Cross Country Adventure 2017

Four days in Detroit

On Friday we pulled out of Hilton Head Island, eager to start our family summer vacation/road/work trip. First stop, Joe’s hometown of Detroit. We didn’t know if we would drive through the night or make a stop somewhere in West Virginia – which is the beauty of this time together. Nowhere to go, no plans set in stone.

As we drove into Detroit on Saturday morning, I found a few Airbnb’s since the one we were viewing (but didn’t commit to) on Friday night had been snatched up. That one was in Palmer Park, an area of Detroit that has seen the renaissance many of you have heard about. Longtime Detroiters, yuppies, investors, families and the like have made a choice to invest around $25K – $100K into 5,6,7, bedroom homes (many divided into two or three apartments) and whose surrounding homes have been labeled as “sketchy” at best.

Since we didn’t get the Palmer Park apartment, we found this runner-up. Admittedly, we had a serious conversation about what we were entering into. I’ll just let this screenshot do the talking and let you, the reader, answer. Would you have said “yes?”

You see, for our family, this trip is all about the experience and saying “YES” out loud and emphatically to what we can embrace and learn from. Stepping outside of our usual comfort zone is to be expected and sure enough, we got it.

We pulled up to the rental, just a few minutes from bustling downtown Detroit and were immediately greeted by the children who lived on the block. The home next to the rental was very well-kept, however several of the homes following were burnt out and abandoned. We were greeted by the long-term renters who occupied the first floor of the 7 bedroom, 4 story home. They were a couple with five children, who had relocated to Detroit from Idaho, eager for a different experience. He worked from home (in the computer industry) and she was a stay at home mom. Super people with a pulse on the neighborhood.

We got settled in our 2nd floor, 3 bedroom apartment and proceeded to walk down to the park that was just a block away. The park was full of children of all ages with excellent equipment and a small splash pad. Gray loved the sidewalks to scoot around on his razor and talked to everyone.

In retrospect, Joe and I have differing opinions about the experience of staying here. Joe was totally comfortable, he understood what we were entering into and was fine with the environment, probably a product of growing up in Detroit suburbs and understanding the city. I, on the other hand, felt isolated by the double locks on three doors entering and exiting the house, the burnt out buildings around us, the overgrown weeds on the sidewalks, and the lack of any activity after dark. It seemed that everyone locked their doors at 8pm and called it a night, which begs the question of “why?” Joe’s answer: “Heather, you know why.” During the day, lots of activity (mowing lawns, neighbors visiting, sitting on the porch watching the world go by, people fixing up homes), during the night, stillness.

If I had to put a finger on my feeling, it would be fear, while Joe was steady… he felt the expectations were set and followed them. As he said,“the people that live there know best” and the double locks and clearing out the car each night was the request. Needless to say, by the second day we realized the gem of the location, space and experience and settled in and by day four realized that we enjoyed the space so much that would stay there again. My final thought on the home, new experiences lead to discovery within yourself and I am forever grateful for this one. This experience revealed a lot about me, to me.

As we explored the city on Sunday morning, we discovered the best of a revitalization movement happening in downtown Detroit. What an absolutely awesome city. First, if you haven’t been there in years (like us) you wouldn’t believe it. Money is pouring into downtown to the tune of boutique workout studios, locally owned coffee shops and condos/apartments. Renovation is EVERYWHERE, literally everywhere! As we walked the city, outside of a Nike store and a Starbucks, I found that many of the new shops were locally owned, start up institutions from YOUNG (read non-chain) entrepreneurs trying to make their mark. It was cool. And immaculately clean. Buildings had been torn down, making way for green space, community gardens and public/private partnership parks with private recreation, food and other community based elements on city property. I noticed “Bedrock Detroit” signs on many buildings for lease, and after some research, discovered that they were a investment group, leading the way (along with others) for revitalization of the city. Kudos to them.

We enjoyed walking almost the entire downtown, into Greektown, took the “Q” which had just opened up (terrible experience simply not worth reviewing), tried to eat at Dimestore (packed) and enjoyed a drive to Joe’s moms home in Roseville through historic Grosse Pointe and St. Claire Shores. Stunning homes along the waterfront juxtaposed the burnt out buildings on the waterfront in the warehouse/River district that we passed on the way there.

Monday brought sunshine so we headed to Belle Isle, which is a historic park on an Island on the river between the United States and Canada. We stayed at the playground all morning, and enjoyed hanging in the park with students from the Oakland International Academy, a charter school in the city. Gray was thrilled to interact with boys his own age. The girls enjoyed playing with the kiddos and I loved talking to 12 year olds (not an interaction I have often). Most wanted to be doctors, one wanted to be a baker and all were so kind – joyfully lifting Gray into the trees and feeding the babies candy  🙂 After the playground, we headed into the city for lunch at Joe’s favorite, American Coney Island. After some “Detroit Style Coney’s” we walked the city yet again and found a gold POD that was a portal across the world. You could step inside and talk to people in Iraq, Cuba, etc. Very cool. The city was bustling with energy and young people.


It was fascinating to drive around the city and see former palatial homes being restored, along with the pop up of community gardens – almost one on each block. I texted a mentor of mine about the amount of community gardens in Detroit and he answered that “it says a lot about economic disparity when you see land values return to an agricultural state.” A comment that made me think, and look differently at the land I was viewing.

Homes were blighted everywhere, at least one on each block, with neighbors taking back their street by burning down homes instead of allowing them operate as abandoned crack houses. But the gravity of poverty was pervasive, and often times extremely overwhelming. Homes ranging from a 4000 sq. foot house (remember, this was once where the middle to upper middle class lived) to 30,000 sq. foot apartment buildings were gutted, burned out, ravaged.

During our travels in the city, we took a wrong turn and ended up in an area that block after block for miles and miles was below abject poverty. It was horrific. My husband reminded me that there wasn’t a single chain grocery store in Detroit and in this 10 mile stretch, there was barely a corner store, found most frequently in inner-cities. I was shocked as Joe explained what I knew in my heart but had never witnessed like this – not even in South Central LA, “it’s expensive being poor.” How do the people living in these areas get milk, bread, or much less, produce? There was literally NO access to commodities for many, many, miles. There were no drug stores, no community centers, no police, no auto stores, no fast food, no liquor stores. Block after block, mile after mile on this main road, just boarded up old buildings, it was gut-wrenching to think children lived there.

I saw a woman walking with presumably her child, a little girl about eight, towing a hello kitty suitcase behind her and my thoughts immediately ran to “Do they have a home? What if all they have is in that suitcase? Why isn’t the child in school?” About an hour later, in a different part of town by Joe’s grandmother’s cemetery, we saw them again, still walking, and the little girl waved to me. That will stay with me. I’ll be praying for them tonight. For the little girl’s safety, education and security – for her to hold hope in her heart – and ask the same from you.

We also made our way to the old Packard Plant, named after the famous car of yesteryear, the elegant Packard. Blocks and blocks of bombed out buildings, some burned, some still standing, roofs caving in and total devastation. There’s a redevelopment effort going on for this area as well, and I’m looking forward to what it looks like in ten years.

I’m leaving Detroit with happiness in my heart. We were able to spend time with Joe’s mom, Lori, and her husband Tom and I cherished watching the kids connect with their grandparents. We also spent time at the cemetery introducing Graydon, Hale and Reed to their great-grandmother and grandfather. I’m also leaving Detroit with a renewed appreciation and understanding for economic disparity, revitalization, poverty, education, race relations AND a huge love for the city. My husbands hometown is cool – it’s making a comeback – and I can’t wait to visit in the coming years. Hope you enjoy the video. 

#HelloDetroit #VisitDetroit #Detroit




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