D:hive, a downtown welcome center assisting visitors and residents in finding what they’re looking for in Detroit, offers walking tours a couple times a week now through their new Detroit Experience Factory venture. I’d been meaning to go on one for years, so with a sunny day off and the sudden remembrance that these tours exist, off I went. Our guide this Saturday was Shawn, a funny, hyperbolic guy who noted that he was “in the zone” today as we set off, underscoring that with the claim that if he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he is happy to lie so well that you’ll never know it was a lie. It was oddly reassuring. Among other skills, it became clear that Shawn was very adept at walking backwards, seemingly necessary for pedestrian tour guides.
We hardly spoke during the tour, save to ask an occasional question, mostly letting Shawn soak our brains in trivia. There was a group of three German tourists, a pair of guys who didn’t say much but smiled often, a man and a woman who seemed to have come by themselves, and me. The loners turned out to be really great, a PhD candidate from London doing field work on the prevalence of guided tours for her dissertation on the revitalization and rebranding of downtown and Midtown, and a cool Midtown resident who drives for Uber and is studying up to become a tour guide himself. Shawn said that size of group was normal for a Saturday tour, though sometimes as many as 25 or so will attend.
We made it 353 feet down Woodward before Dan Gilbert’s name came up. Wondering how that narrative was going to play out, I was relieved when our guide mentioned that “though the long-term consequence of Dan Gilbert is debatable, in the meantime we welcome him,” offering out-of-towners a balanced view without the excessive cheerleading I’d suspect a place like d:hive of fostering. We spent a lot of time standing at pedestrian crossings, stillness being the only way to get enough earshot to convey information.
In Campus Martius, we sat for a while on benches, learning about its blacktop-infused demise and reinstatement as a public park in 2001, when it received a 20 million dollar overhaul for Detroit’s 300th birthday. As workers excavated the park, they stumbled upon Detroit’s official point of origin buried under the asphalt, which today was again half-covered by a sandwich board advertising the Fountain Bistro’s menu. I couldn’t help but admire how snazzy downtown’s parks were looking. Campus Martius, with its simulated beach and lavish fountains, almost (but never really) made up for the lack of adequate parks elsewhere in the city.
Shawn was darting effortlessly between past and present histories, gesticulating at things with a small segment of plastic straw he was carrying. I’d forgotten how much of history is shaped by military forces and felt a twinge of disappointment, though all battle lore was tempered with good humor, like poking fun Augustus Woodward’s thing for Roman culture.
Outside the Yamasaki building at one Woodward, where we stopped to do some distance-looking in the direction of the Spirit of Detroit sculpture across the street, Shawn informed us that we were next to another Dan Gilbert property — “You can tell by the piped-in music and the eyes in the sky!” The Renaissance Center sat blinking dumbly from the comfort of its own zip code, apparently the tallest building between New York and Chicago. Nearby, “the fist,” Shawn sighed, “is misunderstood.” I’m still nonplussed by it, but doubt that ongoing misunderstanding is attributable to Shawn.
At some point I noticed that one woman was periodically jotting things in a nice green notebook. “Good idea,” I said to her in the quiet of the Guardian building, which Shawn told us is due to noise-cancelling horsehair behind the sneaky painted canvas. Instead I took notes on my phone, which resulted in minimally coherent jibberish like “snuggles across point of origin” and “puppies in music” and “40 years of disinfectant.” Everybody else kind of looked at me like, ‘why is she constantly texting and not even looking at the pretty buildings what a waste,’ or however German idiom would shape that notion.
Who knew that the Guardian building, with its individually-dyed bricks and marble from a defunct mine in Africa that was specially re-opened for the project, was completed in just seven months? “There’s a McDonald’s in my neighborhood that’s taken almost a year to build,” Shawn added glibly for perspective. As we crossed Michigan, Shawn indicated with his plastic straw some brightly colored chairs on the sidewalk. “More of that placemaking stuff.”
By the time we got around to Capitol Park, the Germans had reverted to German and were talking about Chicago. There was a lovely diversity of pigeons that, like all signs of nature, went unmentioned. As we walked up Griswold, Shawn said, “That one’s a Dan Gilbert acquisition” about a million times, evidently the current heaviest layer of history on many of these old buildings. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be more and that he should probably take a break and have some water, he said, “Also coming up here on the left is another one.”
Crossing Woodward to veer into Grand Circus Park, almost unrecognizable with its new furniture, I was the only participant who stopped to take a picture of the smushed pigeon in the crosswalk. “Euuuu,” said the Germans, sidestepping. About an hour and a half into the tour, loitering at the corner of Witherell and Woodward, we were discovered by another sandaled participant. “I’m a travel writer,” he said, delightedly squinting at us. “Who does these tours?” He was in town for the day writing about the M-1 rail project for a New Jersey publication targeted toward transit professionals. I hope that learning that the building housing Cheli’s Chili was once a women-only goods exchange, hosting a sort of black market, can aid in his report.
“The upside of forty years of disinvestment is having one of the largest collections of pre-Depression buildings in the country,” Shawn told us as we passed the Kahn-designed Detroit Athletic Club. “Where other cities bulldozed them and got their glass towers, ours got left alone and the modern stuff got built in the suburbs.” We jaywalked — not recommended by Shawn — across John R to get a better view of one of his favorite abandoned buildings, the interior of which had been deemed worthless after a lifetime of jeweller’s harsh chemicals, until just this week when its sale was announced.
“I hope you’ve learned something new,” Shawn concluded sweetly as we lingered over a curb cut on Woodward at the end of our little 1.6 mile loop, “and if nothing else hopefully you’ve seen that the rumors of our demise are exaggerated.” All in all, with Shawn’s help I picked up a lot of downtown trivia that, as a Detroiter who cares about anything, I probably ought to know.
It was a slow but entertaining tour. Its limited scope was kind of advantageous, giving visitors ideas for further explorations, like the riverfront that we talked about but, not crossing Jefferson, missed. Detroit Experience Factory holds that tour on Mondays, so why not build a little suspense?
The low price of foot soreness from extended loafing was negligible next to the benefit of this free tour. Thanks, Shawn! In keeping with my belief in holding onto a touristic curiosity and not taking things for granted, I’d like to do the tour again in winter and see how the focus changes.
Do you facilitate a walking tour in Detroit? Have any tour recommendations I should check out? Is there one for pre-1700 geography and geology? Please comment and let me know!