase in the parking lot. I stayed at the Doubletree downtown. For a Friday night, there was little activity on the streets. The next morning I woke up early to a beautiful day perfect for sightseeing. I started out by parking my car on Woodward Avenue and getting breakfast at The Hudson Cafe. Might have been the best breakfast I had the last couple of years. Portions were large and very tasty, and the coffee was great.
After filling up on some pancakes, I walked around the downtown core of Detroit and snapped a bunch of photos of really cool old Art Deco buildings and such. Most of the buildings were abandoned.
Nearby, Grand Circus Park showed me a great example of good urban design. Comerica Park is located nearby. The ballpark was pretty nice looking but I imagine most of the fans coming to the games live outside of the city.
I then went into some of the lobbies of the old buildings downtown, because I’m interested in old architecture, especially Art Deco. I was blown away by how awesome some of the interiors were. The Guardian Building was especially cool.
I then drove over to the The Renaissance Center, or GM building, right on the edge of the Detroit River. This tower, or set of towers, is one of Detroit’s most recognizable landmarks and also figures prominently in the movies RoboCop and Beverly Hills Cop. I didn’t know that the designers and city planners built this structure in an effort to revitalize the downtown area and bring business back from the suburbs. I guess that didn’t really work out. Walking around the inside of the building, I was reminded of another building in Los Angeles that I had walked around in on a previous trip, the Westin Bonaventure. Sure enough, both buildings were designed by the same architect, John Portman. Note: In my estimation, the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles has to be one of the most confusing buildings to navigate due to its system of ramps and spiral walkways–it took me 5 minutes to figure out how to exit the hotel. The GM Center was not as confusing but I found it to be an uninviting and kind of depressing concrete cathedral that I felt the urge to get out of.
The next part of the city I went to go see was the New Center area, site of the Fisher Building. The lobby inside was also really impressive. I’ll just put pictures of it below rather than try to describe it:
Michigan Central Station
I also drove over to the Michigan Central Station. If one were to choose the best physical example of Detroit’s fall from grace, this would be it. I was accosted by a homeless dude who jumped out from the overgrown grass and startled me with an offer to give me a tour. I politely declined and continued to take pictures.
I also drove around some other shady and half-abandoned areas of the city, hoping that my 10 year old car wouldn’t break down and leave my stranded to fend for myself in a post-industrial ruin. I have read that it takes about 30 minutes sometimes for the police to arrive on scene, so I didn’t stay for too long.
Midtown and Detroit Institute of Arts
Let me back up a bit–I actually spent Friday night at the Detroit Institute of Art, the city’s landmark art museum built in 1927. DIA has been in the news a lot in the past couple of years as the city of Detroit considers selling some the museum’s art to help pay off the city’s bond holders. I hope that doesn’t happen; the museum is a public good and should not be sold off to private collectors. Some of the highlights were the Greek and Roman collection and some Van Gogh’s that I had never seen before. The Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera, in the center part of the museum, are also must sees.
For a coffee break, I went to Great Lakes Coffee, a really cool cafe/bar with a beautiful wooden interior. I hung back there for a while and read a magazine.
I heard that The Henry Ford Museum was excellent, so I decided to make the drive out to Deaborn to see the museum for myself. I was surprised how big this place is. If you’re into cars at all, this should be added to your places-to-see-before-you-die list immediately. I’m interested in transportation in general, so this museum held my interest the entire time. I think this museum is one of the best transportation museums in the world, if not the best.
I woke up early, ready to embark on my 10 hour drive home. On the way back, I stopped by Kent State University to see if there was a memorial or anything for the students killed there in 1970. I asked a couple of students where I could find it, but they seemed a little confused and pointed me in directions that ultimately led nowhere. I might be wrong, but I didn’t see a memorial. Perhaps the university would rather forget.
I also stopped in Akron, OH, to see what the place was all about. Once again, I found a deserted city. Yes, it was Sunday early afternoon, but there were like 10 people to be seen in the entire downtown area. Akron had a nice little main street and walkable downtown but apparently people still stay away from the city center.
All in all, a memorable trip. I don’t often do road trips longer than 5 hours, so the drive was a little challenging by myself. I am glad I took the time to go see Detroit, one of America’s great cities, even though it has fallen on hard times in the past half century or so. I think Detroit has a better future than its recent past, however. As long as the city shrinks to a manageable geographic area and does enough to attract businesses downtown, I think it will do well. I also saw a lot of the Rust Belt on this trip. Yes, it was depressing to see all the abandoned factories and downtowns, but I think those areas are just placeholders for the positive change that will eventually come.
Recap of Hotels, Restaurants, Cafes
Pittsburgh: Dinner: Primanti Bros: Great burgers and subs right downtown Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Hotel: Omni Pittsburgh downtown: Beautiful old hotel with a nice lobby from 100 years ago
Detroit, Hotel: Doubletree OK place right downtown; not much going on nearby and it felt a little unsafe walking around.
Detroit, Breakfast: Hudson Cafe: Great breakfast/brunch place in downtown Detroit that serves huge portions of good food
Detroit, Coffee: Great Lakes Coffee: Happening coffee shop in Midtown near DIA, beautiful wooden interior and people watching
Detroit, Dinner: Slows to Go: good BBQ in Midtown
Toledo, Coffee: Bleak House Coffee: cool little indie-coffee shop in an old shopping arcade that serves drip coffee