Explore Detroit — while practicing strict social distancing

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Note: Consult with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's latest stay-at-home order and observe social distancing.

After a while, there's only so much lockdown a person can take. And while walks around the neighborhood are fine, after a while it gets old.

And who hasn't exhausted their store of indoor activities and busy work?

So here's a modest proposal: Get in your car and tool around the city of Detroit.

Detroit's always had a certain romance when the streets are empty. And even without restaurants and coffeeshops to drop in on, the streetscape is still interesting and compellingly urban.

In many ways, it's a perfect time. The weather's getting nicer, and because streets are mostly empty, you can rubber-neck at new construction and renovated landmarks without antagonizing impatient drivers behind you.

And while it's great to be in a big city when things are hopping, there's also a quiet beauty to streetscapes temporarily free of human distraction. Plus, if you want to get out and explore on foot, the parking's never been easier.

But let's be clear: All the rules of social distancing still apply. Don't roll your window down to talk to people on the street unless they're six feet away. And if you do get out to walk, keep a generous distance from other pedestrians. The bottom line, of course, is that the  safest thing would be just to stay in your private auto bubble, breathing your own air and no one else's, and enjoying the handsome scenery.

With those cautions in mind, here are four modest suggestions on where to wander some sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Brush Park & City Modern Detroit

Just east of Woodward and north of Comerica Park is the once-luxurious residential neighborhood of Brush Park, between John R and Brush from the Fisher Freeway trench north to Mack Avenue.

Bedrock's modernist development, City Modern Detroit, is just north of Comerica Park on Edmund Place and Alfred Street, between John R and Brush.

The area was built up in the 1870s and 1880s with orange-brick Victorian mansions, but by the turn of the 20th century, as industry started sprang up nearby, the affluent set moved farther north and the district -- once called "Little Paris" for its elegance -- began to decline.

In recent years, dozens of old mansions decayed or collapsed, leaving the neighborhood gap-toothed and profoundly sad.

The renovated Ransom Gillis House is at the heart of the contemporary City Modern neighborhood rising just north of Comerica Park.

That's all changing. A startlingly contemporary neighborhood built by Bedrock, City Modern Detroit, is rising on several blocks midst the wreckage.

In addition to modern townhouses and apartment blocks, the development has renovated the four old mansions within its footprint. The most striking example is the Venetian-Gothic Ransom Gillis House at John R and Alfred, with its dramatic second-story turret, now framed by townhomes designed in geometric elegance.

New Center & La Salle Gardens

Really - when was the last time you drove or walked around the city that Albert Kahn built?

All the landmarks that define the area were designed by Detroit's most-prolific architect -- the 1920 General Motors Building and GM Laboratory behind it, the 1929 Fisher Building, the 1931 Albert Kahn Building (former New Center Building), and the 1930 Argonaut, now part of the College for Creative Studies.

The Albert Kahn Building, just north of the Fisher, is a particularly handsome design, and supposedly about to be renovated into cool residential space.

The Albert Kahn Building, just north of the Fisher Building, which is supposed to be renovated for residential use.

But don't overlook the GM Laboratory on Milwaukee, right across from the red-brick Argonaut. Emphatically neo-classical with heroic bas-relief sculptures of men at work, this numbers among Detroit's handsomest buildings, but because of its location on a particularly narrow street, it's hard to appreciate unless you stop and get out of your car.

Continuing west on Grand Boulevard, you'll pass The Boulevard, a new apartment building from The Platform development group that finally fills in the empty block between Third and the John Lodge Expressway, which has been vacant for decades. (Half a century ago, it was the site of a Howard Johnson's restaurant.)

A strikingly handsome home on LaSalle Street just north of Grand Boulevard.

Continue west past Rosa Parks and 14th Street, and turn right on La Salle Boulevard, a gorgeous residential street that's one of the city's best-kept secrets. All the homes here are impressive, but the gorgeous house at 7477 La Salle is a monument to history -- with bullet holes still visible from the 1967 riots.

Boston-Edison & Arden Park

Drive around the mansion district west of Woodward between Edison and W. Boston, and you can't help but be struck by the buckets of money that must have been sloshing around Detroit in the teens and 1920s.

Two noteworthy houses by Albert Kahn are worth seeking out -- 150 W. Boston, built in 1915 for department store magnate Benjamin Siegel, and 610 Longfellow, which Kahn designed in 1910 for James Couzens, the Ford executive who went on to be both Detroit mayor and U.S. senator. 

The gracious 1915 house Albert Kahn built for Benjamin Siegel on W. Boston.

The Siegel house has been splendidly renovated. Sadly, the Couzens mansion awaits some ambitious soul with deep pockets. All the same, it's a very good-looking building.

Almost everyone in the area knows about Boston-Edison, but few realize that the grand district leaps over Woodward, and continues its magnificence on E. Boston and Arden Park Boulevard up to Oakland Ave. Many of the early homes were built by architect George Mason for the city's rising aristocracy, including John Dodge and J.L. Hudson.

A gracious arts-and-crafts house by Albert Kahn on East Boston Boulevard in Detroit.


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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy