Detroit seems like one of those cities that has a better reputation abroad than on home soil.
I landed in Detroit, travelling alone, buoyed by an inner pulsing soundtrack and fighting the urge to put my hands up every few minutes in the baggage hall.
I also arrived with more cautionary baggage and memories of wide-eyed stares than I’d had when I arrived in Egypt minutes before the revolution, Columbia post drug-war years and the Middle East, well, pretty much anytime.
The word Detroit, it would seem, has cast a knife of terror into the soul of many an American.
“Do NOT speak to anyone at the airport,” they cautioned me at Salt Lake City.
“I’m serious. Do not go anywhere alone,” I heard in Nevada.
And New York? I got the sassiest eyebrow raise that I think I’ve ever seen.
Not, of course, that I want to mislead you.
This was no intrepid, solo exploration of, well, unexplored frontiers.
Detroit was heading my way, or perhaps the other way around, because Virgin Atlantic had launched a new flight route, connecting in to the US Delta Network through its sprawling Detroit hub. And they invited me to come along.
Sadly, I missed the Richard Branson-led flash mob on the inaugural flight (true story) as I was in the States already. Hence the travelling up on my own.
But I had been fascinated by the idea of Detroit for years.
Partly, yes, the influence of Eminem in my youth.
But also, the strange notion that a city could just swallow itself up and decay. That there could be such a thing as a huge, abandoned city.
I couldn’t think of a European parallel, save perhaps for a small village in the Peak District that was deliberately flooded out of existence or the Italian city of Pompeii, which of course succumbed to a rather different kind of disaster.
Perhaps we just don’t have the space in Europe for people to up and leave? Or perhaps all those with tendencies to pack up and move, packed up and moved over the last few centuries, not least of all to the modern United States.
Still, all musings and mumblings aside, it was Detroit today that I wanted to see.
It was a whistlestop tour, led by Virgin-branded vinyl discs rather than any whistle that I could see. Immaculate, scarlet-clad cabin crew directed jet-lagged journalists hither and thither through a range of interesting options.
The first big surprise came in the shape of the vast, and I mean vast, Henry Ford Museum that took in volumes of American history. From the bus where Rosa Parks refused to stand to the presidential limousine where Kennedy took his last breath.
Then there were the Ford-related things themselves: the world’s oldest auto plant open to the public at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant where the Ford Model T was born and a revolution launched. The Ford Rouge Factory where the modern day military grade aluminium-alloy body Ford F-150s ping off the assembly line like shiny metallic skittles.
Ford itself is more than a household name, it’s what transported me back and forth across the Severn Bridge to my Welsh family and back; it’s the inspirational story of a man who created something new and whose quotes
gave me a kick of the backside inspired me throughout my A levels and beyond.
Henry Ford Quotes
Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re usually right.
You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses.”
And then there were the words and the inspiration I never knew I never knew until I stepped onto the blue and white porch of Hitsville USA.
Music history always seems to have passed me by but even I could recognise this historic line-up:
The Jackson Five
Diana Ross and The Supremes
All talent spotted by Berry Gordy here in Detroit and nurtured into the global megastars we know today.
And you can walk into that tiny studio, converted from a garage in the unassuming blue and white house on West Grand Boulevard and retrace their steps.
You can even (she shudders at the memory) sing in the studio too if you like.
“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car. What a great idea! Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star.”
Berry Gordy on his experience working in the Ford plant. He chose the name Motown to reflect the motoring history of Detroit.
But the biggest surprise of all?
The reactions I got from Detroiters when I did venture out alone.
Again, I’m not pretending to be some kind of Motown Crocodile Dundee here.
I took a few short walks through Foxtown, got a bite or two to eat and headed into the city from the airport all alone.
I got as much attention as I would on the chatty streets of Spain – and all of it was helpful.
From the women who yelled after me that I’d somehow dropped my coat, to the diners seeing me snapping pics who told me where I could find better shots.
To, yes, the people I’d been warned away from within Detroit’s own baggage hall.
So, while I still have more stories to tell and hope one day to return.
Perhaps it’s time to add a word or two of gentle encouragement to my dear American friends.
Go on. Indulge me. And put your hands up for Detroit.
You may even find you love this city.
Disclosure – As mentioned above, I travelled to Detroit with Virgin Atlantic as they now fly from London Heathrow to Detroit to connect with the Delta Hub. You can read my Virgin Business Class Review over here. And as ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like.
Otherwise, what’s the point of living in this wonderful, magnificent world?!
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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