Detroit Experience Factory offers tours, both walking and virtual

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Now that the lockdown has largely been lifted, are you ready to start exploring Detroit again?

Here's one opportunity: The Detroit Experience Factory has re-started its Best of Downtown walking tours, with all sorts of COVID-19 precautions in place. The group also offers virtual tours -- conducted via Zoom -- that range from A History of Indigenous Peoples in Detroit to Downtown Detroit Art & Architecture.

The Detroit Experience Factory has restarted their Best of Downtown walking tours, but also offer a range of online tours as well.

Factory founder Jeanette Pierce has been conducting tours since 2006, and defines the group's mission as "using immersive storytelling to educate people about Detroit and its people."

The Detroit Experience Factory has taken over 130,000 people, both local and visitors from far away, on around the city.

The emphasis is on pulling real Detroiters into the mix, letting tour participants hear from business owners and other residents to give an accurate picture of the lived experience of city life.

But wait, you say, aren't the virtual tours a huge step down from the actual thing, like the Best of Downtown walking tour?

Well, yes and no.

Pierce, who's also founder of The City Institute, confesses she thought taking most of her tours online would be a lousy alternative, but she doesn't think it's worked out that way.

"I have to admit I thought I thought it would suck," she said, "but it’s been really awesome. In a lot of ways, the virtual tours are better," because digital technology offers opportunities unavailable when you're hoofing it.

The Detroit Experience Factory has restarted their Best of Downtown walking tours, but also offer a range of online tours as well.

For instance, her tour guides -- all locals, by the way -- can drop Google street view images into their discussions, giving participants an up-close look at buildings or streets that would be far distant in a walking tour.

"We talk about the Z Garage on some of our tours, for example," Pierce said. "You used have to imagine that it was once just an empty parking lot and stinking alley. But now we can show an image of what it used to look like."

Similarly, when discussing Detroit entrepreneurs and how they've boosted neighborhoods, the guide can show a picture of the adorable east side bakery, Sister Pie -- and also put up a picture of their building when it was still empty and desolate for a vivid glimpse of before and after.

"With virtual tours," she noted, "geography doesn’t matter as much" -- an advantage in a town as spread out as Detroit. She thinks she'll still maintain some virtual tours "once things go back to normal."

The Best of Downtown walking tour costs $5 per person, and is limited to 15. Virtual tours are free. Virtual tours can take you to neighborhoods far from downtown, including Corktown, Grandmont-Rosedale Park, Livernois and The Villages on the east side. 

For July and August, actual walking tours will be limited to the Best of Downtown. But Pierce anticipates she might be able to start up a few others come fall -- with masks and appropriate social distancing, naturally.

Other virtual tours include A Short History of Racism, an Innovation and Inspiration tour focused on Black food outlets, and Ruins Restored: The Greatest Buildings We Almost Lost.

Groups can also arrange private tours. Pierce is in discussions with the city of Pontiac to do some focused on that city.

Her guiding philosophy is always to "focus is on local people," PIerce said. "There's always more to learn. Let's break down silos and barriers. Let's get the east side to know the west side."

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy