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Kid-Friendly Zones: Detroit, Michigan

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Detroit touts itself as the home of cars, culture, gaming, music and sports and it’s all there in a city with a storied past and an eye to the future.  Set aside the mainstream media’s dire messaging around “The D” and embrace the many pleasures of this Midwestern landmark, most of them family-friendly.


Where to stay:  The Greektown Casino-Hotel may cater to high rollers but it works surprisingly well for families for two reasons:  the property is located in the walkable, fun-filled Greektown neighborhood, and the casino is housed in a separate building.  The 400-room hotel is a blue-glass tower whose sleek profile can be seen for miles around.  Inside, accommodations are spacious and families would be wise to choose a luxury suite on a high floor.  “Mom, there’s nothing like waking up in Detroit 25 floors up!” exclaimed our ten-year-old son one morning, and he’s right.  The two-room suite is done in shades of brown and chartreuse and furnishings speak to modern elegance.  A soft couch doubles as a sofabed in a living room crowned with a 54-inch plasma TV while a powder room close by leads to a master bedroom whose focal point is a king-sized bed enveloped in snowy, high-thread-count sheets.  Floor-to-ceiling windows on three (yes, three) sides confer a dazzling view of the city’s many high-rise gems, the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario beyond and to say that the twinkling panorama is magical at night is something of an understatement.  Moms, take in the view from a Jacuzzi tub and if you ask hubs to deliver a robe, you’ll be queen of The D.  The breakfast buffet is another winner along with free wifi and complimentary valet parking.  555 E. Lafayette Avenue  (888) 771-4386; greektowncasino.com  King or Queen/Queen rooms from $99; luxury suites from $399.  Package rates and special offers available.  

At the Courtyard by Marriott, you’re across the street from GM’s Renaissance Center (Ren Cen), seven sky-high glass towers that are a city within a city and capture the imagination of kids straightaway.  More inducements include rooms with a view of both downtown and the river, and a pool area featuring two fitness rooms and his ‘n her locker rooms equipped with sauna and steam.  A King with sofabed sleeps four comfortably and Detroit’s highly-efficient People Mover light rail system whooshes through the building and can take you to over a dozen points in the city center.  333 E. Jefferson Avenue  (313) 222-7700; detroitdowntowncourtyard.com  King with sofabed from $179.  Package rates and Internet specials available.


The Motor CityThe Henry Ford Museum is a meandering facility that speaks volumes to the varied interests of this automotive pioneer.  Consider your visit an ode to American ingenuity and industrialization.  An Oscar Meyer Weinermobile graces the entrance and yes, you will have to explain it to your kids.  Farm equipment (manufactured by Ford) and gigantic industrial machinery (Ford, natch) takes up plentiful floor space while a more compact display is Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, a Jetsons-style home-in-the-round that Fuller hoped to mass produce but never quite got off the ground.  The train room is a hit with kids and the collection of presidential limousines (including the one in which JFK was shot) provides a teachable moment, as does the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.  A tour of the nearby Ford Rouge factory is included with admission and the museum’s iconic “Driving America” exhibit will be retooled for 2012.  thehenryford.org 

Soaring skyward is the GM Renaissance Center, a series of glass towers whose focal point is a circular, 73-story central tower that houses the Detroit Marriott along with a collection of shops, restaurants and a movie theatre. It was Henry Ford II who started the project in 1977 in the hopes of bringing life back to downtown Detroit; architect John Portman created a design comprising 5.5 million square feet.  Ford sold the Ren Cen to GM in 1996, which is why the twenty or so shiny vehicles in a ground-floor showroom bear the Chevy, Buick, GMC or Cadillac emblem.  You’ll learn all this and much more on a guided public tour of the Ren Cen, during which you’ll visit the Wintergarden, a five-story atrium lined with stores and cafes, and take an elevator to Coach Insignia, a restaurant on floor 72 with unbeatable views.  Back at ground level, admire “Borealis,” a hulking piece of glass that’s a metaphor for the muscular auto industry.  gmrencen.com  At the rear of the Ren Cen is RiverWalk, a miles-long walking-biking corridor that hugs the Detroit River. 

Its nexus is Hart Plaza, where you’ll find monuments to labor and the Underground Railroad and statues of Detroit luminaries.  Most impressive is “Fist of a Champion,” a jab of iron that honors prizefighter and adopted son Joe Louis.  A block up on Woodward Avenue is another much-loved sculpture, “Spirit of Detroit,” wherein a bronze figure holds gilded totems.  Access these and other local landmarks via the city’s efficient People Mover, a light-rail system sporting clean cars that zip by one of thirteen  stations every five minutes.  Trains start early and stop late and the 75-cent fare is sweet.  thepeoplemover.com


A Beautiful World:  The Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) is widely considered one of the top five fine arts museums in the U.S.  That’s what old money (Ford) and new money (Gilbert, Penske, Ilitch, Karmanos) will do for a city.  While the museum’s collections are world class, it’s the interactivity of the facility that resonates with kids.  A Native American Art gallery is filled with eye-popping ornamentation yet our son is mesmerized by a three-minute video that shows how pottery is made.  Similarly, an Islamic gallery is full of gorgeous tile work and gilded artifacts, however, a gaggle of kids are clustered around a hands-on exhibit that invites them to “create” their own magic carpet out of sculpted wooden pieces.  No matter, everyone gets what they need and that carries over to the African and American galleries and “Detroit Revealed,” a photography exhibit that accesses the beauty amid post-industrial decay (note the juxtaposition of urban installations – what to do with a hundred old TVs? – against the tidy gardens of a striving Mexicantown).  The DIA’s crowning achievement is a series of frescoes by renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera that form a central court.  Edsel Ford commissioned the Marxist artist to create an homage to workers and these strange bedfellows were able to live with the result (unlike Nelson Rockefeller, who whitewashed Rivera murals in New York City around the same time).  Docents are on hand to explain the murals’ many details or you can pick up a complimentary iPad for the same purpose.  Plan on the better part of a day to visit all three floors.  dia.org 

Children will make a visceral connection with The Heidelberg Project, the oeuvre of artist Tyree Guyton.  Spread over several blocks in one of Detroit’s grittier neighborhoods, the project is an installation borne of grief and decay.  Complaining of the blight in his midst, Guyton was prodded by his grandfather to pick up a brush and start painting crumbling houses.  Morphing into works of art, one house has been plumped with polka dots while another is dotted with numbers to help kids count.  The message has more meaning as you walk down Heidelberg Street, where the imprimatur “OJ,” for “obstruction of justice,” speaks to the injustices perpetrated against black men, while the many sneakers hanging from a tree speak to the lifting of soles/souls and clocks tacked on everywhere are a meditation on time.  Guyton has persevered at his project for 25 years and invited collaboration from other artists along the way.  Thankfully, his spirit is intact and nowhere more playful than at the Party House, a structure plastered with stuffed animals.  heidelberg.org 

When it comes to architecture in The D, the downtown district is the enchantress.  A self-guided walking tour should include the Penobscot Building (penobscotbuilding.com) and its many decorative friezes and carvings as well as the Guardian Building (guardianbuilding.com), an Art Deco marvel whose exterior domes are lined with colorful Pewabic Pottery.  Stories-high interior murals form the backdrop for the Guardian’s lobby-level cafe and, steps away, Pure Detroit offers Detroit-made products such as Vernor’s sodas, McClure’s pickles and t-shirts celebrating “the 313,” aka Detroit’s area code.  puredetroit.com




The Motown Sound:  The Motown Museum is located in three tidy houses that were part of the eight original structures where an upbeat, downtown sound was born in 1959.  Motown founder Berry Gordy’s late sister, Esther, is responsible for a walk down memory lane that includes Studio A, the recording studio where hit-makers from the Supremes to Stevie Wonder made music.   A toe-tapping, finger-snapping 16-minute film starts things off and the hour-long guided tour that follows takes you from Berry’s early days as a songwriter (his neighbors down the street included Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross) to budding entrepreneur (his family were his bankers and they drove a hard bargain) and music industry impresario.  Motown artists including Marvin Gaye are amply chronicled and the echo chamber used to enhance recordings pops out of a ceiling.  Ending the tour at Studio A, a garage studio that’s characteristically cramped, is an “if these walls could talk” moment.  Be prepared to answer questions from kids who may not be down with the Motown sound.  motownmuseum.com


This is Hockeytown:  One would expect a city across a river from Canada to be a hockey town and, lest anyone forget, the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL dubbed their city “Hockeytown” in 1996.  Since the team possesses more Stanley Cups (11) than any other professional hockey club in the U.S., the name fits.  The Red Wings play at Joe Louis Arena, a “barn” that seats over 20,000 and where “Cheli’s Chili,” the whim of former Wings defenseman Chris Chelios, keeps locals warm.  Since Michigan is really a hockey state, a full slate of collegiate and pro games can be seen at the Joe from September to June.  olympiaentertainment.com  At the other end of the spectrum is baseball, low on thrills but high on simple pleasures like peanuts and a well-turned double play.  The Detroit Tigers play at Comerica Park, one of Major League Baseball’s newer parks and where the sight lines are splendid.  Batter up from April-September and the team’s no slouch, boasting four World Series championships.  http://detroit.tigers.mlb.com/det/ballpark/index.jsp


Where to eat:  Leave it to Detroit to nickname its hot dog a “Coney Island.”  Don’t bother with the back story and head over to the city’s dueling hot dog emporiums, Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, located next door to each other.  The gig’s the same at both places:  a modest dog slathered with chili, onions and mustard.  While the Lafayette dog is hearty if a bit chewy, the American dog is full of flavor and easy on the gums.  Ask patrons of each and you’re likely to get an impassioned plea in support of their favorite.  Lafayette Coney Island, 118 W. Lafayette Blvd., (313) 964-8198.  American Coney Island, 115 Michigan Avenue, (313) 961-7758; americanconeyisland.com  At Slows Bar-B-Q in the Corktown neighborhood, smother your heaping plate of ‘cue with one of five distinct sauces or opt for a pulled pork sandwich topped with cole slaw and dill pickle strips.  If the line to get in is too long, head over to Slows To Go and take your feast back to your room.  2138 Michigan Avenue  (313) 962-9828; slowsbarbq.com 

Greektown is alive with the sounds and scents of the old country and the food doesn’t get any better than at Pegasus Taverna, where the signature lamb chops are perfectly seasoned and you’ll be picking the bones with your kids.  A meal here begins with Saganaki “Opa!” a flaming pan of Greek Kasseri cheese.  The Village Salad is a medley of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, bell pepper, olives and feta, and rice pudding the perfect ending.  Faux arbors and twinkling lights overhead don’t do much to tamp the noise but, hey, it’s Greektown.  Opa!  558 Monroe Street  (313) 964-6800; pegasustavernas.com  Across the street is the Astoria Pastry Shop, the kind of place you’d kill to have back home.  Butter is better at Astoria, which is why everything from the cream cheese danish to the blueberry-rum bread pudding is a delight.  Beet red walls, a charming tin ceiling and long banquette form the perfect backdrop for morning eats or late-night treats including a sublime cannoli and thick-as-a-brick eclair.  541 Monroe Street  (313) 963-9603; astoriapastryshop.com  Roast, Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Detroit showplace, is tucked into a corner of the Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel.  It’s the place to be during happy hour, when bar bites are served and the restaurant’s signature burgers are also on tap.  The Rock City Burger, topped with caramelized onions and bleu cheese, is a revelation, even if it does play second fiddle to the Roast Burger, awash in bacon and cheddar and topped with a fried egg.  1128 Washington Boulevard  (313) 961-2500; roastdetroit.com 

As if you needed another reason to visit the DIA, consider Good Girls Go To Paris, a creperie across the street from the museum that cements Detroit’s status as a foodie destination.  Every crepe is painstakingly created and possessed of a cute name:  the Annette, plump with Nova lox, brie, tomatoes, spinach and Herbes de Provence, comes to me while husband Fen gets the Wendy, a confection of Bleu cheese, cherries, walnut, spinach and raspberry vinaigrette.  Son Steven settles on the Ksenia since it’s stuffed with two of his favorite foods, ham and goat cheese.  “My favorite crepe is my own,” asserts Steven after sampling all three and we each feel similarly.  The Good Girl, a dessert crepe made with bananas and Nutella, seals the deal and we know we’ll be back to The D – to eat.  15 East Kirby  (877) PARIS-CREPES; goodgirlsgotopariscrepes.com


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and ten-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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