Get outta town—Detroit

I’m going to do a mini series this week with some info that goes beyond Calgary’s boundaries. While I love this city, and it’s a great place to live, a man just can’t live without a little travel (neither can a woman, I suppose, but I’m talking from my perspective here). But let’s be clear, Calgary is one hell of a great place to come home to.

Earlier this month, I was treated to a trip to Detroit for the North America International Auto Show by Ford. It seems that I was somehow found to be an “online influencer” and was lucky enough to be invited to join about 150 other bloggers from around the world for a whirlwind trip to one of the most important auto shows in North America. I still think they thought maybe I was this guy. If not, I feel pretty stupid for spitting tobacco and wearing a ball glove the whole trip.

Michigan Central Station

Detroit’s abandon Michigan Central Station. Image used courtesy of Flickr user Chris Luckhardt

Detroit has a certain…reputation. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone out west here talk about going to Detroit for a vacation. Maybe they pop down there for a weekend breather from Burlington, but certainly nobody I know has ever thought “hey, while I’m in the area, maybe I should see Detroit.”

I began to become a little more interested in the place after I heard that Calgary’s own Zak Pashak was moving there. I won’t get into the rationale of his move, though you can read more about it in this Globe piece if it interests you. I was intrigued by his move as, though I’ve never met him, I have read about him, from opening Broken City, to starting the incredibly successful Sled Island Festival, to his move to motor city.

What I have come to discover is that Detroit really is a place that, for all of its faults and ailments, is a city that hosts a great deal of innovation and entrepreneurship. This shouldn’t really be surprising, given that it was (and perhaps still is, if any one place could be) the world’s automotive capital. If a list were compiled of the most world-changing inventions, the automobile would certainly have to make the shortlist.

For example, did you realize that for percentage of employment concentrated in technology, Detroit is fourth in the United States? Given the technology that goes into automobiles, being so much more than just steel and upholstery anymore, it made a lot of sense once I thought about it. Because of the types of industries active in the area, booming sectors include alternative energy (Ford went to great lengths to communicate their commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency), life sciences, and all sorts of research and development.

In my very short trip to Detroit, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I would like, and you can bet that I will have Detroit on my list of places to visit in the future. The sights I did get to take in, though, were fascinating.

On the first night of our arrival, Ford brought us all together at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. This monster of a museum complex (which is actually located in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn) holds something like one and a half million items. In the small portion that I was able to take in, I saw such amazing historical items as John F. Kennedy’s limousine (yes, the one in which he was shot), the Rosa Parks bus, an extensive collection of beautiful furniture dating to the 1600s, not to mention a stunning collection of automobiles. Wending one’s way through this massive collection could easily fill an entire day, and I think you’d need a couple to make it through the rest of Greenfield Village.



Our next day was spent taking in a variety of activities, but one of the most fascinating was the stop that began the day at the Ford Rouge Factory Complex, an enormous factory complex also in Dearborn. The entire site is 1.6 km wide and 2.4 km long. This massive site is the source of Ford F-150s, and not only includes the necessary assembly line, but also its own smelter, electrical plant, glass making plant, and a deepwater port. Completed in 1928, over 100,000 workers put food on their tables through employment at this complex in the 1930s.

The world’s largest living roof at the Ford Rouge Factory Complex

The tour of the actual site is unfortunately limited, though I suppose they can’t really have a clumsy, aging, near-sighted Canadian running around a bloody ore processing plant, can they? However, we did get to wander a catwalk above part of the assembly line, watching as workers installed sunroofs, screwed unknown flotsam into cab interiors, and occasionally read a magazine while waiting for the next truck to float by on the line. The degree of automation was a little mind-numbing. You know the show “How It’s Made”? I’d love to see “How It’s Made” show how the hell they can actually design a whole plant that works so (apparently) smoothly.

Our lunch was a return to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village to dine at a little place called the Eagle Tavern. Originally a stagecoach stop in the early- to mid-1800s, this awesome joint featured foodstuffs from the era that it represents and served by appropriately garbed staff. This is your must-visit place for lunch while you’re visiting The Henry Ford.

Our evening was a visit to TechShop Detroit, a maker space that I imagine is quite similar to Calgary’s Protospace. It was a great opportunity to get our hands dirty, as well as visiting with my fellow invitees. It was here that I met a couple of gregarious Detroiters who quite fully expounded upon the big future that many expect for Detroit. Their passion for the city was quite apparent, and I think is probably representative of a good portion of the city’s denizens. We also heard of how Ford is making their SYNC AppLink platform available for others to use freely and upon which developers can create new applications. This announcement kind-of stuck in my craw, as it’s a suggestion I was going to make to them when I had the chance to bend someone’s ear. Stupid Ford, beating me to my own idea.

Our final day started with the Ford press conference where new commercial vehicles were announced and displayed, and where their new Atlas concept truck dropped down from the ceiling with grand theatrics and flair. Minutes later, we were actually at the North America International Auto Show. What a sight! So much automotive awesomeness all in one place. From the BMW i8 concept car, to a lovely batch of Bentleys, to the brand-new Corvette, to Ford’s huge display of all of their vehicles (one of which I bought just a couple of weeks ago). If you have the slightest bit of motor oil coursing through your veins, this absolutely is a must-attend show. I swear, when Acura rolled the sheet back on their NSX prototype, my heart nearly skipped a beat. I may have wept a little.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally on the very blue stage at the Ford NAIAS press conference

The car I ended up buying, in part ’cause I dig it, and in part ’cause the new Acura NSX, above right, isn’t on the market yet.

These are just a few of the sights to see in Detroit. It was once known as “the Paris of the West” for its architecture. This is an area which has tremendous history. While it continues to see tough times, I’m convinced that this city will reinvent itself. I suspect that many of those who call it home will ensure that it rises once again, shakes off its sketchy reputation, and thrives as a centre of innovation and creativity.

I don’t know that visiting Detroit is a “bucket list” kind of vacation, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of a visit. You will find tremendous history, a robust culture, and passionate and innovative people brimming with character.

Airfare, accommodations, and a truckload of good times were provided by Ford Motor Company. Toothpaste was provided by Westin Detroit Airport Hotel. Shenanigans were provided by a small crew who kept me up far too late on the Monday night. The opinions here are my own, bolstered a little bit by the opinions of the gregarious Detroiters.

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