Detroit: The City That Cars Built
It’s Not How You Think

Detroit; bankrupt, derelict, broken down. Well not quite. This is a powerful city. Industry and innovation is everywhere, and things are pretty lively. Cars? The place wouldn’t function without them. There’s an energy to Detroit that you don’t find in a lot of cities. Where others have become stagnant and comfortable, Detroit is a sharp-minded, high court lawyer with the physique of a street fighter. It’s even got its own race track.

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From the broken down factories to the enthusiasts, it’s time we looked at this amazing city in a different way. This is Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, but just behind it you can see Ford Field, the covered football stadium wearing the name of a man who helped build the city.

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But why am I getting all excited about Detroit? Well, if you’re in to cars and consider yourself a petrol head of any kind, then you’ll know the name. It’s synonymous with American car industry, the ‘big three’ call it home, and over the years it’s been celebrated, admired, ignored and demonized in equal measure.

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Personally, it’s one of those places that has always been on my radar – like Bonneville or the Nürburgring. I passed through on a road trip in 1996 and didn’t really get to see very much, but then I came back in early 2014 for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).

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This is when my eyes were opened to what is going on in Detroit. For a start I was surprised by the size of the NAIAS, as it’s actually quite small in comparison to other major motor shows. But everyone was there. By that I mean every major manufacturer had a large stand, and there was no room for anyone else.

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Serious players were unveiling new concepts all across the floor. They were housed in one hall of the Cobo Center, and it was as though all the big guns had brought out their best ammunition. The Toyota FT-1, Kia GT4 Stinger and Porsche 911 Targa were revealed to the public here. And although BMW had debuted their M4 concept at Pebble Beach, the production model was shown for the first time in Detroit alongside the M3 saloon. Those cars alone should give you an idea of how important manufacturers consider Detroit to be.

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But you’d expect that from a major motor show, right? Well yes, but I also think it’s a good sign of just how important the landmark of Detroit is in the history of the motorcar. Subsequently as a sign of respect, I think the motor manufacturers won’t turn their back on the NAIAS like they did in the UK, where our annual motor show faltered and disappeared a few years ago. But maybe I’m just reading too much into it?

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So what is it that keeps people here? In fact scrap that – what’s making people come here? For roughly 50 years Detroit was jumping, expanding and multiplying – it was an industrial force to be reckoned with.

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I’ve been to a few of the great American cities and honestly the architecture here is some of the most impressive. The grandeur is everywhere you look. Coming to America as a European, I’m used to seeing big, old buildings, and the downtown area of Detroit reminds me more of London than any other I’ve seen in America. Manhatten is possibly the closest, Boston even. But there’s something special happening here.

Down But Not Out
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That’s why I’m writing this story, so forgive me if it isn’t about a particular car or workshop even – I still think it’s relevant though. Because what’s happening in Detroit is very cool. It’s done with being the tired, old rundown city in the corner. It’s had enough of that reputation. The time for sympathy is over.

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In mid-December I had the chance to spend a week in Detroit producing a film. We built in a couple of emergency days at the end just in case our planned schedule went out the window, but thankfully everything went to plan so I was left with a bit of time to take a look around.

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Like I said before, Detroit has always intrigued me and the short time spent here in January 2014 had just fuelled that fire.

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To get it right, you have to go back to the start – the wonder years of motor manufacturing when the money was pouring in from across the land and the industry was in full swing. That’s when Detroit’s downtown area was built. Big, imposing structures housed head offices, every one bigger than the next.

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I genuinely don’t think it was a game of one upmanship though. Sure, there’s an element of that, but the main feeling I get is one of pride. This is looking south east over the downtown area across to Windsor in Canada, which is the other side of the Detroit river. Aside from the two casino buildings, the city is mainly flat compared to high-rise nature of Detroit. It’s a big fat reminder of just how fast and loud Detroit was at one time.

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Most of the downtown area has or is being regenerated. A lot of the property is owned by one company and they are sympathetically regenerating as they go along. Because property is affordable here, prices are going up, but when things are cheaper more people can take advantage and have a go. A long-established art space is leaving New York and relocating here. Why? Because it’s cheap and people want something new.

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So the creative minds are moving in. After all, the infrastructure of entire city is all there – the sanitation, road network, power supplies and water are all laid out waiting to be made full use of again. This is the disused train station. Now imagine it brimming with people going about their business and it starts to feel a lot like the rest of the city, waiting for its time to come round again. These grand buildings are just too amazing to go down without a fight.

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Whilst wandering around I ended up stumbling across O’Brien’s Garage in between Eight and Nine Mile Rd, because of course, it’s not all about the downtown area. There are plenty of people who call Detroit home and live their lives in the surrounding area. Seeing the eclectic frontage just naturally drew me in for a closer look.

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The waiting room was full of memorabilia, old tins and signs – the kind of stuff you find in your grandad’s shed. I want to know how good that Motorcraft Tune-Up Kit will be after a few decades of sitting around? Display purposes only I’m guessing.

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The guys welcomed me in let me take a look around. This is the kind of garage that keeps a whole neighborhood rolling. The late ’60s El Camino was wearing a wide set of slot mags and another pair sat in the back with some old slicks mounted on them. Perfect for some Friday night heads-up action at the drag strip.

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I thought of that after seeing this jacket hanging up inside. Milan International Dragway is still operational and you can find it southwest of the city. I love the abundance of places to race in the US, but I wonder why it’s international? I guess if you roll in from Canada you’re considered a foreigner!

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I also spotted a very cool sticker that reminded me of a similar one I bought at NAIAS. They come from a place called the Detroit Shoppe – a registered charity that makes sure all the profits go to help the places and people who keep Detroit moving. Even in the most unexpected places you find the grit and determination to turn things around…

Beautifully Wasted
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Detroit is a big place and for all the positivity, I’m not about to underestimate the daily struggle that some people go through to live here. Take a look at that freeway and see how little traffic there is on it. This photo was taken at about 10:00pm at night. Can you imagine the same freeway in LA? It would still be jammed.

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And yes, for every shiny new car there is a broken down beater still doing sterling service for somebody.

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The reminders of what Detroit has gone through since the late ’60s when things started to turn sour are everywhere. This old factory is down by the water looking out to Belle Isle, which I’ll get to in a minute. Drive around the other side and you get a different take on the mess though.

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Here the disused, unloved walls have been turned into an art project. The mural stretches the entire length of the building and was created by 40 different artists and celebrates Detroit’s strength. Their words, not mine. Iron Street? Pictures of a Cadillac? The stuff that Detroit was built on is something the residents are proud of.

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Right alongside it was this sealed up workshop/garage. My mind started to race… Imagine it as Speedhunters HQ, scruffy on the outside but solid, big old roller shutter doors and projects mixed in with living space. One day I’ll come back and one day it’ll be all shiny and worth $500,000. But for now dreamers like me are making Detroit their reality. This is attainable.

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In the middle of the river is Belle Isle, where the families used to come and enjoy themselves. Large pavillions and an abandoned zoo are here now, with a race track for company. The signs of life in the pits make me smile, and even here the car has left its mark.

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The population has dropped from around 2 million to roughly 600,000 depending on who you believe. No other city in the US has experienced this kind of shift. Because people have randomly left, it’s not like one area got closed off, so as you move around there’s space. It’s as though somebody thinned out Detroit. I liken the streets of large detached houses to your teeth. Some will be good, some will be rotten, and some are just not there anymore.

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Of course, I’d be ignorant to say it’s all daisies growing up through the cracks. Detroit has very real problems and I was told about no-go areas and the hazards of taking a look around. But in general I didn’t encounter any more trouble or worry than I would in any large city.

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Take the Packard plant for example: a 40-acre landmark of how things went wrong. But even lying on the ground, seperated from the building, the bricks here proudly state where they’re from.

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There’s nothing left to take from here now though, so as I took a look around I didn’t feel at all wary. There’s nothing left to steal, it was bitterly cold with no real shelter, and in a city littered with abandoned housing you’re spoilt for choice. Sure, maybe some shady stuff goes down, but it does everywhere – it’s just better hidden. Then there was the graffiti. I saw it on houses, closed down schools and it generally had a message.

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That message is one of perseverance. Detroit has been down and out for long enough and the slow recovery is happening. From the downtown bars to art studios and workshops in the suburbs, or the community projects that make sure the people aren’t forgotten.

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It will never be what it once was, but I truly believe in the long run it will be better. Like I said, there’s an energy here – a positivity that can’t be denied – and when you’ve been down so long, you learn there’s only one way to go.

It’s time to shift up the way we look at Detroit. This is the original Motorcity, from music to muscle cars there’s a lot here to be proud of.

Bryn Musselwhite
bryn@speedhunters.com
Instagram: Speedhunterbryn

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86 comments

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1

Wow... Just wow... Looks so amazing and strange at the same time! Makes me want to discover it by myself (And refresh my impressions I got from Eminems 8 mile, lol.)

2

THANK YOU SO MUCH BRYN ! your ceoverage of my home is great so nice to see a more positive focused story come to light. Im sure you can tell us Detroiters are proud and determined. so exciting to have Speedhunters close by ! hope you drove the Belle isle race track Like i suggested on instagram !

3

Beeing the petrol head that i am, i must say, this is one of the most apreciated articles speedhunters has posted.
Thank you, the gatebil viking now has another place on his travveling list.

4

"The City That Cars Built" - is that "Engrish"?

5

Another unexpected but fascinating article. Proof, once again, that car culture stems far beyond the cars themselves. 

The Wu Tang inspired door made me laugh, but its a sad summary of the situation in Detroit. Nice to see a positive ending (of sorts) to the story, I hope that Detroit continues to bounce back.

6

I know this is a site about cars and not about ball sports and I really like your article and the very many cool pictures. But the baseball team that you mentioned under the great aerial picture of Comerica Park is called the Tigers. The Detroit Lions play football inside Ford Field.

7

Thanks for this piece Bryn. I'm really enjoying these departures from the Speedhunters norms.

8

Didn't expect the pic of the mk2 Golf! When i think of Detroit, i think of the start of the movie Beverly Hills Cop. A lots changed since the 80's though.

9

Comerica is where the tigers play

10

wow, this was eye opening. thank you, again, wow. i had no idea.

11

Growing up in Michigan Detroit was always a place to go, enjoy a race or a game, and get out. I've watched its decline my entire life. I desperately wish there was some way for the city to reclaim the land that underlies so much of the decay. The potential for green space in the city is huge and unlike any other city its size. Someday.

12
Speedhunters_Bryn

Bronko If you get the opportunity I highly recommend it, it's an amazing place! And thanks, a helicopter did all the work with the city shots ;)

13
Speedhunters_Bryn

Ealoken Thank you!

14

Is that a hydroplane shell in the bonus pictures? What a random thing to find lying around!

15
Speedhunters_Bryn

greenroadster Not meant to be, although it's not my title ;)

16
Speedhunters_Bryn

tbtstt I genuinely believe it will, and when it does it will be a very vibrant place because the pace at which the rebound happens will be slower and more considered than its birth.

17
Speedhunters_Bryn

ingmar66 Thanks for the correction, you can see I know nothing about ball sports!

18
Speedhunters_Bryn

mrwicksy Glad you like them, thanks for letting us know. I figured if I found it interesting a few other people might!

19

well, you made the old ghetto look almost safe and livable..

20
Speedhunters_Bryn

mk4 lew Exactly what I thought when I saw it! And yes, that opening scene as he hangs out of the truck is ace!

21
Speedhunters_Bryn

Other Will I think so, I don't know exactly, it was literally dumped outside a garage! Random indeed!

22
Speedhunters_Bryn

Other Will I think so, I don't know exactly, it was literally dumped outside a garage! Random indeed!

23
Speedhunters_Bryn

cutterjones13 It's all well and good for me just dipping in and out like that, I'd like to know what it's like 24/7.

24

I have been to NAIAS a few times ( I was even there in 2014) and I liked driving around Detroit. I stayed with a friend near GM Proving Grounds so it was kind of strange going from nice large neighborhoods to the small and sometimes run-down areas of Detroit.
I agree that manufacturers flock to Detroit because it is a great place to show off concepts and new cars. People all over the world take notice to the show. I can't wait to get back there again.

25
Speedhunters_Bryn

86_4_life Pleasure!

26

This is a very very sad. A real fallout.

27

Fantastic piece mate

28

More pieces like this could make for an interesting spin on this site. Keep it up!

29
Speedhunters_Bryn

Mazdeuce I really think if there is a way, it will happen. Detroit just seems to have the survival gene.

30
Speedhunters_Bryn

RahRooReeRah Thank you, I think anything that gets us going should be shown to you guys!

31
Speedhunters_Bryn

NTRSTT There's a lot of positivity in the city, I think that's what we should focus on :)

32
Speedhunters_Bryn

RBJKT I need to talk to you about helicopters. Drones are so 2014.

33

The old train station is used for a very popular regional drift event (formerly part of a Formula D pro am licensing circuit). It will be a stand alone event this year if anyone is interested in coming out! 

Here's a short video a good friend of mine produced - http://vimeo.com/104261274

34

Speedhunters_Bryn NTRSTT I wish to get there someday but It's too damn far for me. By the way, please try to watch documentary movie Detroit Wild City, a very atmospheric.

35

Excellent piece. This year I flew into both Chicago and Detroit at night, and the difference in lighting was incredible. The openness you spoke of is just all over, and most of that isn't worth lighting up. 
It will be interesting to see how a city redevelops after losing so many people. Hope to see more stuff like this.

36

Detroit Tigers is the baseball team. the Detroit Lions is the football team. love the articles though, always and forever.

37
Speedhunters_Bryn

David Mullis Awesome location! Good luck with it :)

38
Speedhunters_Bryn

INDIGOfresh Thanks for that, my bad!

39

Huh, you put Detroit in a totally different spotlight than what I've seen before. But if you really want to see the car culture here, come back in the summer. I promise you will not be disappointed. Between secret car shows, epic car shows, tiny race tracks (one has a shooting range on the same property,) and the massive pop up cruises every Friday and Saturday night on Woodward, it's a totally different place. 

And Detroit reminds you of London? While I never would of thought that myself, I can kind of see where you're coming from on that. And if you guys decide to build a Speedhunters HQ here, I'll take care of it!

41
Speedhunters_Bryn

ra64freddy! Plenty of those elsewhere ;)

42
Speedhunters_Bryn

EricSeanDelaney Thanks man, and thank you for the tips you gave me a while back. It's certainly a place we need to revisit when there's more going on.

43

ra64freddy! Theres a distinct lack of Robocop as well. Although I'm willing to be proven wrong.

44

Have they shot any Batman movies/tv shows in Detroit? Because they should

45

I've been living in Ann Arbor (about 45 mins west of Detroit for those who don't know) for about 2 years, attending architecture grad school at the university of Michigan.  If the USA was a ship, Detroit (and the midwest in general really) would be the engine room.  This place is real.  The people are real.  My workstation PC that I use for school has a sticker on the top that says "Detroit Hustles Harder."

46

Great piece!

Detroit is a very interesting city. It's a lovable underdog. When I first moved out here my coworkers warned me to stay away, but I'm glad I didn't listen.

The pulse of the city really comes to a crawl during the winter. If you get the chance definitely come back during the summer! If you want someone to show you around, I'm more than happy to do so. Plenty of restaurants and watering holes to discover.


Drift event at Roosevelt Park in front of the train station is August 15th..... just saying.

47

NYporkdept We were up there this summer, they were shooting "Sage and Milo" aka Superman Vs. Batman. The camera rig was on a bad ass SUV flying down the street. I think it was a trailblazer SS.

48

miles and miles of abandoned roads... that are still better maintained than the majority of italians city roads... my god... you can do it Italy... 
Anyway awesome post, and amazing shots! I love this kind of culture oriented articles on SH!

49
Speedhunters_Bryn

Tung Good work, yup, definitely need to get back at a warmer time of year! It was the best part of -15 in the helicopter with the wind chill.

50
Speedhunters_Bryn

importfan Haha true that! I'm in Spain at the moment and it's not much better here :)

51

David Mullis SIck vid.

52

Great article! as a native of the suburbs i only heard the bad about Detroit for years, once I got a car I began to go to concerts, games and the NAIAS annually, I realized it's far from all bad. Downtown is really seeing a reawakening and that motion is pushing outward. I agree with your conclusion about the D's resilience, that's what Detroiters have always done, continued to push forward. You should come back and cruise Woodward Ave. any given Friday night in the summer, you'll see such a mixing of car culture it's mind-bending. From Hot Rods to JDM all the way to packs of Porsche's and Lambo's. Thanks for realizing the positivism of Detroit's character and come again. 
P.S. The Detroit Tigers Play at Comerica

53

Speedhunters_Bryn cutterjones13 There are neighborhoods you should drive right through, disregarding any stop sign, but much of the city is just plain empty

54

Thanks for the great write-up of my adopted hometown Speedhunters_Bryn I went to college in Detroit proper and know many of the old landmarks you showed.  What a shame, however to see what has happened to one of the greatest cities this country had.  Lots of reasons why, none of them truly acceptable.  I do agree with you and many others here that there may be hope yet, but it will be a long time before we see something as vibrant and productive as Detroit was. 

This is a few years old now, but gives some insight into what is happening:
http://vimeo.com/67526494

55

There is still some serious street racing in Detroit I hear, Id love to visit there, I had mentioned before I had briefly thought of moving there to start my shop but chose other roads to follow. I think you need to have a certain edge to you to make it in a city like Detroit. Cool write up Bryn!

56

Holy hell! Fantastic photography man, can't decide wich city shot i want to make my background.

57

As a recent cross country transplant to the motor city I can really appreciate this very well written article. The rise and fall of Detroit is the most dramatic population change of any city in America. It held a top 5 largest city by population spot from 1920 to 1970 with population peaking at ~1.85 million in the 50's and rapidly declining from there.
But don't let the numbers foul you. There's still a massive amount of people in the Detroit area, they just drove away to the suburbs. The neighboring cities are very much alive and the auto industry rules this state. Most people work for the industry in one way or another and there's even a growing amount of people like me who were crazy enough to ignore the less than stellar reputation of Detroit and move here to chase their automotive dreams.
Detroit muscle is back.

58

I have to say that after seeing daytime photo spreads of Detroit in the "urban Mad Max," end-of-the-world vein, I'm pleasantly shocked at how beautiful the city is at night, all lit up.

59

The Detroit Lions are a football team, the team that plays at comerica park is the TIgers.

60

Neat story Bryn.  Different for SpeedHunters and a welcomed addition.

61

I visited Detroit this past summer to attend Maker Faire (look it up, it's an incredible event) and was very touched by the city. My dream is to live in Detroit and be an Automotive Engineering at Ford. I was taken back by the damaged state of the city and the pain that is evident in the structure, but it is still alive. Just as you said, there is an energy about the city that tells you that they will not only survive, but they will thrive. Its a beautiful city and one that I hope I can call home some day. I truly enjoyed reading this article. Speedhunters is about car culture just as much (if not more) than it is about the cars themselves. And there aren't many places with more car culture than Detroit.

62

I'm sorry - don't get me wrong I appreciate understated cities more than anyone else ( I live in Adelaide) but I cannot get my head around detroit.


Since the 1970's the city has been going down the toilet. It has the worst crime rate anywhere in the world, the worst poverty and the worst economy. 
Every picture I see is of a run-down building, and it looks as though an atom-bomb has been dropped. 
It looks like Chernobyl. 

Explain to me the appeal. Explain to me why, aside from the heritage (which even I find appealing) why anyone would CHOOSE to live in this shit-hole in the ground?

63

I grew up near Plymouth and telegraph road on beaverland in Detroit. There will always be a special place in my heart for detroit. But I will never go back there.

64

Great piece! As a (very) amateur photographer I really enjoyed the captures you took of the city. It's a city with so much potential and I hope to see it rise from its own ashes.

65

dovvv Your comment is fairly ignorant. Are there problems in Detroit? Of course. Are many of its struggles more daunting than other cities. Certainly. But, the suggestion that Detroit has the worst crime rate "in the world" is an extreme exaggeration. I also think it is wrong to assume that Detroit's economic woes are unique. While at a larger scale, the city's loss of manufacturing jobs and the corresponding decline in population and city revenue can be seen in cities across the world, from Akron to Buffalo to Berlin. 

I live here, in your poetic "shit-hole in the ground." Why? Because of everything Bryn discovered. There is a sense of history and gritty determination that is intoxicating; beautiful architecture that inspires; a hell of a sports culture to cheer on; a vibrant music and art scene; a booming culinary and food culture; and friendly people that care about each other and want to work hard to make the city they call home better each day. 

You can cherry pick an out-dated article that declares Detroit the most miserable city (although, I would like to point out Chicago is fourth, and I bet you don't knee-jerk hate that place), but I'd suggest spending some time reading more recent articles celebrating the exciting things happening here. 

All that said, haters gonna hate. 

Love from Detroit.

66

Great article!  I had the pleasure to visit Detroit last spring for the first time and I fell in love it for all the same reasons.  Such grit and pride.  You can tell the place is making a slow come back and its hard to not have visions of what it once was and may be in the future.

67

Speedhunters_Bryn INDIGOfresh  Lets see a piece on Indianapolis soon!!!! the Racing Capitol on the great United States deserves its time to shine on Speedhunters, in my opinion. Naptown has a great car scene. Please please please????

68

I could read this all day, I just read it again. I'll probably read it a few more times. I'm addicted to 'city' so maybe it touched a nerve but its been pronounced by this city. For me Detroit represents SO much, despite its incredible motor history its also the birth place of the Clark Sisters, Juan Atkins, Ritchie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Carl Craig, Kevin Saunderson  the whole UR family, Mowtown!! I could go on forever.  

The very fact that Detroit has become what it has become makes it only more enigmatic to the romantic european that I am. Its like America's Berlin but it hasn't peaked yet! Its crazy though because it pretty much did already peak back in the day with the astounding number of classic vehicles it produced and the, frankly, mind blowing amount of incredible music which erupted from its seams. But here we are in 2015 about to witness one of the most creative cities on the planet, about to re-invent itself yet again, from the ground up, but as you say.. with infrastructure in place just waiting to be reignited with urban enthusiasm. So so SO exciting.

Let's relocate to that space ;)

69
Speedhunters_Bryn

RBJKT  "Let's relocate to that space ;)"


That. :)

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@Doug Yup, this is just a tiny look at what is there, so much good stuff to see.

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Speedhunters_Bryn

Rü$╫ I can imagine it's changed a lot over the last 20-30yrs and as a resident you will have had a wholly different experience!

72
Speedhunters_Bryn

@Spoons I was about to reply to the initial comment, but seriously, people like you are the reason I continue to enjoy my writing. I could not have put it better myself! Thank you so much for that comment.

73
Speedhunters_Bryn

RockScar Glad you agree with my perspective and good luck with your mission :)

74
Speedhunters_Bryn

FrankCastiglione Thanks!

75
Speedhunters_Bryn

Bimmerbey We drove around a lot and yes, the numbers of people living there are large. We find some great bars and restaurants, I'm envious!

76
Speedhunters_Bryn

@Dom Haha, thank you. Grab them all!

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Speedhunters_Bryn

@chrischabre Thanks Chris, I remember you mentioned it yes, and I think you're quite right (and it's reflected in these comments) Detroit is certainly not for everybody.

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Speedhunters_Bryn

AirLift_Brian Hey Brian, that film is great! Exactly what I was getting at and it's interesting to see the local take on it too. Thanks man!

79

Detroit has made it on my bucket list. My God, what a beautiful city..

80

those landscape pictures look amazing!

81

Speedhunters_Bryn EricSeanDelaney

Check out MDU streets of Detroit this season.  Pro-am drift event on the streets around the old train station, August 16th.

82

Best article for 2015 so far ! great work Bryn !

83

Really nice write up, makes me look at this place in a different light

84

If you look at the pits on Google Maps you can see what appears to be grandstands. Looks like someone's tried to add them as 3d models... https://www.google.com.au/maps/place/Belle+Isle,+United+States/@42.3364762,-82.9989642,158m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x8824d4b2383fbbd3:0x3da444fedb5e0199

85

MilesHayler No, they still run the Detroit GP (IndyCAR) there every year.

86

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but I never saw this post until now, even though I've been browsing Speedhunters for years.
I grew up in Detroit, and, after reading this, now feel sad that I never did any exploration. To be fair, we moved when I was 13. But now, I have the urge to take a few days off of work and go explore. Detroit is only an hour and a half from where I live....

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