A Day in Detroit: Public Art and a Coney Dog Rivalry

For my first ever work conference, I found myself in downtown Detroit. I’d never been before. As an Ohioan with no ties whatsoever to Michigan, I’ve never had an excuse to visit the Motor City. I had a couple hours to spare, so I decided to wander. Verdict? If you’re passing through, spend some time downtown!

Detroit, I’m sure you’re aware, has some Problems. A city once the size and stature of Chicago has lost about 60% of it’s population in the last several decades. As my work colleague put it, the city is a girl wearing a dress ten sizes too big. It has the culture, infrastructure, and space of a world-class city, but without the population to match. Throughout downtown Detroit, though, there’s the sense that everything is getting a fresh coat of paint. Roads are being repaved. Old skyscrapers are getting a face lift. The progress can be obvious, as in with this building.


I was struck by the amount of public art. There are famous sculptures like the Joe Louis monument and the Spirit of Detroit.


And then there’s street art to liven up the place. I passed both these buildings on Washington Blvd.


Like Chicago, there are some architectural gems. You really ought to walk through the lobby of the Guardian Building, an Art Deco masterpiece with a Mayan flair. It’s stunning.


Hungry? There’s an ongoing debate that needs settling. Detroit natives love themselves a good Coney dog, and there are two local favorites neighboring each other: Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. Fun fact: they were opened by members of the same family 100 years ago and have been rivals ever since. Natives swear by one or the other. Of course, I had to weigh in.


I picked Lafayette first for no other reason than I smelled it first. It was a real greasy spoon atmosphere inside, with an open kitchen and a menu taped to the back of the fridge. I ordered a Coney dog, fries and a ‘pop,’ as the menu said. The guy who took my order automatically poured a Coke and sat it at the bar; apparently, I didn’t get to choose my beverage or my seat. It hardly mattered. My food was in front of me in about 15 seconds.


The chili had a satisfying tang that paired well with the onions. I approved, paid, and then walked next door to American. American was a little more cheery and welcoming inside, but I was anxious to get back to the hotel before dark so I ordered a Coney dog to go. American’s hot dog had a joyful ‘snap’ to it that Lafayette’s didn’t. However, I thought there was less flavor overall. Lafayette wins the round. Their dogs were also 30 cents cheaper.

For one last piece of public art, I wandered down the river for a few minutes and came across the International Memorial for the Underground Railroad. There’s something sobering about a monument, in Detroit of all places, depicting a family of African-Americans looking over the river to Canada as their refuge. It made me think of all the times we as a country have failed to provide the American dream for ALL Americans.


You’re probably wondering about safety. As I only spent time downtown, that’s all I can vouch for. For an uneventful Tuesday night there seemed to be a good number of people downtown on bike tours, eating out, and playing lawn games on the sidewalk along Woodward Ave (out for the public to use for some reason. How cool!). I wandered north of Grand Circus Park to see if the Fox Theater was open. There wasn’t a game at the neighboring baseball stadium and the theater was closed, so there was nobody around but panhandlers. If alone, I would stick to south of Grand Circus.

I also don’t know to what extent that A) the rest of the city is getting an upgrade like downtown and B) the rest of the city is sharing in downtown’s economic success. My guess is that both are negligible. That will need to change. In the meantime, the city could really use your money in its efforts to pick itself up, so if you’re driving through, stop for lunch and a peek around! I’m already planning another trip to see more.