Tag Archives: Detroit Tours

DETROIT: Once Upon A Time……

17 Mar

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Have you ever been to the Thanksgiving Parade in downtown Detroit? If you live in the Metro Detroit area, chances are you have at least watched it on television; floats, marching bands, balloons all making their way down Woodward Ave, viewers anxiously awaiting the moment when Santa arrives. You can’t help but smile, everybody seems to be having such a grand time, no matter what the thermometer says. Thanks to The Parade Company you can take a behind-the-scenes tour of their enchanting paradeland, floats old and new all within arm’s reach. Group tours (10 or more) are made by reservation, since there are only two of us we are joining a Girl Scout troop for our journey through 200,000 sq ft of parade history and magic.

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We make our way to Huber Street and enter the driveway of what used to be the expansive Chrysler Lynch Road Assembly Plant. There is great history in the building alone, designed by Albert Kahn (really) and built in the late 20’s, it sat at the epicenter of Chrysler’s auto manufacturing domain in Detroit. On or within a stones throw of Lynch were two foundries, an axle plant, forge, marshaling center and transport facility, all owned by Chrysler.  In close proximity to Dodge main, Jefferson avenue, Mound Road Engine and Dodge Truck, imagine the beehive of activity. Even the little known Dual-Ghia, preferred by the likes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball, was assembled right around the corner near Grinell and Van Dyke. At one time the Lynch road plant employed over 12,000 , everything from Desoto, Dodge and Plymouth to military vehicles and parts of the Manhattan Project were built here. Most renowned for its contribution to the Muscle car era; Lynch turned out many a Road Runner, Super Bee, Charger, GTX, R/T and Superbird during its heyday. You can bet a few neighbor’s were awakened by the sounds of a 440 Six pack or 426 Hemi getting wrung out by an employee. Unfortunately, after over 50 years of production the plant became obsolete, automobiles have not been built here since the early 1980’s. Make no mistake, this plant was a major part of Detroit’s manufacturing history.

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 Our guide, Steve, introduces himself, goes over a few rules and the tour begins. A bright purple wall showcases photos of Grand Marshalls through the years; most have something to do with Michigan, Thomas Hearns, Anita Baker, Ernie Harwell and Aretha Franklin. Others such as Mickey Mouse, Lassie, Big Bird and Jessica Simpson are a few of the exceptions. We enter Studio A, this is where floats are designed and built, vibrant colors cover the walls, newspaper articles on the parade are proudly displayed. We have our first encounter with giant paper mache heads; Tom Selleck, Bo Schembechler, Sparky Anderson and Magic Johnson. We are surrounded by work spaces; a metal shop, wood shop and a station filled with enormous pieces of styrofoam. Volunteers are already busy at work creating figures for the 2014 parade. Plywood shelves hold heads of sports figures wearing baseball hats, renderings of floats show the design process from beginning to end. This former factory spreads out as far as the eye can see, bicycles and scooters are often used as a means of transportation from one end to another. 

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We get our first up close view of a float, grown-ups are just as excited as the scouts, everyone wants their picture taken in front of their favorite. We learn floats are made to be pushed, pulled or self-propelled; the Wizard of Oz is made up of several sections, we are able to peek underneath and see the automobile chassis it rides on, this is so cool! It’s hard to believe how detailed everything is, from faces to flowers it’s all beautiful. The Parade Company has built floats for such things as the Indy 500, Miracle Mile Parade, even Disney, the craftsmanship is amazing. In case you ever have a need for a float, keep in mind you can rent one for your own special occasion…… One area holds pieces of floats that have been disassembled; animals, flowers, cupcakes, pancakes and a miniature Scott Fountain all wait their turn to ride in the parade again. Small push floats representing Chevrolet automobiles are parked to one side. Crossing from Studio A to Studio B  we get a glimpse of the area where the balloons are stored. Every Thanksgiving morning at 6am they are filled and come to life; only one has ever escaped–that would be Chilly Willy who decided to head south one year. Fortunately he was recovered in Canada at Point Pelee.

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Studio B is the storage area, think of it as an enchanted kingdom straight out of a fairy tale. From the Turkey Trot float to castles, gardens, ice cream and candy, I just want to climb aboard and play. Each float is a different scene, all are assured to make you feel happy. The girls are giddy, each points out something different; then it happens–we come face to face with the old paper mache pirate heads, there are tiny shrieks and gasps, they’re kinda scary sitting there in the dark. Once assured the pirates pose no danger, we move along through floats bearing Christmas trees, elves, toys and snow, sponsored by companies such as Ford, Compuware and Quicken Loans. 

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Proceeding through the maze of floats we are coming to the end of the tour, there it is, Santa’s sleigh and nine little reindeer. I can’t tell you how many times Kris and I have awaited that sight, standing somewhere on Woodward freezing, but unwilling to leave until Santa has made his appearance. It looks so much larger here, though tempting to climb aboard the sleigh, I decide against it. This is the only parade company to design, build and store floats in the same location. Costumes are designed and manufactured here too, they have over 3,000 of them! It’s kind of quiet here today, not a lot of activity in March, but come August volunteers will work around the clock to have everything ready for the 2014 America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

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All of that walking has given us an appetite, good thing we know a place to catch lunch not far from here. Marcus Hamburgers has been at this McNichol’s location since 1929. Charles Marcus opened his doors during The Great Depression with the idea of making burgers more affordable during a difficult time. He invented an all-steak burger, rectangular shaped, that fit in a hot dog bun. He built a cast iron grill that still sits in the middle of the diner nestled between the horse shoe shaped counters. My parents used to live in the neighborhood and frequented the diner often. It doesn’t look much different today that it did back then, still serving up those famous burgers that were so popular with the local factory workers back in Detroit’s heyday. We take a seat at the counter and order up burgers and fries. Before long plates of burgers with cheese, chili, lettuce and tomato are set down before us along with bowls of finely chopped onion, relish and bottles of mustard and ketchup. As we eat, customers come and go, carry-out orders are placed and picked up, people have been eating here for over 85 years. This area of the city is nearly forgotten these days, but it’s comforting to know some things haven’t changed.

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Mid-Century Southfield

13 Nov

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The metropolitan Detroit area is home to an extensive variety of 20th Century architecture. Today we are meeting up with the Southfield Historical Society and DoCoMoMo for the Mid-Century Modern Southfield Tour. In 1954 Northland Mall opened in the city of Southfield, it was one of the first shopping malls in the nation; with the mall in place and easy access to major freeways the city became very attractive to corporations and residents alike. Between 1940 and 1950 the population of the area had increased 200%, during the 1960’s Southfield was Michigan’s fastest growing city. It was post WWII, people were feeling adventurous, architecture had taken on a new look, buildings were designed in new shapes, using new materials such as glass, aluminum and concrete, natural light filled open spaces. Come along as we discover Southfield’s amazing collection of Mid-Century Modern buildings.

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Our tour begins at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Bell Rd. Built in 1961-62, the congregation hired Percival Goodman of New York to partner with Albert Kahn Associates of Detroit to design the synagogue; now considered a masterpiece of Modern design. We are led into the sanctuary, it is a large space that seats 1,100; the triangular shape is symbolic of Mt. Sinai, behind the altar stained glass forms an inner triangle, the sun shines directly on the glass; rich red, deep blues, yellow and brown are aglow. Central to the altar a metal sculpture of the burning bush hangs on a tall marble tower, letter blocks on each side represent the tablets. A representative of the church explains the symbolism of what we are seeing, she then opens the door of the Ark revealing the Torah; dressed with a sash, ornaments and a Keter (crown) they are beautiful, magnificent and to me, mysterious. Modern nuances are found throughout, gone is the blonde wood of the 1950’s, deeper brown has taken its place, rectangular cut-outs in the walls are filled with blue glass panels. The walls of the sanctuary are retractable, when opened it creates one large room that can seat 4,000 people. We exit the sanctuary and pass through the inner court, glass showcases display religious items belonging to the congregation, the pieces are lovely. The Chapel is a much more intimate space, also triangular-shaped, the ceiling is made up of exposed wood beams, walls are brick, windows are stained glass and triangular in shape, it feels a bit more private, cozy. It is time to load the bus for the rest of the tour.

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Traveling down Northwestern Hwy we pass a number of Modern structures built between the late 1950’s and mid 1960’s. The driver pulls over to give us an up-close view of the Federal Mogul World Headquarters building, built in 1965 it is designed in the International style, large glass walls are encased in an open white frame. Originally the third and fourth floors appeared to ‘float’ above the ground level of the building, through the years multiple changes and additions have altered the original design. Further on, the Eaton Automotive building, built in 1965 screams mid-century design with its recessed first level and large front portico. The bus parks, we are at the former Northland Theater, built in 1966, it is one of the last theaters in Michigan to be built to seat 1,500 patrons in a single auditorium. Looking at the front entrance I can totally imagine it when it was still a theater. As we approach the building, dozens of folks are exiting, currently the home of the Southfield branch of Triumph Church, the service has just ended. Going against the flow of people we eventually make our way inside, the lobby and auditorium have changed very little; the concession stand now sells cd’s and other items related to the church, a new paint job, a few updates, but still clearly evident it was once a thriving movie theater.


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We arrive at 16200 Northland Drive, the Minoru Yamasaki designed Reynolds Aluminum Regional Office. Built in 1959, it was said to be “an ode to aluminum”. One look at the exterior and there is no doubt it is a Yamasaki, three stories tall, the second and third floor float atop a terrazzo pedestal, gold anodized aluminum grills in the shape of circles wrap the upper floors. The building is sitting vacant, in 1984 Vic Tanny Health Clubs purchased the building; the walls of the first floor were pushed out to the perimeter and a swimming pool was installed, reflecting ponds were filled in, exercise equipment was set up on the upper floors. The exterior of the building looks to be in good condition, inside I am taken aback at what has transpired; the indoor pool sits empty, a drop ceiling directly above, cubicles have been set up and are now vacant. We take the stairs to the third floor, it appears a running track traces the perimeter of the building, the space is divided, by the looks of the color and design, many of the walls are original. We enter a large empty room, here we have a wonderful view of the aluminum grills; the top two rows are thicker circles, the rest are narrow and overlap. The central atrium remains, at the top a large skylight made of a series of pyramids is intact, it must have been a showstopper when the building was new. We spend our remaining time in the building noticing some of the small details that remain. The building has been vacant since 2012 and is currently for sale; as someone who admires Yamasaki’s work, it is tough to see what has become of this once graceful embodiment of Mid-Century design.

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Our route continues past many more Modern buildings, Sphinx Petroleum, Abrecht, Chand and Trowell. We travel Northwestern Hwy, Evergreen and Southfield Rd before arriving in the Cranbrook Neighborhood. The Lockwood Company of Detroit constructed homes in the California Modern Style, modest ranch homes usually between 1,450 and 1,650 sq ft. The bus parks on Lone Elm, three homeowners have given permission for us to wander around the outside of their homes, these are iconic examples of Modern design; low sloping roofs, large front windows, planter boxes, courtyards and see-through garden walls. The owners have done a marvelous job maintaining the home’s character and design. This is the end of the tour; the bus drops us off at the Synagogue, we are long overdue for lunch.

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Jerusalem Pizza has been serving the finest kosher pizza for over 14 years, this is our first visit. We stand inside reading the pizza selections off a menu posted high behind the counter, nothing is harder then deciding what to order when you are starving! With help from the man behind the register we choose a Cholent pizza, a salad and a salt bagel to eat immediately. With our jackets on it is still warm enough to eat outdoors; we have a seat at a wrought iron table on the sidewalk and tear into the bagel, slightly crispy, tender inside, salty and flavorful, we agree it is the best bagel we have ever eaten. The pizza arrives, cheese is bubbly and browned on the edges, toppings consist of Dijon mustard, beans, vegetarian ground beef, potato and kishke, everything works in combination to create a crispy, chewy, tasty pizza. When we have finished, we go back inside, grab a few more bagels and hit the road.

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Cranbrook & More !

6 Oct

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I love this time of year; days are still warm, leaves are just beginning to change, evenings are getting cooler-hinting at what’s to come. Here in the Mitten it is harvest time, farmers markets are bursting at the seams with fresh produce; apples are plentiful this year. Today we are at the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, going on every Sunday from May to October, it takes place in Municipal Parking Lot #6 at the bottom of the hill on Old Woodward, each year it gets a little bigger. We are greeted by bunches of fresh-cut Zinnias, pots of Mums and music in the distance.  We meander down the aisles, baskets are overflowing with ripe red tomatoes, peppers in a rainbow of colors from red to purple, fancy skinned eggplant and potatoes in a variety of shapes and shades. The marketplace continues to the left, behinds the Woodward storefronts, prepared foods are readily available, the hot dogs smell delicious. Jars of local honey are stacked on a table, they glow in the sunlight, plastic containers are filled with popcorn kernels, artists display their wares. The back of the lot is wooded, picnic tables invite shoppers to indulge in breakfast, lunch, or just sit with a cup of coffee and enjoy the surrounding activities. Vendors are set up under rows of white canopy’s offering baked goods, artistic gourds and gardening advice. Pots of fall perennials are in bloom, tomatoes come in grape, pear and cherry varieties, bundles of Japanese Lanterns look ready for Halloween. With about 70 booths each Sunday seems to be a little different, the quality and selection will make you want to visit often. With only a few weeks left in the season, check it out soon! Time to go, our tour at Cranbrook begins soon.

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In 1887 George G Booth married Ellen Warren Scripps in Detroit; he was the publisher of the Evening News Association and later co-founder of Booth Newspapers, she was the daughter and later heiress to her father James E Scripps, founder of the Detroit News. The exceptionally wealthy couple lived in a magnificent home on Trumbull in Detroit-now the site of Scripps Park, in 1904 they purchased land in Bloomfield Hills and hired Albert Kahn (who else) to build them a summer home, it was called Cranbrook House. In 1908, after the death of James Scripps, the Booth’s made Cranbrook their full-time residence. In 1922 these most generous philanthropists (the Booth’s were also benefactors of the DIA) believed their estate should serve a public purpose, they called on Eliel Saarinen to help complete a master plan and the building of six new institutions began. Booth was an avid student of the Arts and Crafts movement, along with Saarinen he worked closely with sculptor Carl Milles; what they fostered is now a 319 acre campus consisting of the Brookside School for Children, Christ Church Cranbrook, Cranbrook School for Boys, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Cranbrook Institute of Science and the Kingswood School for Girls. The men worked together for decades designing, shaping, forging an enchanted center for learning, thinking and creating. This National Historic Landmark features the works of Eliel Saarinen, Albert Kahn, Steven Holl, Carl Milles, Marshall Fredericks, Peter Rose, Tod Willaims and Billie Tsien. A center of education, science and art, it serves students from Pre K to Graduate students, the Booths deeded their home, contents and surrounding property to the Cranbrook Foundation in 1944 and continued living on the premises until their deaths. Today we are doing a walking tour,The Cranbrook Vision: Architecture, Landscape and Sculpture.

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We meet our guide inside the Cranbrook Art Museum, designed by Eliel Saarinen and built in 1942 it is a wonderful example of Mid Century Modern architecture. It is only the two of us on the 1:00 tour, we begin just outside the museum; to one side is the well-known Orpheus Fountain completed in 1937 by Carl Milles, to the other the Triton Pools; a long pool made up of a series of three tiered basins designed by Saarinen and bronze Triton sculptures by Milles, the sight is breathtaking. The entire campus was designed on an axis, standing in this location our eyes are treated to panoramic views leading through arches, past sculptures ending at thoughtfully placed structures; every tree, every walkway was planned. Walking towards Lone Pine Rd we stop and gaze at the Triton Pools, the Nichols Gate (Saarinen 1941) parallels the narrow roadway, a delicate design in wrought iron flanked by Milles sitting boars.  Cranbrook is beautiful year-long but there’s something special about visiting in the fall, the students have moved in, the grounds are buzzing with activity, the scenery is outstanding. As we walk towards the dining hall we pass Milles Sunglitter sculpture and his Siren with Fishes fountain, I simply have to stop and look at each piece. We encounter walkways of patterned brick, walls with stone accent pieces, and arched passageways, all embellished with amazing detail, many with an Art Deco flair. It’s as if we’ve been transported to a different place and time, as close to Europe as you’re going to get in the Midwest.

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Our guide is filled with interesting stories and information, once we step inside the dining hall her voice falls on deaf ears as we take in this extraordinary room. Designed by Saarinen, the rectangular dining room looks like it’s straight out of Harry Potter; barrel-vaulted ceiling, long, narrow leaded glass windows allow sunlight to flood the room-no two are alike, original tables and chairs still serve the students well, the parquet floor gleams in this light. Indoor lighting consists of 2 rows of unique fixtures resembling inverted glass shades that dangle from long chains, they are elegant and again create a bit of an Art Deco feel, a large fireplace anchors one wall. Back outdoors we study the building, everything here is a work of art; doors, windows, brickwork, it seems we are never far from the sound of water splashing in a fountain or a marvelous Milles sculpture. Buildings and spaces were created by architects, artists and gardeners, creating areas of beauty, respite. We are now in the quadrangle, an expanse of green grass softens the hardscape, architectural elements include copper gutters, carved wood doors, bronze sculptures, archways and the Quadrangle fountain, it is all so picturesque.

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Our walk leads us to the Williams Natatorium, built in 1999, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, this 20,000 sq ft building is spectacular. Housing an eight-lane swimming pool, it feels as if you are swimming outdoors; a deep blue ceiling opens to the elements through skylights, outside the large windows, trees and plantings give the impression of seclusion. The building received an award in 2001 from the AIA. Used for competitive and recreational swimming, it appears to be popular. Continuing through campus the pergola has recently been restored, great wrought iron pieces innocently attract our attention, a concrete column looks as if it is tufted,  we learn the school is still made up of 2 single-sex campuses. Back to the Art Museum, stopping inside we wander around the new Modernism exhibit, we are so in our element here. Great displays of furniture, textiles, photos, blue prints and renderings make us ohh and aahhh, in the very back a room is set up where you can actually sit in an Eames chair or at a Saarinen table, pretty cool! The permanent collection contains pieces by Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia and Maija Grotell. The Academy of Art, founded by the Booth’s in 1932, is one of the nations leading graduate schools of architecture, art and design, is also found in this building. George and Ellen’s desire to create a place of learning, meaning and beauty was the catalyst for Cranbrook, their dream lives on today.

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Lunch anyone? The Griffin Claw Brewing Company opened not long ago to great fanfare in Birmingham. Owned by one of the families who has ownership in Big Rock Chophouse just down S Eton St, it is one of the top 10 largest breweries in Michigan. It is another gorgeous day, the roll-up doors are fully opened, folks are evenly distributed throughout the patio, dining and bar area, the Lions are on TV. Taking a high-top table near the bar I first read over the beer menu, they have 12 beers on tap including seasonal and specialty beers. After a series of questions and answers with our server I choose the Bourbon Imperial Stout, Kris orders one of their sour beers with a splash of homemade raspberry syrup, yum. The casual menu features high quality ingredients in a selection of starters and local favorites. The 12,000 sq ft facility is dedicated mostly to the brewery, Dan Rogers is their world-class brewmaster and is no stranger to winning top awards for his creations. My beer is fantastic, luckily our food arrives before I finish it off. The Caesar salad is excellent, crisp lettuce, great dressing. The Claw Burger is made from chopped brisket, this one is a double decker, very flavorful and cooked just the way we like it, the seasoned fries are tasty too. My beer was outstanding, service was excellent, the food delicious, to top it off, the Lions won!

DETROIT: Ford Field Tour !

5 Feb

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Superbowl XLVI takes place in Indianapolis this Sunday February 5th, football is a popular topic this week. With that in mind we thought we’d take advantage of one of the behind-the-scenes tours of Ford Field. Walk Up Tours are available on Mondays and Fridays from January to July at 11am and 1pm. We parked in the structure next to Elwood Bar and Grill, walked across the street to the stadium and purchased our tickets.  When the group was fully assembled our lovely tour guide began, as she spoke it was apparent she was not a local. Though she was born across the pond as they say, she has been in Detroit for 16 years, and has been at Ford Field since the beginning. She is a wonderful hostess who possesses a wealth of information about the stadium.

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We began on street level; The 1920’s Hudson’s warehouse that was located on the stadium property now makes up the entire south wall of the structure, giving the stadium a bit of personality. The ground level is designated for restaurants, concessions and retail and plays homage to Detroit’s past. When J.L Hudson’s flagship store on Woodward was imploded in 1998 the bricks were recovered, cleaned and stored, then re-used to build Ford Field, how cool is that?  A 7-story atrium is within the warehouse, at the southeast corner is a glass wall which provides a panoramic view of the Detroit skyline, one of the building’s many unique features. I couldn’t believe how big this place is, there is a ton of natural light flowing in through immense skylights, large glass windows and open corners giving it a light open feeling, almost like being outdoors. There are 132 suites located on four levels, with one level of Club seating. There are eight varieties of suites seating from 8-30 people. We got to check out a medium to large one, Wow! The view: awesome, great amenities, and best of all the seats are Lincoln Navigator seats, really! Talk about comfort; Visteon manufactured all of the seats for the stadium. It’s so much fun to do this kind of tour; we saw Press Row, fancy lounge areas and the top-secret NFL Instant Replay room.  You overlook the entire field from up here, I have to admit I was in awe, it’s really a remarkable venue.

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Opened in 2002, it took 32 months to construct at a cost of $550 million, it seats 65,000 people. They say it has the best sight-lines of any football stadium in the US, with no obstructed views. Because of the long cold Detroit winters a permanent dome was the best design. The structural-steel supported dome with its two 18 ft wide concrete columns is quite a sight!  It’s interesting that the End Zones at Ford Field are East and West instead of the traditional North and South, special permission had to be granted from the NFL . The reason for that is sunlight can be a distraction to players, so precautions were taken to prevent that.

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Next we took an elevator down to what is the most coveted portion of the tour: the locker room and of course the FIELD. We got off the elevator in what is the original basement of the 1920’s warehouse, pretty amazing eh? First up: the Visitors locker room, nice, cherry wood makes up the actual lockers, indoor/outdoor carpet, nice; the Lions locker room, whoa, it’s huge. Same basic amenities just housed in a much bigger space, there are 11 locker rooms in all. Time to head out onto the field, there are actually two tunnels, one for the visitors, so of course it’s smaller, and one for the home team; that’s the one we took. The tunnels, made of concrete slope downward; the field is actually 40 ft below street level. There is an excitement as you walk through, then all at once you see it, a vast green expanse stretching out before you, the size of. …..well…… the size of a football field!  I looked around at my tour companions and every single one had a smile on their face. I don’t know what it is, but something about being in a place like this really brings out the kid in all of us.

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We have been wanting to try a new place that opened on Park behind the Fox called Hot Taco. With neighbors like Town Pump, Centaur, Park Bar, Bucharest Grill and Cliff Bells, this is quickly becoming a popular destination district. The diminutive, contemporary space offers a variety of tacos and burritos designed for hit and run dining. A chalkboard and paper menus on the counter describe your options; the fillings are made up of interesting combinations of flavors. They offer three different tacos on a 3 for $6.00 special; the Hot Taco Chicken, Pork and Chorizo, that sounded good to us. We started with an order of chips and asked for a sample of each of their available sauces: Salsa Verde, Chipotle Sour Cream and Mango Salsa. Tacos are wrapped individually in small sheets of foil, we ate ours sitting at a counter along the window overlooking Park.  We enjoyed all of them, I think the Chorizo was my favorite. Open from 11am to 2am you satisfy your taco craving almost anytime it strikes.