I was born in Southfield, Michigan, just outside Detroit, but grew up 20 minutes from Kalamazoo, surrounded by woods. I left for college at 18 and didn’t plan on coming back to the Midwest. I lived in Senegal, Malawi, and South Africa, and up and down the East Coast, before moving to Detroit in 2013—right as the city was filing for municipal bankruptcy. I had just finished law school at Yale and was looking for where the most visionary thinking was happening about the future of cities. I thought I might land in Brooklyn or Oakland or Johannesburg, but in the end, I was right back in Michigan.
Something I noticed immediately was all the wisdom that Detroiters had accumulated. People figured out how to keep small businesses running in the midst of an economic downturn. Or how to keep their neighborhood together. When the grocery stores left, people taught themselves how to farm. They shared seeds and made sure they were creating a resilient local food system. They were even on the front lines of the fight for clean and accessible water, finding solutions that could ripple out to other cities.
Yet that wisdom was not being valued. Quite the opposite, people were being dispossessed and shut out of the city’s future. So it was very important to me that we figure out ways to not just help people stay in the city, but to develop processes to surface the wisdom of residents and share those ideas with other cities, too. After five years of listening and community building, we launched the Detroit Justice Center in 2018.
We now house Michigan’s first revolving bail fund; we’ve served more than 600 clients through our legal service practice; and through our economic equity practice, we’re supporting clients in creating community land trusts and worker cooperatives. We are also helping communities ask bigger, more profound questions. What is it going to take to build neighborhoods that work for everybody? What would it really mean to put out a welcome mat for people coming back from prison?
Detroit is one of the most narrated cities on the planet. I remember when I first moved back, the New York Times Style section would “rediscover” it every six months. There were these awful lines about Detroit being the last stop on the L train or Detroit being the “New Brooklyn.” Absolutely not. That fundamentally erases the history of this place and the power and wisdom of the people who have lived here for generations. It hitches the future of the city to people coming from outside to save it.
There’s also been a ton of national focus on Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures. He’s put a lot of money into developing 7.5 square miles downtown, but he’s also gotten some very sweet tax breaks. Detroit is a massive, sprawling city — around 139 square miles. Most of the clients the Detroit Justice Center serves live outside those 7.5 square miles. Conditions are still incredibly hard for them. That fact hasn’t changed despite the development. Yet all the attention is on this very tiny core of downtown. There’s been way too much focus on billionaire developers and people moving in as the “great hope” to save the city and not nearly enough focus on the incredibly visionary work happening among people who have been here all along.
Many of Alexander’s favorite places to frequent are in the vibrant neighborhoods that exist outside the downtown core, such as Corktown and McDougall-Hunt. The easiest way to navigate the Motor City is, of course, to rent a car. (It can be cumbersome and slow to neighborhood hop on public transportation.) Here are Alexander’s picks.
John K. King Used & Rare Books
“This is a glove factory turned four-story bookstore—but it has more than just books. There are museum-quality finds, including first editions, maps, photographs, and old liberation movement pamphlets from southern Africa. I love the section on African American history.” (901 W. Lafayette Blvd.; johnkingbooksdetroit.com)
The Guardian Building
“This is art deco splendor. It was created as a kind of cathedral to capitalism right before the Depression, when they thought there was money to pour into architecture and opulence. Now it’s just a monument to what capitalism thought was possible. Still, it’s a beautiful building, full of bright colors and geometric shapes.” (500 Griswold St.; guardianbuilding.com)
“This wine shop has a great patio space outside and different musicians and DJs who play indoors. Some of my favorite dancing has happened here on Saturday nights. It’s one of those places where legendary musicians will sit down for a session if they’re in town. And they have great sangria.” (1949 Michigan Ave.; motorcitywine.com)
Folk and Mama Coo’s Boutique
“Folk is a restaurant opened by Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes, two women of color. Their food is delicious, the place has a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and they’re really committed to doing things in an ethical way. They carefully source their ingredients, and make great egg dishes and infused milks like rose milk with beetroot powder. Folk is part of a larger building that’s a hub for women-owned businesses. Mama Coo’s, right next door, is owned by a woman from Southwest Detroit. She has an awesome eye and does a thoughtful job sourcing vintage clothing and jewelry.”
“Every Thursday night from spring through fall, Meiko Krishok, a woman-of-color chef, serves food out of an Airstream. And she just opened a carryout restaurant for winter. The rice balls, squash fritters, and roasted jackfruit with barbecue sauce are all good. So is the dessert, made with fresh Michigan fruit.” (2746 Vermont St.; guerillafooddetroit.com)
“The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and [D-Town executive director] Malik Yakini created an urban farm model for people across the city; anyone can volunteer on the farm. They’re also launching a cooperative grocery store in the North End. It’s the first in Detroit.” (14027 W. Outer Drive; d-townfarm.com)
“Our city park [on an island in the Detroit River] was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who did Central Park in New York City. It’s a great place to kayak, bike, or hang out on the beach. There’s a botanical garden and a huge metal slide that’s decades old. You sit in a potato sack and race down it.” (300 River Place Drive, Suite 2800; belleisleconservancy.org)
“This is our very old, very long-standing year-round farmers’ market, with food trucks, street musicians, and tons of street art. It’s an incredible meeting place, too. I often run into people [I know] out shopping for the best local, farm-grown produce.” (1445 Adelaide, easternmarket.org)
Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum
“Dabls is a remarkable artist who has created this outdoor installation he calls Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust. The whole thing is a discourse on colonialism. If you go inside, there’s a bead museum and shop selling beads from different African countries. With a group of five people or more, you can request that Dabls give you a tour, which I would absolutely recommend. To hear him talk through the different symbols in the art is incredible.” (6559 Grand River Ave.; mbad.org)
“They’re working on a massive buildout, but right now it’s still Hitsville USA, the house where so many artists were developed and shaped. They offer one-hour tours. The thing that blew me away is how you think you know everyone who came out of Detroit, but it’s only the beginning. There was a whole era when they were recording speeches, pushing out political ideas through spoken word.” (2648 W. Grand Blvd.; motownmuseum.org)
“This is owned by Janet Webster Jones, an incredible black woman who’s been involved in bookselling since 1989. She hosts a lot of great book talks and events; it’s a go-to for activists, especially. The last launch I attended was for Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.” (4240 Cass Ave.; sourcebooksellers.com)
“Last year, the Detroit Free Press named this black-owned noodle shop its Restaurant of the Year. The patio space is really fun to hang out on, and it has lots of good vegetarian options. It’s also close to Folk, Mama Coo’s, and MotorCity Wine.” (2015 Michigan Ave.; imanoodles.com)
James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership
“This is the historic home of [late] activists James and Grace Lee Boggs. You cannot overstate the impact they had on Detroit in terms of seeding a lot of the visionary organizing that is currently happening. The Boggses were really committed to the belief that we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Grace would talk about ‘solutionaries,’ or people who come up with visionary solutions in the face of devastation. I was a longtime admirer of her, because she was lifting up work around urban architecture, community solar, and play space education. Now I serve on their board. The center hosts events and political discussions, or you can schedule a tour of the home.” (3061 Field St.; boggscenter.org)
Saffron De Twah
“If seeing chef Omar Anani and his mom working together in the kitchen isn’t enough, the price-conscious Moroccan menu suggests you’re in for an experience. Chef Omar also serves a fried catfish sandwich, a nod to the space’s former longtime resident, O’Quin’s Shrimp Shack.” (7636 Gratiot Ave.; saffrondetwah.com)
Black Scroll Network, History & Tours
“Jamon Jordan is a brilliant historian who does public talks at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. But he also does walking tours and bus tours of different neighborhoods—something people should really sign up for. He touches upon the history of housing segregation and displacement, slavery in the city, the Underground Railroad, and the history of social movements in Detroit. He’s a treasure and someone people should absolutely learn from.” Call 313-983-9216 or email email@example.com to book.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge
“Located on the edge of Green Acres, it’s the oldest jazz club in the world, they say, and it’s such a treasure. Always packed and buzzy, with people getting up from their dinner to dance between the tables. It’s awesome. The last time I was there, there was a husband-and-wife duo, and the story and banter between the songs was as important as the performance itself. She was talking about love, romance, all of the things in life. It just feels like community storytelling between all the music. The soul food is also delicious. I’m vegetarian but always happy with sides like mac ’n’ cheese, greens, and corn bread.” (20510 Livernois Ave.)
“There’s a whole neighborhood where these houses are on canals instead of paved streets; people call it the ‘Venice of Detroit.’ You can kayak through the area, past old villas, and then out to the Detroit River. It’s easy to just navigate and doesn’t feel treacherous—no rapids or anything!” Ed’s note: Detroit River Sports offers several kayaking tours, all departing from Fisherman’s Marina. From $25; detroitriversports.com
Detroit Institute of Arts
“Especially the Diego Rivera mural inside. Diego and Frida Kahlo spent time here when he was commissioned by Ford to make a mural. He worked in all of this criticism of capitalism; it’s a beautiful, subversive take on the economy. A must-see.” (5200 Woodward Ave.; dia.org)
“For a long time, this vegan-friendly Afro-Caribbean restaurant was just a food truck, and you had to know where it was going to pop up. Now they’ve opened a brick-and-mortar spot. Their fried chickpeas are so addictive.” (6500 Woodward Ave.; yumvillage.com)
“This is another black-owned food truck that recently opened a full-fledged restaurant, honoring the heart and cuisine of the owner’s mother, Norma G. It’s a good one to try if you’re kayaking the canal or spending a day on Belle Isle. The food is delicious—good vegan curry, great cocktails, hibiscus tea, doubles, and plantain fritters.” (14628 E. Jefferson Ave.; normagscuisine.com)
The Cochrane House
“I just learned about this black-woman-owned B&B, opened by two sisters in May 2018. It’s a historic house that has been beautifully renovated. Though it’s not in an area where I’d typically hang out, it is close to the Tigers’ stadium, the new hockey stadium, and the basketball stadium.” (216 Winder St.; thecochranehouse.com)
>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Detroit
Ashlea Halpern Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine, Time, Esquire, Dwell, the Wall Street Journal, and Midwest Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.