The narrative about Detroit, told over and over again through various media, is one of collapse and recovery.
The Element at Metropolitan, a Marriott-owned hotel built into an abandoned historic downtown tower, seems like an unsubtle metaphor for that tale often told.
Its neo-Gothic namesake, the Metropolitan Building, was built in 1925 and famously housed jewelers and goldsmiths for several decades at the peak of Detroit’s mid-century economic boom. But the pie-shaped building, wedged almost directly in the heart of downtown, closed in 1979 and quickly fell into decay under city ownership. The entire building was set for demolition in 2013, but instead, and thankfully, as part of the city’s shot at redemption, it became the Element, which opened earlier this year and is our latest selection in our series on exciting new hotels, The New Room with a View.
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The actual rooms are spacious, if a bit dorm-like in their sparse decor and standardized extended-stay kitchenettes. But above a certain floor, the cityscape views are unbeatable. And the sheer history and centrality of the hotel makes it an affordable and accessible option in the middle of an urban restoration.
Capping off the Element’s symbolism for a reinvigorated Detroit is The Monarch Club, a trendy club atop the hotel’s 14 stories. The mahogany, marble, and leather-bound interior cocktail bar is surrounded by three outdoor terraces with plenty of patio tables and fire pits. Those features are enough to make the bar a hip and relaxed rooftop hangout. But it’s the northernmost terrace’s breathtaking views, overlooking the city’s entertainment district and massive stadium complexes—including Comerica Park, the gorgeous retro-classic home of the Detroit Tigers—that alone is worth braving the weekend crowd.
The bar’s hosts work tirelessly to preserve the classy-but-casual vibe, maintaining a clockwork-like efficiency on ferrying reservations up the elevator and into the elegant rooftop space. At one point during my visit, a self-described “Instagram star” burst into the room, demanding to be let in with an entourage despite no reservation. Although this sleekly manicured spot seems tailor-made for snapshot-and-go influencer culture, the staff would have none of it.
The downtown area surrounding the Element seems to echo this dichotomy between the city’s burgeoning trendiness and its laid-back, no-frills traditional communities. Just a short walk from the hotel are the century-old Lafayette and American Coney Islands, two of the greasiest spoons imaginable—competing directly next door to each other over who can serve a better iteration of the city’s signature hot dog topped with mustard, onions, and chili—juxtaposed with the surrounding area’s New American restaurants and speciality coffee shops.
Indeed, as a city working hard to discover its new, post-collapse identity, Detroit now features many of the hallmarks of other midwestern and southern cities that have undergone major transitions over the past decade: Corporate entertainment complexes and food halls popping up next to often-abandoned or decaying relics of a bygone era; shiny new outposts for digital-era brands like Warby Parker or WeWork; and, of course, a steady stream of pedicab pubs featuring tourists and bachelorette parties shouting along to thumping music as they pedal around with pints in-hand.
But unlike other rapidly gentrifying, post-recovery metropolises, Detroit’s planners have talked a great deal about a more “inclusive recovery,” one that incorporates—rather than replaces—the city’s historic close-knit communities and its awe-inspiring ethnic and religious diversity.
With the Element as a conveniently and centrally located hub in the heavily commercial downtown district, I set out to explore the slowly reinvigorated communities that have made Detroit such a unique rebuilding story.
Towering over the Detroit River waterfront, just south of the Element and facing the Canadian city of Windsor, are the famous GM headquarters. While plenty of tourists crane their necks to photograph the famous towers, the most inspiring attraction of the area is the early-aughts project known as the Riverwalk. Five-and-a-half miles of walkway along the water, with plenty of spots for fishing or simply laying out. The path also serves as an artery through a state park and several events concourses. Multiple lanes provide easy passage on foot, inline skating, or bikes. For this trip, and for all my travels around Detroit, I chose a bicycle—a popular choice, it seems, for this wide-open city, aided by a public bikeshare program called MoGo.
The crown jewel of a biking experience in Detroit is via the Dequindre Cut—a nearly two-mile, below-grade railroad path recently converted into a tranquil greenway with all the old overpass graffiti preserved—which intersects with the RiverWalk. The breezy cut runs through quiet, largely developing new neighborhoods and apartment complexes and brings you to the historic Eastern Market—a sprawling district of shops, restaurants, and one of the largest farmer’s and flowerbed markets in the country.
“Urban farming” has been a constant theme of Detroit’s environmentally conscious reboot, and Eastern Market seems to be the epicenter of it all. An entire day could be spent wandering the market’s five massive sheds—one of which includes a “Kid Rock Kitchen Commons,” perhaps a surreal marker of the we’re-all-in-this-togetherness of the city’s recovery—stuffed to the brim with fresh produce. On this particular weekend, a line begins to wrap around one of the sheds as eager visitors wait for homemade pierogies and the fixings.
Another long line nearby signifies the wait for patrons to sit outside at Bert’s Marketplace, a self-described “entertainment complex” featuring live blues and jazz accompanying rows of sizzling ribs and chicken laying on outdoor barbeques and smokers.
Two miles west of the market—a quick bike ride away—is the Cass Corridor, or Midtown, depending on who you ask. Nestled between abandoned homes or commercial structures are some of the city’s best dives (The Old Miami, Bronx Bar, etc.), an urban sculpture garden overlooking a highway, and new shopping centers featuring hipper outlets like hometown boy Jack White’s Third Man Records catering to the young, college-aged nearby Wayne State crowd.
But it’s just outside the city’s downtown corridors that you discover the immense diversity. In Hamtramck, an independent city within Detroit’s limits, visitors can find authentic cuisine from some of the more populous U.S. immigrant bases—Japanese and Indian—to the more obscure ones like Bosnian, Yemeni, Polish, and Bangladeshi (including a Detroit-style pizza joint serving pies using the southeast Asian country’s flavors). All of this sandwiched between newly burgeoning cocktail bars and vegan restaurants.
Similarly, in northwest Detroit, one can find pockets of Jamaican and African communities serving up local comforts; or in a portion of the city known as Mexicantown, one can easily load up on some of the best Mexican and Salvadorian food outside the southwestern U.S. and, within seconds, stumble upon trendy speakeasy-style bars.
But, of course, no Detroit experience would be complete without taking in what is perhaps its most uniting cultural force: professional sports. On this particular evening, I bought last-minute tickets to see the Detroit Tigers (currently in rebuild mode) play the fellow basement-dwelling Baltimore Orioles.
While watching two teams who lost 100+ games this season compete for several hours might seem pointless, it was actually quite moving—especially as a jaded New Yorker, well-acquainted to sold-out ballparks and perennially victorious teams—to view a crowd of just several thousand diehards root for a team in deep dire straits, even as the game went into extra innings and broke the four-hour mark. In the bottom of the 12th, however, with one out and bases loaded, middling first-baseman John Hicks launched a game-winning grand slam into the left-centerfield stands, sending the small crowd briefly into a frenzy.
I couldn’t help but wonder how magical it must’ve been to witness it from atop the hotel across the street.