Pulling up to Detroit’s famous Second Baptist Church, I vaguely expected an old-fashioned steeple and creaky wooden sanctuary. Michigan’s oldest black church had been established in 1836, after all. I wanted to read its plaque, which boasted that the church was founded by 13 former slaves (though left unsaid that it was for years a last stop on the Underground Railroad).
What I found looked more like a boxy brick school than an old-fashioned house of worship — understandably, since it long ago expanded into a community institution. What surprised me more were the showplaces flashing all around, especially the impossibly tall, relentlessly glassy Greektown Casino lording over the street. Clearly, things around this city had been shifting.
For some 200 years now, Detroit has been a beacon to African-Americans. In the 19th century, the city’s location within three miles of free Canada drew former slaves; in the 20th, a fresh start in the new Motor City built population. Visiting today offers a chance to appreciate that history’s span — while surveying both how the city is changing and how the pride of place that its black community occupies is expanding.
A sign of the times came at my first meal in town, at Detroit Vegan Soul. Two men in Wayne County Sheriff’s uniforms, and another in a traffic director’s orange vest, stood out in a diverse, all-life’s-stations dining crowd. Kirsten Ussery and her partner Erika Boyd established the East Side restaurant in 2012 after testing its meatless yet comforting dishes on meal-delivery and catering samplers. “We grew up on soul food,” Ussery told me, “but now we’re breaking the cycle of disease.”
They’ve broken out to the point of opening another location soon on Detroit’s Northwest Side. In the meantime, local customers are still learning what veganism all about. Grabbing a seat at the counter, I tucked into crispy tofu, battered catfish-style in cornmeal, along with classic collard greens. The girl next to me carried on by phone her entire lunch as if her conversational partner were next to her. Using video chat, she even filmed the mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy and tofu on her plate.
“What’s tofu?” her friend asked.
“Google it,” she answered.
Energized rather than sluggish after this lunch (skipping even the vegan cupcakes), I picked up my music-loving friend Amber at the airport and headed to the Motown Museum, which looked like a plain old house except for the wide “Hitsville USA” sign out front. Extra pep would be needed, we quickly realized. “There’ll be some singing and a whole lot of dancing on this tour!” our guide, Cecilia Shropshire, called out.
Our fellow Motown pilgrims came from states and countries from Texas to France. We were soon snapping our fingers together and chorusing out the Temptations songs as Shropshire took us through the history of how ex-boxer Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his parents and siblings to buy this house. He fashioned it into a studio and lived above it with his wife and children.
Gordy established a record label and dreamed of making it a hitmaking assembly line, with a Detroit kid walking into one door unknown and walking out the other a star. We saw vintage photos of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and the Supremes, who’d all burst out of there shining.
The Motown Museum is set to change and grow, too. A hyper-interactive, 50,000-square-foot, $50 million expansion is planned. Although not all that funding has been raised yet, Ford and UAW Ford have already pledged $6 million. Renderings show a glassy theater standing behind the museum’s currently humble housefront.
Even locals are experiencing parts of Detroit history like this anew. “I’ve been right here 30 years, and this is my first time here,” said a man whose business card announced him as musician Chilly Will. He brought his 92-year-old mother, Hattie, along. She and I both delighted in the throwbacks of Gordy’s ‘60s-era family apartment, like the smiley-faced Kool-Aid pitcher.
Swanky supper club
Later on, we flashed back to an earlier era at Cliff Bell’s. The impossibly swanky club had been restored to an Art Deco glow, candlelight reflecting from the curved wood ceiling. Amber and I were shown to a clamshell banquette near the stage, and who should be in the next one but Chilly Will? He’d left Hattie in for the evening but brought his queen, Cynthia. To see us all catch up, you’d have thought we were childhood friends.
Cynthia radiated glamour in her fur collar; I wished I’d worn a sequined dress but settled for a dirty martini. Its salty brine offset the sweetness of flatbread piled high with short-rib meat and a blueberry reduction, an elevated take on a soul-food classic. Sax from the Marcus Elliot Quartet completed our transport back to the Jazz Age.
Detroit’s black history is, of course, far from all song. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History lent sobering perspective on its sweep the next day. Its permanent exhibit began with life in typical African villages, then depicted the Middle Passage that led to slavery. The at-scale model of a slave ship below decks was especially powerful, since it was clear that even at the life-size shown here, the suffocating conditions would barely have been enough to sustain human life.
The expansive exhibit went through the Civil War and past to a model of Paradise Valley, Detroit’s iconic black neighborhood last century. While I was taking in its theaters and barbershops, the lights went out. The power failure was caused by high winds but felt oddly fitting — much of the neighborhood had been razed around the time the NFL’s Ford Field was built. Just enough light came through at the end of the permanent exhibit to make out proud notes on President Barack Obama and Detroit native Ben Carson, now U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Emerging, I wanted more depth. Nearby Midtown is suffused with high-end shops now. Its Source Booksellers turned out to be a great place to dig into various aspects of local and American history. The mother-daughter owners, Janet and Alyson Jones, welcomed me.
“You’re a newbie?” Janet exclaimed. “Oh, we’re so glad you’re here!” Their all-nonfiction store, warmed up with scarlet walls, soft piano, and an Oriental rug on the concrete floor, offered books on everyone from Mavis Staples to Emmett Till to Henry Ford and his “century of progress.”
Farther from downtown, that evening we ventured a few miles northwest to Livernois Avenue. The “Avenue of Fashion” there has been revitalizing with the help of notables like NFL cornerback Ron Bartell, a former Detroit Lion. Bartell opened family-style Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles there in 2015. Amber sipped from an oversized Mason jar layered with different colors of Kool-Aid while I glugged a beer from Motor City Brewing Works, and we both marveled at one of the fluffiest waffles of our lives.
Up the street was our final stop: Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the world’s self-proclaimed oldest jazz club. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of that claim — surely there was a wink in there, since keyboards couldn’t have been around at its founding in...was it 1934? One Lemon Drop martini and several rich, expressive songs by Sky Covington later, I — like the table of 10 businessmen loosening their collars nearby — let go of the fact-pursuit and the note-taking and gave in to Detroit’s still-irresistible soul.
Story topics: Travel