Top 5 Family Things To Do in Detroit
Veer off Motown's beaten paths to these family pleasing bonanzas, courtesy of Sweet Juniper! blogger and Detroit dad James Griffioen
It's easy to swoop in and out of the Motor City's well-known attractions. But there's more to Detroit than pro sports and big-name touring kids' stage shows. Just ask James D. Griffioen, the stay-at-home Detroit dad behind popular blog Sweet Juniper! A San Francisco ex-pat, he loves raising his two kids (ages 5 and 2) in the city with his wife. Here are few places they've ventured for a fun – and decidedly Detroit – family time.
Tyree's Guyton's 24-year outdoor art installation is visited by thousands of people every year, but I rarely see kids among the visitors. The neighborhood kids love it, and for good reason: The nonprofit associated with the project has fixed up a small playground on the northwest corner, and the installation itself is like a big playground for kids to explore.
It's a great opportunity to talk to kids about the meaning of "art" (is a lawn full of vacuum cleaners topped with rubber gloves "art?") – or what had happened to Detroit's neighborhoods when Guyton started his project in 1986, and what it has done for this neighborhood since. The installations also make a great backdrop for unique photos of your kids.
Side treks: It's just a block or two down Mt. Elliott to the St. Bonaventure Capuchin monastery, where you can volunteer with older kids at the amazing soup kitchen that serves food grown from the many gardens that make up Earthworks Urban Farm – recently declared one of America's top 10 urban farms. A walk down Meldrum Street behind the monastery gives a good tour of these beautiful gardens, and a volunteer might be willing to show you what's growing. From there, the many pleasures of Belle Isle are just down the road.
Imagine the disappointment commingling with fearful awe on your kids' faces after you tell them you're taking them to Disneyland – and then you pull into the alley between Sobieski and Klinger Streets (between Commor and Carpenter) on the north side of Hamtramck to gawk at Ukrainian immigrant Dmytro Szylak's masterpiece.
There's nothing in metro Detroit quite like it. Crammed into a tiny backyard/garage are all manner of whirligigs, Ukrainian saints, rocket ships, Ferris wheels, airplanes, faded photo collages, patriotic symbols and a thousand other things for kids to point and stare at. It's particularly fun at night, when 90-year-old Szylak sometimes turns on the ever-present Christmas lights.
Without those admission prices, long sweaty lines, overpriced food and creepy adults dressed as cartoon characters, I'm sure you and your kids will agree it is way more fun than regular old Disneyland. Even if that's not the case, at least you can grab a good Polish meal.
Side treks: Even better, drive a way up Klinger to Lawley (back into Detroit) and see the rainbow-painted Powerhouse Project on Moran, a project by artistic duo (and new parents) Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart. Artists are buying vacant houses in this neighborhood that would otherwise fall into ruin and working with existing neighbors to forge an inspiring sense of community for Detroit in the 21st century. After a visit to both these places, it makes perfect sense to head over to the original location of Buddy's Pizza just up Conant (at McNichols) to explain to your kids the glorious history of square pizza in Detroit.
This outdoor art installation is also an operating bead store. Visible from I-96 (and located at 6559 Grand River Ave.), Dabl's has a sculpture garden full of carvings and rusty metal and plywood sculptures that my kids love to wander around. The sides of the store/gallery itself are decorated with a series of mirrors, metal and paintings. Inside, there are beads for sale that range from beautiful African examples that date back hundreds of years to more modest beads that cost a few cents, all kept in a series of glass jars. Kids have a lot of fun picking out beads for a bracelet or necklace in there.
Side treks: Dabl's is just down the road from New Center, where you can wander around the incredible art deco Fisher Building and Cadillac Place for hours (my kids are particularly fond of the underground tunnels that connect the buildings – they're a great place to burn off some steam during the long winter months).
Kidz Playland (at 5620 Federal St. in southwest Detroit) is normally a banquet hall with an indoor playground – and sometimes has those big inflatable bouncer things. But once in a while, it hosts amateur/semi-professional Lucha Libre wrestling matches (the style of wrestling in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries where masked luchadores representing good and evil challenge each other in the squared circle). These shows are family friendly (probably far more so than the professional wrestling on TV) – and there's food and drink.
Side treks: Before (or after) the matches is a great chance to play in Clark Park or dine at one of the many excellent restaurants in Southwest Detroit. Be sure to venture away from the old standards on Bagley Street and try one of the many new restaurants that have helped turn this into the most vibrant parts of the city of Detroit.
5. Dequindre Cut (on a weekday)
Next time you pack your bikes for a trip down to Detroit's gorgeous riverfront, detour at the old Dry Dock up the newly-unveiled connector to the Dequindre Cut, a former sunken railway line for the Grand Trunk Railroad that has been converted to a bike and walking path that goes all the way to Gratiot and Eastern Market. The conservancy made the great decision to preserve and encourage artistic graffiti on the old concrete slabs along the cut where bridges used to pass over the tracks.
Side treks: Once at Eastern Market, visit all the shops you might not even notice on a busy Saturday. My favorites are Busy Bee Hardware (the old-fashioned hardware store at Gratiot and Russell), Cheap Charlie's, Germack and Rocky Peanut. And no visit to Eastern Market on a weekday would be complete without a quiet trip to R. Hirt Jr.'s, selling cheese and specialty goods since 1887. Not everyone knows about it, but there's a great toy department on the third floor, full of the sorts of toys you won't find anywhere else in metro Detroit.
For the best pizza in Detroit (according to the Detroit Free Press and me), stop by Supino Pizzeria across the parking lot from Hirt. And if you don't want to bring your bikes, you can always rent them at Wheelhouse Detroit (located at Rivard Plaza on the riverfront). They even rent bikes with child seats.