Rust Belt Road Trip
In decades past, America’s Midwest contained much of the nation’s industrial might—from the blast furnaces and steel mills of Pittsburgh to the automobiles produced in Detroit to the massive manufacturing plants of Cleveland, these were great cities with good jobs, home to millions. Detroit once rivaled Chicago in wealth and prestige, something evidenced in its legacy of lovely Art Deco buildings in the downtown core. Pittsburgh shipped its steel around the world, while Cleveland drew workers from across the globe to its plants.
And then, in the second half of the twentieth century, the bottom dropped out.
Competition from overseas ruined these once-great cities. Jobs and plants moved to places like India and China, leaving creaking, abandoned, shuttered industrial facilities in their wake—leading to the region being tagged as the “Rust Belt.”
But there’s been a reawakening here. These cities have reinvented themselves as bona fide tourist destinations.
And this past summer, my buddy Paul and me set out in his ten-year-old Honda Civic to explore them on a sort of ersatz summer vacation. All along the way, we found some real gems—culinary, cultural, historical and other attractions on a truly world-class scale. We enjoyed every city, each one distinctive and fascinating in its own way. Here are some of the favorite things we saw along the way.
One of America’s great new ballparks, Comerica is set right in the heart of Detroit’s downtown, an anchor (with Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions football team) of a downtown renaissance. With fans coming back downtown to see games, new cafes and bars have sprung up all around. And it’s also a great place to see a ball game, home to the Detroit Tigers (an excellent team that has made two recent World Series appearances) and jam-packed with other, family-friendly attractions, including a Ferris wheel with baseball-shaped cars and a carousel with tigers in place of horses.
One of the largest manufacturing plants in the world, “the Rouge” has been pumping out cars and trucks for decades. It also hosts one of the great “how it’s made” tours available anywhere, with visitors watching two films before touring the actual, working truck plant—a must for anyone (like me) who has ever gazed at one of those giants factories and wondered, “what’s going on in there?”
Its self-proclaimed status as “America’s greatest historical attraction” is only a slight exaggeration. Here, Henry Ford himself—a great collector, if there ever was one—gathered together some of the greatest national treasures, including the bus where civil rights legend Rosa Parks sat firm and removed to move, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, and the chair in which Abraham Lincoln sat on that fateful night when he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. Then head next door to Greenfield Village, a living history museum that includes the actual house, moved here from Ohio, owned by the Wright Brothers, as well as a tavern that serves up meals as they were eaten a century ago.
An urban wasteland of abandoned stores and crime just a few years back, this neighborhood—which was once a separate city that actually rivaled Cleveland—has been reinvented as a trendy main street of microbreweries, small shops selling handmade items, one of the largest covered markets in the Midwest (the West Side Market, with more than 30,000 square feet of space and some 100 individual vendors), and even a large urban farm. Make sure to grab a cold one at the Great Lakes Brewery, which serves up some of the best frosty brews in the nation.
While it may surprise many, Cleveland is home to one of the largest live theatre districts in America, home to a string of beautifully restored playhouses and a great number of live touring productions. Five venues, all of which were constructed over a span of two years in the 1920s, have been restored to their original glory in a recently completed project that has been called “the world’s largest theater restoration project”—lovely to tour, and even better as a venue to see a live show.
A must-visit spot for any music lover, the “Rock Hall” (as everyone in Cleveland calls it) preserves and celebrates rock’n’roll music, presenting its history in a series of engaging films and presenting a number of fascinating items, including a big black Lincoln Continental with an interior customized by Elvis Presley, a Nudie Suit worn by Hank Williams, and the acoustic guitar played at the Montreal “bed in” when John and Yoko recorded “Give Peace a Chance.”
It doesn’t get much more authentic than this. Now a ruin, the Carrie Furnace churned out more than 1,000 tons of molten iron every day until it was shut down by US Steel, which shuttered its plants up and down this valley north of Pittsburgh, leaving more than 40,000 jobless. Former employees now take visitors around the facility, mixing together commentary about the various areas and their functions with real-life stories about their time here and the lives they built on this foundation of steel.
Little more than a window on the street, this take-out joint was built on an intriguing premise: to serve only the cuisine of nations currently in conflict with the United States. So far, they’ve featured Cuban, Iranian and Afghani food, with employees in some cases traveling to the home nation to ensure they get it right. A delicious, cultural experience.
Thai gates painted in psychedelic colors, tableaux of plastic dinosaurs, giant wall murals of utopian scenes, various set-ups of lawn furniture in many different colors—its all part of Randyland, the brainchild of Randy Gilson, a breakfast waiter at the local Westin and an inventor, artist, and an eccentric local character, all rolled into one. On the city’s north side, Randy has created a phantasmagoria of colour and shape in his backyard, which has expanded to the walls of a neighboring house. An interesting place to visit at any time, it’s even better when Randy himself can take you around for a tour.
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