Soul Searching

Detroit has plenty of American history to offer, from its Motor City status to producing stars like Aretha Franklin

$500 Getaway

February 04, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,Sun Reporter

I went to Detroit to find Aretha Franklin.

Not literally, of course, though that would have been divine -- I had a vision that during my weekend visit I would see her walking downtown, sporting a fur coat. I never did, but I came close.

When I landed in the Motor City in November, I was clutching Franklin's autobiography From These Roots, listening to "Oh Happy Day" and imagining Franklin in the city she strayed from but never left.

My plan for a quick $500 getaway was simple: Spend time with my aunt and cousins, and take in Detroit's cultural offerings -- those Franklin roots -- while not going over my budget.

Southwest Airlines -- with its $49 one-way Internet fares -- made it easy to afford a flight from Baltimore.

I saved a few dollars by using my aunt, Cathy, as a taxi service to and from the airport.

I also found a great deal on a hotel on priceline.com for $89 a night, although I had to explain to my cousin, Adrienne, who was turning 25, why I wasn't staying with her. She warned me to "be nice to Detroit" and ended up bunking with me at the historic Inn on Ferry Street.

By the time I paid for airfare and lodging, I had about $180 left to spend on my jaunt to Detroit.

There are guided tours of the city's cultural section that run May to September, but since my visit was out of season, I just made it up as I went along.

For many summers and every Christmas, my aunt and cousins visited with my family in Hopkins, S.C., bringing city stories that us country kids couldn't get enough of. Detroit seemed messy and busy and loud and a little dangerous, too.

Often, my aunt's tale of the city began with 1967 and the five days of riots that broke out after police raided an after-hours club.

"Black folks just got tired of police harassment," she said.

At the same time, whites were getting tired of the city and moving to the suburbs, where the auto industry jobs also went.

Today, those jobs are even more scarce. Detroit is still a car capital, as last month's North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Center demonstrated, but its position is wavering.

On the drive from the airport to downtown in my aunt's American car, we passed the famous Uniroyal Tire -- an eight-story monument that was originally a Ferris wheel at the 1965 World's Fair in New York.

In recent years, the tire had a $1 million facelift as part of an effort to revitalize Interstate 94, the main highway from the airport into the city. Facelift or not, it is at once tacky and touching, a totem to a world that no longer exists.

The newer Detroit is made plain with the swanky Gateway Bridge, a hulking royal blue accessory to an otherwise-bland stretch of highway just outside the city in Taylor. Rising nearly 85 feet above the roadway, the two steel archways were installed just before last year's Super Bowl.

They look like Alexander Calder's take on a creeping spider -- not large enough to make you wonder about the physics, but not small enough to fade easily from view.

"It looks like an erector set and I think it's much ado about nothing," my aunt said. She's no romantic when it comes to Detroit.

Revitalization

Over the past 15 years, I had been to the city three times. The first time was a road trip with my father where I spent five days hanging out in the city's far East side with my cousins. We ordered pizza, went shopping and watched the teen flick Can't Buy Me Love as many times as the day would allow.

On recent trips, I hit Greektown -- an area of restaurants, clubs and casinos about two blocks long -- with friends during one visit and stayed at The Atheneum, a hotel as fancy as its name, for a job conference during another.

In the years since my first visit, the city has seen something of a renaissance, like many urban areas. Along the Detroit River, a pedestrian and bike promenade called RiverWalk is sprouting up and slated for completion in July.

The recently opened Inn on Ferry Street is part of the revitalization of Midtown -- a two-mile stretch near downtown -- around Wayne State University. The area also includes most of the major museums, among them the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the New Detroit Science Center.

Made up of four Victorian mansions and two carriage houses, the inn dates to the 1800s and sits just off Woodward Avenue, the city's main drag. We headed to the hotel to check in after scooping up some hamburgers at McDonald's.

Standing in the reception area at the main mansion, I took in the roaring fire in the fireplace, stately grandfather clock and detailed wood molding and felt like I had stepped into one of those classic black-and-white movies where Bette Davis drifts down a winding staircase with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

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