During the past two decades, Amy S. Eckert has visited Detroit as part of her work as a freelance travel writer. Each visit, she arrives with a set itinerary. Each time, she has some presumptions about what she will see and experience.
And, like most people who get to know Detroit, Eckert leaves with a new appreciation of how far the city has come and how its transformation is truly amazing.
Eckert is, among many titles including President of the Midwest Travel Writers Association, author of a new book about the city. “100 Things to Do in Detroit before You Die” is part of the 100 Things to Do before You Die book series from the Reedy Press. The book is now available at local booksellers and those big national chains as well.
There are a plethora of new books about Detroit that have either been released in the past year (Aaron Foley’s guidebook, “How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass,” comes to mind) or books about to pop (such as Amy Haimerl’s “Detroit Hustle”). There are evergreen titles, like Dan Austin’s wonderful “Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit.” There are hot fiction titles, like Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House,” that show that people who have only visited the city can have an understanding of how the city works as well as longtime residents. Detroit as a writing topic is, well, hot. Publishers get it. And they’re moving quickly to get their share.
This book reflects Eckert’s history with Detroit (she grew up in neighboring Harper Woods before her family moved to the West side of the state). It highlights her experience as a travel writer as she had to sort thought a bevy of information and interesting sites to select 100 things to represent Detroit. It also serves as a tribute to her love for the city and its residents.
“I think of the book as a launch pad; it’s a really good starting point,” Eckert said. “It’s more of a traditional guide book. It’s intended to appeal to people who have lived in Metro Detroit their whole lives – because even if you’ve lived in a place your whole life you haven’t seen everything – and to reach out to people who have never been in Detroit. They’ve heard the buzz of how the city is coming back. They’ve heard about the cool indie restaurants, the urban gardens, the trendy shops, and they’re curious. They want to know where to start.”
But, before you get your hackles up, Eckert doesn’t live in Detroit. And, in the case of writing this book, that’s a good thing, Eckert asserts. Although she has spent countless hours here both researching the book, writing travel stories about the city for freelance clients and visiting family, she believes have a distance from Detroit allows her to see it more clearly.
“I am sensitive (to people writing about Detroit who don’t live in the city); I think it’s a fair question,” said Eckert, who lives near Holland, Mich.
And – in case you want your head to explode – she also thinks that you have to write about ALL of Detroit. Yes, the longtime businesses that have been here for decades. Yup, those mid-term sophomores who have been here for a long time. Yessiree, even those newcomers who have joined in on the fun in the past year. All are valid; all are important.
“Part of what makes Detroit exciting for me is the combination of new and old,” Eckert said. “I like going to the Guardian building for coffee – it’s a great old building and I love the history that saturates the place. But I also enjoy Gold Cash Gold and Detroit Water Ice that show creative uses of old spaces.”
In fact, visiting cities of a like nature around the world (Berlin in particular, Eckert notes) as well as a variety of American cities has helped Eckert see Detroit’s greatness and understand its struggles both then and now.
“Sometimes, when you leave an area, when you get a little bit of perspective, you see what’s truly remarkable about a place,” Eckert said. “I live an equal distance between Chicago and Detroit. I love them both. But Detroit has its own personality. I’m not sure I would have seen that quite so clearly if I had lived there for the past 20 years (rather than visiting).
“As a travel writer, I’ve had a chance to compare Detroit to a lot of cities. There’s much about the city that reminds me of Memphis and Berlin – places that have difficult historical moments but also have this rich history of art, culture, music. That history permeates the city and makes for a really fascinating place to visit – it’s the juxtaposition of blue collar and innovation.”
“Those kinds of cities that have a complicated history are much more interesting. I’ve been to cities that had an easy growing up and they’re not always very interesting. Sometimes, they’re a little bit sterile. I like cities that have an interesting backstory,” Eckert said.
And, like a good Detroiter, she appreciates when the city comes back to prove her wrong. For example, she recalls visiting the city with a tour that included the Westin Book Cadillac hotel. At the time, it was still “a ruin,” or a shell of a facility. She couldn’t believe that it could be brought back to life. But she was happily wrong.
“I thought it was too far gone. Now, it’s my favorite place to stay in the city. It’s amazing what happened there,” Eckert said. “I call it ‘Ruin Porn Reborn’ in the book.”
So even if you think you know Detroit…things change. People change. Places change. So you have to keep coming back.
“There’s always a reason to go back,” Eckert said. “I hope the book helps people explore the city whether they live there or are first timers to Detroit. I hope it makes a small difference to the city economically; tourism is good for a city. … There’s no one as supportive of Detroit as a Detroiter.”