Detroit’s Eastern Market and Belle Isle State Park

Our blog has been pretty sparse for the last few months. I attribute that to a combination of laziness and the intimidation that accompanies getting the first sentences written in an otherwise blank editing box. But because we’re still having fun touring the country–this summer, we’re in the Upper Midwest–and it seems a shame to keep all these experiences to ourselves, I plan to work harder in the future to share our adventures with you.

Detroit wasn't exactly on our way up Michigan's west coast.

Detroit wasn’t exactly on our way up Michigan’s west coast.

A Detour to Detroit

After more than a week in Elkhart and Goshen, Indiana for upgrades and repairs to the RV, we had planned to work our way north up the western coast of Michigan. A visit to Detroit wasn’t originally in our plans. But when we needed to book a flight back to DFW for my mother’s 80th birthday, we realized that flying out of Detroit Metro Airport would save us hundreds of dollars compared to flights out of a smaller, less-competitive city like Traverse City or Petoskey.

It also dawned on us that we still had our mental distance expectations calibrated for the huge expanses of the western United States, Alaska and western Canada, where we spent most of last year. We’re going to drive all the way ACROSS THE STATE OF MICHIGAN from to Detroit?? Oh…wait…that takes only about three hours!

So on Friday, July 6, we drove to Detroit from Grand Rapids, stopping in Lansing for lunch with our friends Paul and Nancy. We had a little mishap on the road just before Lansing, but I’ll save that for another post.

With Paul & Nancy at lunch in Lansing

With our Xscapers friends Paul & Nancy at The Cosmos, a Lansing gastropub with great pizza. We’re learning that Michiganers know their pizza!

Visiting Eastern Market

The next day, Saturday, we ventured into Detroit for the first time from our RV park in Belleville to the west. Our destination was Eastern Market, a year-round Saturday market hosting as many as 225 vendors and 40,000 customers, with another 150 food-centric businesses surrounding the market itself. It was a beautiful day, and at a high of 82º promised to be the coolest of the upcoming week, so I’m pretty sure that a good part of those 40,000 people were there at the same time we were. It was crowded.

Eastern Market map

Trying to find our way around Detroit’s enormous Eastern Market.

Eastern Market, the country’s largest open-air farmer’s market, is a Detroit institution. Dating all the way back to 1891,  the market has served as the region’s pantry, providing fresh food “to nourish a healthier, wealthier and happier Detroit”. The big Saturday Market is just one of four hosted in the facility during the summertime. On Sundays, the market features local artists, cooks, jewelers, musicians, and more, with smaller markets held on Tuesdays and on Thursday nights.

In the middle of Detroit's Eastern Market

In the middle of Detroit’s Eastern Market, between two of the permanent “shed” structures.

Five “sheds”–actually massive open-air concrete structures–comprise the core of Eastern Market. Inside and between the sheds, vendors set up tables laden with fresh fruits and vegetables, artisan baked goods and meats, and more, along with flowers, herbs and nursery plants.

Inside Eastern Market

Fresh produce vendors near the center of Shed 3, the largest building at Eastern Market.

We quickly discovered that not all the produce was locally-grown–some of it was shipped in from other places, just like in the grocery store. As you’d expect, prices on the locally-grown produce were much better. We picked up some yellow squash, avocados, strawberries, spinach, fresh mint, English cucumbers and green beans. Of course, all that shopping for healthy food made us hungry, so we also sampled treats from a Greek spinach pastry to good ol’ Southern-style sweet potato pie.

Say Yes to Pie

As a matter of fact, we did say “yes,” to a mini sweet potato pie.

Belle Isle State Park

Leaving Eastern Market, we made a short drive to Belle Isle State Park. Belle Isle sits in the middle of the Detroit River, just a few hundred yards north of Windsor, Canada. (Yes, you read that correctly: Detroit is the only place in the United States where Canada–at least a little peninsula of it–lies to the south.)

Detroit map with Canada to the south

Yup, that’s Canada to the south of the United States at Detroit.

Belle Isle is a 987-acre urban park owned by the City of Detroit. It was reminiscent of (and actually larger than) Manhattan’s Central Park. In fact, the same famous American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed both parks. The park includes three lakes, 150 acres of wooded area and spectacular views of the Detroit and Windsor skylines. Belle Isle features a nature zoo, conservatory, golf driving range, small maritime museum, and an even smaller aquarium.

Apparently, Belle Isle Park had become run down during the Motor City’s decline in the ’80s and ’90s. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources took over operation of the park in 2013, and after years of neglect, it is making a nice comeback. On this Saturday, many large families and groups were enjoying picnics and cookouts throughout the park. It’s also a great area for walking and biking, although by that afternoon the temperature had climbed well past the forecast high, so we settled for a drive around the island.

The massive James Scott Memorial Fountain–designed by architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC–anchors the western end of the island. The lower bowl of the fountain is 510 feet in diameter, and the central spray reaches 125 feet into the air. The fountain’s namesake, James Scott, was a “colorful” and controversial character who bequeathed his entire estate to the City of Detroit, on the condition that the money be used to build a monumental fountain as a tribute to him, complete with a life-size bronze statue of him on the site. After years of debate, the city finally completed the fountain in 1925.

James Scott Memorial Fountain

The James Scott Memorial Fountain, on the western end of Belle Isle.

As we crossed back over the MacArthur Bridge from Belle Isle toward downtown Detroit, we could see the revitalized international riverfront area. Over the last few years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has been hard at work to transform this area, once symbolic of the city’s urban blight, into a beautiful and safe gathering place for everyone. The before and after photos on the Conservancy’s website dramatically illustrate the improvements.

Detroit riverfront before & after

Before and after views of the riverfront area near the bridge to Belle Isle (from the Convervancy’s website).

On the way back to our RV, both of us were struck by how different Detroit–at least the parts we’d seen so far–was from the dirty, decaying and dangerous city we’d expected. Of course, there are unsafe areas where you wouldn’t want to go, but that’s true of most other major cities as well. But our first day in Detroit left us eager to explore more of what the city had to offer.

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