Friday, March 26, 2010

Visiting an old church and the site of a hockey cathedral

One of the more interesting ways to see Detroit is to go downtown, pick a "spoke", and start driving. By "spoke", we're referring to the main streets that spray from downtown – Woodward, Gratiot, Michigan, Grand River, Fort, or Jefferson (in either direction). Perhaps not a great night-time activity, but it seemed a harmless way to kill a rainy lunch hour last week.

I chose Grand River with two destinations in mind. I was looking for what I assumed was a little church out on Trumbull. And a little further out, I wanted see what I assumed was an historical marker of a famous arena I never saw. I found neither.

The Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother's Keeper Ministries was the subject of the most recent Mitch Albom book "Have A Little Faith", and after reading the book, I imagined it to be a small chapel tucked somewhere in one of Detroit's quiet, abandoned neighborhoods. It's not. Just a block off Grand River (at Trumbull and Brainard) the church is a once-beautiful old building that's nearly as run down as every other building that neighbors it. Not a great part of town, but for one weekend last winter, they celebrated the repairing of the roof that happened as a result of the "Have A Little Faith".

Further out Grand River, near where I-94 cuts across, I went looking for the site of the former Olympia Stadium. The Red Wings' old barn was ripped down back in the '80s, and though I had read that the U.S. National Guard's Olympia Armory now stands where the Olympia once did, I figured there was a nice monument out front marking the site. Nope. Nothing. I read later that there is a marker inside the Armory, but there isn't anything outside, which seems odd. No doubt it's a funding issue. Maybe Mitch needs to write a book about it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Frozen Four coming to Ford Field

In recent years, Detroit has hosted big-time events like the SuperBowl. And the MLB All-Star Game. And the Detroit Kennel Çlub Dog Show. Now, Ford Field is primed to host the 2010 NCAA Frozen Four, and Michigan is in the 16-team field battling for a spot.

To get here, the Wolverines must first play Bemidji State this Saturday in Indianapolis. (Bemidji, it should be pointed out, is not a gourmet mustard, but rather a college in Minnesota.) If U-M wins that one, they play again on Sunday in Indy. If they win that one, they'll head to Detroit for the Frozen Four on April 8 & 10, at which point the city will be filthy with JennFriends.

Wolverine fans are already sizing up the Spirit of Detroit for a maize and blue jersey. Realizing that the Michigan State basketball team has a chance to reach a Final Four of its own, those same Wolverine fans - in a rare showing of cross-rivalry brotherhood - have agreed to share the Spirit of Detroit, and have gone so far as to commission the creation of a very sizy green and white diaper.

(This report is completely fabricated. Michigan fans would never do something that mean. And besides, the Spirit is potty-trained.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Get the official "welcome" to downtown Detroit

Whether you're looking to book a tour of Detroit, or just hoping to find a new bar downtown (we do our best to cover them here, but I'm sure we've missed a few), check out the Inside Detroit Welcome Center.

Both in their storefront location on Woodward and online at, you'll find all kinds of info on stuff happening downtown, like upcoming theater performances, concerts, festivals, bar crawls, you name it.

The non-profit group has set up shop at 1253 Woodward, not far from the Compuware headquarters. Their window dressings alone – which offer up factoids about the city – are worth a quick look. For instance, did you there are 125 bars and restaurants in downtown Detroit?

The Welcome Center is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday throughout the summer. It's closed on Mondays through the winter. The website is always open.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Toasting Detroit history with a bottle of Vernor's

In answering the age-old question, "War...what is it good for?", how's this:

It helped create Vernor's.

It seems that Detroit pharmacist James Vernor had concocted a new drink made of ginger and vanilla when he was called off to fight in the Civil War in 1862. When he left, he stored the beverage in an oak cask in his pharmacy on Woodward. Four years later, he returned, opened the wooden keg, and found a drink that he was daring enough to sample. He liked it. He called it Vernor's Ginger Ale. In time, so did many others, and Vernor's grew to became a Detroit original, available only at Vernor's pharmacy on Woodward near Clifford.

The placard pictured above, part of the Woodward Avenue Cultural Heritage Tour, stands in front of the original Vernor's pharmacy location, and is part of a series of similar markers that recall some of the really cool things that once made up Detroit's most-famous street. Want to check it out sometime this summer? Start at Campus Martius Park and walk north on Woodward. Every half block or so you'll find one of these pink signs.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bringing the Kresge Building back to life

It's always nice to see development plans take root downtown, whether it's a new bar, refurbished lofts, or renovated retail space. It's particularly swell to see all three happening at once, particularly in an historic structure like the old Kresge Building.

Fairly ambitious plans are underway within the walls of the famous Kresge, the one-time high-traffic hub of Woodward Avenue that first opened in 1899 and eventually became K-Mart. Called "The Shops in the Kresge Building", the development has already seen the opening of The 5 and 10 Bar & Cafe, and a number of small retail outlets. There's a cake shop, a clothing boutique, a malt shop, an attorney's office, and others. Having opened in early March, the building's first floor is already about 50 percent occupied.

Plans call for the eventual opening of more stores on the second floor, as well as a grocery market in the basement level. It's one type of development that downtown Detroit has been lacking, and after seeing the renovation efforts that have taken place already, they look serious about making it work. What should help are other larger developments, such as the soon-to-happen relocation of Quicken Loans to downtown offices, as well as eventual construction of the recently announced light-rail system that is planned to run up Woodward from Jefferson out to the New Center.

To read more about The Shops at the Kresge Building, visit their website. Check it out in person on Woodward, just across from the Compuware Headquarters.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Big City Bar & Grill tips its hat to history of Detroit

In a building that you likely never paid much attention to because of nearby, more-famous towers like the Westin Book-Cadillac and the Book Tower, Detroit's Big City Bar & Grill in the Holiday Inn Express is a place you should file away until the next time you're heading downtown.

Looking to catch a few minutes of the start of March Madness, I popped into Big City and found the following: so many TVs that I could pick the one that gave me the most comfortable angle; really cool artwork, including the mural pictured above, devoted to Detroit's history; and an awesome three-pack of sliders. I knew I had found something good. And then I discovered a pool table tucked in the back of the bar, and that clinched it.

The menu at Big City is pretty simple, but the food is good. And there was no sign of a cheesy lounge singer anywhere, so don't let the "hotel bar" thing scare you. The Holiday Inn, by the way, probably should've been included in the poll you may have seen on this website. It's fairly new, right across the street from the Book-Cadillac, just down the street from Campus Martius, and about two blocks from a People Mover station. All of those are good things.

Best of all, it has a pretty cool bar downstairs. With a pool table.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bookies back for second year near Comerica Park

With baseball season just around the corner, it never hurts to poke around the ballpark looking for a pre-game and/or post-game beer stop. After all, you can't fit everybody into the Elwood.

I was pleasantly surprised then, when a presumably homeless man who insisted I call him Shorty escorted me from Grand Circus Park to the front door of Bookies, at which time he asked that I help him overcome his diabetes by helping him buy a chicken sandwich. I'm no doctor – I'm just telling you what he said.

Anyway, Bookies moved about a year ago from its former home in the street level of the Book Tower on Washington, when the owners realized that it felt strange to be the only tenant left in a 38-story building. They landed just a few blocks from Comerica, and built a bar that, in just one season, quickly became a Tiger fan favorite. The one-room, high-ceiling bar features a bunch of flat-screen TVs (does this even need to be pointed out any more?) and a great menu. They've also got a rooftop patio. I haven't been up there yet, but I'm going back soon to take a look. Shorty said he'd show me the way.

JennFriend #7: Loitering in front of WDIV Guy

We happened across this guy enjoying a couple minutes of sunshine and a Marlboro Light (cigarette not pictured) on Lafayette Boulevard earlier today. He unknowingly becomes the seventh registered member of the JennFriends, a non-profit group of people whose choice to wear blue and gold clothing in public lands them on the Internet. Meet all of the current members by clicking on the link near the top of this web page.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jacoby's does it right - and by now they oughta!

Our never-ending search for new bars downtown took us to an unlikely little haunt behind the old Wayne County Building last week. Unlikely, because there's nothing new about Jacoby's.

Billed as the oldest bar in Detroit, Jacoby's German Biergarten has been serving since 1904 – that's 106 years, we learn with a little math assistance from UMJenn.

Sitting in the tiny, one-room, first-floor tavern, it feels like you're hanging out in somebody's beautifully refinished game room. Finished in dark-stained wood that occasionally breaks to expose the aging brick walls behind, Jacoby's features a handful of tables and hightops, a few flat screens hanging at the ceiling, and a long bar where you can choose from any number of German bottled beers. No worries, they've got domestics, too.

It's a great place for lunch, popular with the Wayne County workers who, until recently, occupied the old building across Brush Street. (Wayne County recently moved its offices to the Guardian Building, as reported here in substantially shallow detail.) How that dip in traffic impacts Jacoby's remains to be seen. But they've been around for 106 years. Something tells me they'll make it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Old Shillelagh to host Food Wars' coney dog showdown

The legendary local rift between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island will take the national stage again this week when the two downtown Detroit restaurants square off at the Old Shillelagh in Greektown for filming of the Travel Channel's popular "Food Wars" program. The restaurants have already been the subject of the Travel Channel's "Man Vs. Food" show, but this time, locals get a chance to cast their vote on who is the real King of Coneys in town.

So, if you're anxious to pledge your allegiance to one coney over the other, and you aren't against being shown on TV with a glob of chili dripping down your chin, stop by the Old Shillelagh Friday, March 12 at 5 p.m.

Saying goodbye to the skating rink & Au Bon Pain

Screw the groundhog, here's the surest sign that winter's almost over. Workers were busy earlier this week tearing down the skating rink at Campus Martius Park, and soon will be setting up for another summer concert series on the lawn.

In related happenings, Campus Martius' Au Bon Pain restaurant, the little cafe that served sandwiches and coffee right at the park, also closed in recent weeks. Kind of a bummer – Au Bon Pain (which also has outlets in the RenCen and in Midtown) – was a nice place to grab lunch at the park.

On the bright side, city officials have already announced that the building will soon be home to a new American bistro-style cafe. According to our hounding research, the new restaurant is due to open by May 1. It's doubtful they can make a turkey wrap as good as Au Bon Pain's, but we're willing to give them a try.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How The Detroit Club was founded over lunch

It was 1882 and two prominent Detroit businessmen met, as they often did, for lunch. They discussed business and exchanged news of the day. At some point, an idea struck them: why not rent a house, hire a chef, and welcome in other businessmen who would enjoy a place to meet, eat and talk. The Detroit Club was born.

Ten years later, the Club had grown in size and it moved into this four-story clubhouse on Fort Street and Cass Avenue, a building that still houses The Detroit Club today. It's across the street from The People Mover's Fort-Cass station, and for its red-brick, rounded-corner design, it stands out among the many better-known skyscrapers that surround it. In the photo above, that's the old Free Press Building standing in the background.

Today, The Detroit Club (not to be confused with the Detroit Economic Club) remains what it's always been, with an extended mission. It's still a members-only place where business people get together and network, but the club in recent years has taken a more activist stance and has helped tackle the many social issues challenging Detroit.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Lafayette has left the building.

The methodical dismantling of the Lafayette Building is complete. Only a mountain of rubble remains, and the impact it has on the skyline, particularly from the Griswold and Lafayette intersection, from which these pictures were taken, is huge. I'm sure we'll get used to it in a hurry, but for now, there's something strange about walking past the coney island restaurants without that massive building towering overhead.

We also get an answer to a question posed recently in this space when we wondered about the future of the little red-brick building standing next to Lafayette Coney Island. The home of Walter's Pipe Shop apparently will remain, and I would hope that the rest of the building, which has been empty for years, will be slightly more attractive to renters with the Lafayette now gone.

Jenemy #3: Friend of Wheelchair-Guy Guy

This guy wearing a faux-leather Spartan frock was hanging at Campus Martius the other day watching workers dismantle the skating rink. We'll know summer has officially arrived when we see him frolicking in the RiverWalk Fountain wearing an MSU Speedo.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Visiting the historic Skillman branch library in Detroit

Smack dab in the heart of downtown Detroit, just a block from the city’s Campus Martius center, hides the beautiful downtown branch of the Detroit Public Library system. The Rose & Robert Skillman library, tucked behind Compuware’s towering office building, is as much a museum as it is a library. In fact, much of the upper level of the building is used as museum space, and is currently displaying a tribute to the automotive heritage of the region, which complements the library's National Automotive History Collection.

The pie-shaped building itself is another of Detroit’s architectural treasures, and a curve in The People Mover track across the street adds to it by paralleling the building's rounded front. The library first opened in 1872 as the Centre Park Library; the current main branch on Woodward out near Wayne State was added in 1921. If you're interested in checking it out, the Skillman library is located at Gratiot and Library. The easiest way to get there if you’re visiting downtown is to take The People Mover and get off at the Cadillac Center station.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Looking up at the Dime Building, Detroit’s twin towers

“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” – Daniel H. Burnham, architect

Pretty cool quote, huh? Obviously, when Burham set out to design the original Dime Savings Bank Building in downtown Detroit, he wasn’t thinking small. What he came up with was an awesome structure that remains – despite a $40 million renovation in 2002 – one of the most under-rated buildings in Detroit.

Home to a number of businesses such as Plante & Moran, H&R Block (Detroit headquarters) and Barton Malow, as well as the recently visited Pizzapapalis in the street level, the Dime Building (across the street from the Penobscot on Griswold) is another of Detroit’s buildings that’s worth a quick peek if you’re ever touring downtown. The multi-floor, skylight-topped lobby is spectacular, but our favorite view is delivered from the sidewalk looking up at the matching 23-story towers.

Burnham, by the way, is a famous Chicago-born architect whose other works are known worldwide, led by his famous Flatiron Building in New York City. (You’ve seen it on TV. It’s the triangular-shaped tower that appears during the lead-in to David Letterman.) Burnham’s other Detroit creations include the Ford Building and the David Whitney Building.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cobo Joe's still a Red Wings fan favorite

If anybody's ever found a bar downtown that doesn't feature at least one piece of Red Wings paraphernalia, pass it on. (I'm serious, I've looked. I don't think there are any.) With that said, of all the hockey-bar hangouts in Detroit, the tops still has to be Cobo Joe's. Even with competition like Hockeytown Cafe and Cheli's, Cobo Joe's ranks No. 1 in our book.

It doesn't hurt that it's right next door to the arena, at least for now. If the Wings do eventually move to a new stadium across town, here's hoping that Cobo Joe's is able to survive (and thrive) the way Nemo's has done even in post-Tiger Stadium Detroit.

To read our full review of Cobo Joe's, click here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

GM's RenCen: A year-round auto show

Viewed through the glass-enclosed showroom in front of the GM Renaissance Center, Detroit - with its People Mover track swooping through and the SkyWalk stretching across Jefferson Avenue to the Millender Center - looks like quite the thriving modern metropolis.

Truth is, the RenCen, if you've not been there lately, is a pretty impressive place, anchored by the GM vehicles that are showcased not only in the glass room that faces Jefferson, but all throughout the lower level. The vehicles are displayed among dozens of large video screens and signs that read "GM re:invention". It's like GM's own auto show that plays 12 months a year.

Across from the displays in the lower level, there's a food court, and throughout the building, more and more stores - The RenCen Shops - and restaurants have been added to the building. Recent news of the Seldom Blues closing was kind of a bummer, but there are still plenty of great places in the RenCen to eat and drink. Best of all, with a People Mover stop that goes right to the front of the building, the RenCen is a convenient place to swing through if you're looking to kill an hour or two downtown.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Detroit's Mariners' Church: Preserved in a classic song

As perhaps one of Detroit's best examples of old-meets-new (and there are a bunch of them), the Mariners' Church stands in the shadows of the RenCen; most of us have driven past it countless times. Here's why sometimes, it's better to walk rather than drive.

The Mariners' Church, according to the National Register of HIstoric Places marker out front, tells the story of how the church was built in 1849 at Woodward and Woodbridge, just a block or two away. The church was originally built to "serve the spiritual needs of Great Lakes seamen." More than a hundred years later, the 3,000-ton limestone building was dragged 880 feet on steel rails to its current location, a project that blocked Woodward Avenue for 21 days. The church was moved to make room for the creation of the Civic Center.

Interesting as all that is, the sign goes on to tell how the church was immortalized in 1975 when Gordon Lightfoot wrote his classic song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Anybody who's ever heard the song probably remembers the line, "The church bell chimed 'til it rang 29 times..." It turns out, the "cathedral" to which Lightfoot was referring was none other than this old church sitting at the mouth of the Windsor Tunnel.