When Detroit invented the automobile it became a city of neighborhoods, sprawling as far as the eye could see. As the population dropped and neighborhoods became emptier, certain areas of the city became far more rural. Today it isn't uncommon to see homes with three or four connected lots fenced in, urban farms sprawling for city blocks, and huge art installations. This tour will take you through some of my favorite parts of wild Detroit, all of which are accessible year round.
Use the map above to take the tour, which goes in order through the locations below. I highly recommend changing the settings in Google Maps to avoid the highways, as you will see far more of the beautiful city of Detroit this way!
The first stop on our journey is to what was originally the location of a vacation home for legendary Senator Thomas Palmer. Palmer was a successful lumber baron and later won a seat in the U.S. Senate and was the U.S. ambassador to Spain. After the death of his mother, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth took over the land Palmer Park currently resides on and eventually built a log-cabin on the property that is still there today. They used it to entertain guests and house priceless family heirlooms, sitting some 7 miles from Campus Martius it was also used as a recreational destination away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Detroit. As Thomas grew older, he began donating portions of his estate to the city. He eventually donated all of his land, now bounded by 7 Mile to the north and McNichols to the south, under the stipulation that his log cabin never be torn down and the woods never deforested. The 296-acre park sits, as it did centuries ago, wooded and woven with walking and hiking paths. The Merrill Fountain, which originally sat in front of the Detroit Opera House in Campus Martius, also resides in Palmer Park. The park is a popular place for picnics, walking with dogs, golfing, and swimming especially in the warmer months.
The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative
MUFI is based in the North End and has been working to create an urban farming community in the neighborhood for almost a decade. They purchased a three-story six-unit apartment complex on Brush Street in 2011, and they are working to redevelop it into a community center complete with a healthy food cafe to center their 3-acre home base in the city. In the summer months especially, walking around the farm is quite unique. Rows and rows of different fruits and vegetables, community members from different backgrounds working together, and volunteers and tours sprinkled into the mix as well. You can schedule a tour here, or just head over there to see it for yourself. As always, be respectful of the property as they have been working tirelessly to maintain it.
William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse
On the far side of Belle Isle, closest to Lake St.Clair, sits the only Georgia Marble lighthouse in North America. William Livingstone founded and was president of the Dime Bank, owned the Detroit Evening Journal, and was the president of the Lake Carriers Association for years. So it seemed fitting that upon his death in 1925 something be done to commemorate his influential time on earth. The answer was the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse. It was designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn and sculpted by Gaza Moroti. The Detroit Historical Society writes that ‘The lighthouse is a shining tribute to one of the most influential men in Detroit shipping history.' Year round the lighthouse draws adventurers, photographers, and picnickers from across the world.
Not far from the Belle Isle lighthouse lies Hippie Beach. To access it you have to trek through dirt trails and over two bridges, and the beach is a common spot for picnicking, swimming, and sunbathing in the summer. In the fall all the trees turn their majestic autumnal colors, and in the winter you can walk out on the lake and river to get a unique perspective. While walking through the trails on the far side of Belle Isle you start to get a feel of how the island was before opening to the public in 1845, until you notice the power plant across the river and the tops of skyscrapers pointing out in the distance.
Belle Isle Golf Course
Belle Isle used to be home to a well-groomed 9-hole golf course. There was a small clubhouse, lots of benches and maintenance sheds, and a beautiful covered bridge. Most of this remains today, and the bridge is a common spot to see photographers and adventurers alike. The golf course closed in 2008 and hasn’t been maintained since, leaving the course overgrown and shabby. The covered bridge is still very accessible, and you can walk across it to reach the other side of Lake Muskoday. While exploring the bridge it feels as if you’re in a rural suburb, not the heart of the biggest city in Michigan. Although no plans have been announced for reopening the course, it isn’t uncommon to see dozens of park goers enjoying the former course on a summer evening.
Detroit’s City Airport, now the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport, was dedicated in 1927. The first hangar went up soon thereafter and City Airport was where most Detroiter’s flew in and out of. Eventually a neighborhood grew around the airport, and on the south and west sides of the airport thriving neighborhoods housed hundreds of families. When most airport traffic started to head over to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, the airport’s traffic died down, and so did the neighborhoods surrounding it. Today, not much is left in the neighborhood west of the airport. There are a few homes here and there, some blocks doing better than others, but for the most part it has been reduced to a grassy prairie. In the summer months it isn’t uncommon to see teens driving their ATVs down the empty streets and families hosting huge barbecues on the vast empty lots. Although it may not seem like it, the area west of City Airport was once a vibrant neighborhood.