If Detroit could bottle up all the love that Jeanette Pierce has for the city, it could wipe out all the misperceptions that it isn’t a place for families.
In fact, Pierce, mom of 2 ½-year-old triplets, says Detroit isn’t just an excellent place to raise a family because of its diversity, commitment to cool outdoor spaces and urban farming and its investment in being walk- and bike-friendly; it also provides many lovely ways to spend lazy summer days.
“Detroit is and always has been a great place for families. I literally wouldn’t live anywhere else with my children if you gave me all the money in the world,” says Pierce, who created the Detroit Experience Factory to share her love for the city with everyone through tours and experiences. “They say it takes a village, but we have a city.”
So, as Michigan shakes off the coronavirus, we put Pierce to the test to share things she does with her own kids to take advantage of those cool outdoor spaces and help moms and dads fill their own summer bucket list, D-style. Plus, we got some backup assist from Marc Pasco, a dad who shares the same passion for the city.
“My mom used to say, if you’re bored, it’s your own fault,” Pierce says. “That is definitely true in Detroit.”
Any day of the week is a good day along the Detroit River’s award-winning Riverwalk. But be sure to pencil in Thursdays and Fridays July 8-Aug. 13 for the popular early literacy program, Reading & Rhythm on the Riverfront, this year expanded and moved to Gabriel Richard Park at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge to give families more space to spread out.
Pasco, who is director of communications for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, which cares for the Riverwalk, says it’s by far the most chill park along the riverfront for families. While there, check out the butterfly garden and birding scopes to fuel kids’ interest in the newest birdwatching trend.
Or wander to Robert C. Valade Park, the Riverwalk’s newest park. “It’s absolutely amazing,” Pierce says. Find kid-friendly lifeguard stations with slides and climbing nets, a huge sand area to play in and a little musical garden with hands-on instruments. It’s a place to take a potty break and grab lunch at one of the restaurants — either barbecue or sushi. It even offers a pavilion with grills for make-your-own meals, Pasco says. (Parents will also like Bob’s Barge, Detroit’s only floating bar.)
At Cullen Plaza, the oldest park along the Riverwalk and still the most popular according to Pasco, find more food at the Riverwalk Café (because kids are always hungry), jump on the carousel, which just reopened, and let loose on the playscape. Check out Wheelhouse Detroit bike rentals with bikes for all sizes (advance reservations recommended, and you even save a bit of cash) to see just how bike-friendly Detroit is. Or splurge a bit and go on a Diamond Jack Riverboat Tour. Or do both.
Art and nature
Passion abounds in Detroit, and some pretty amazing artists put it all out there for everyone to see.
See graffiti art — some of it decades old and some commissioned by the River Conservancy in recent years — along the Dequindre Cut. While there, let the kids get their energy out climbing, jumping and balancing on logs cut just for them to play on.
From there, follow the long, wide walkway to Eastern Market for hundreds of colorful murals to explore. Pierce likes taking her kids on a walk through the murals during the week. “Talk about a storybook come to life,” she says. The murals are “endless, free outdoor entertainment for them and for me. That’s been really exciting.”
Not too far away, but best to drive there, is The Heidelberg Project. There’s always something new to discover at the free outdoor art attraction that offers DIY tours and guided tours. Bonus: Sneak in some summer learning with the new children’s book, Yeret Nutyog! by Jenenne Whitfield, that tells the story of Detroit artist Tyree Guyton who founded Heidelberg.
New and old
Mix a city-cool vibe with huge, colorful art installations and food trucks with old-fashioned fun, and your family will find the perfect escape at the new Monroe Street Midway near Campus Martius Park. This space features the city’s only outdoor roller rink, Rollout Detroit, thanks to a partnership between Bedrock Detroit and Detroit’s oldest Black-owned skating rink, RollerCade. Book skating ahead of time — and don’t worry if you’re a newbie; skating lessons are available at noon Fridays.
Plus, yummy Huddle Soft Serve ice cream is close by.
Everyone knows Belle Isle is a great spot for bucket list fun with the conservatory and aquarium — hopefully reopening soon — a given, but don’t miss out on the Belle Isle Nature Center, too (plan ahead for now because, at press time, family and nature hikes and other programming is by preregistration only). Don’t forget to speed down the giant slide, set up camp at the beach that leads gently into the Detroit River and check out the Dossin Great Lakes Museum for something a little different (think more summer learning.)
Pierce also likes Rouge Park. She says it looks like a little piece of the UP but right here in the middle of Detroit. It houses lots of biking and hiking trails and three pools, along with D-Town Farm, the largest organic urban farm in the area, and a model airplane runway.
“The pandemic has caused people to really embrace and appreciate public spaces more than ever,” Pasco says.
And in Detroit, that doesn’t have to stop any time soon.
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