Tag Archives: Southwest Detroit

DETROIT: Showtime

14 Mar

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We’re in Southwest Detroit to catch a show at the Matrix Theatre on Bagley. Founded in 1991 by Shaun and Wes Nethercot, the company’s mission is “to build community, improve lives and foster social justice. Matrix Theatre Company teaches, creates and shares theatre as an instrument of transformation”. In addition to professional theatre the company also includes the School of Theatre, Matrix Teen Company and the Community School For The Arts which teaches play writing, performance and puppetry for all ages. Members of the groups collaborate to create new plays about important community issues such as teen dating violence, bullying, gang violence, immigration/deportation, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, ethnic intimidation. They also bring awareness to the history and culture of Detroit. 

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We park in the lot adjacent to the building, for years I have admired the mural on the wall; a young girl blowing dandelion seeds into the air, her eyes closed tight concentrating on her wish, other dandelions join the dance in the breeze. The orange brick building stands 2-stories high, a wrought iron hanger holds the Matrix shingle. Inside the lobby is compact; here you can pick up your ticket, grab a candy bar and a cold pop before heading into the performance space. Intentions is sold out today, we spy two open seats next to one another and claim them. The theatre is one of those intimate spaces where the people in the front row are practically on stage; you can’t help but feel the energy from the actors.

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For the next two hours Nell, Gabe, Maya, Leif and Lou share their lives at Tillerman House with us. Tillerman is an intentional community/urban farm, the characters share common values but each one views life a little differently. The entire story takes place in the common area of the house. Playwright Abbey Fenbert has created a funny, entertaining, honest look at the effect change has on human beings. I too experienced change; I felt one way about the characters at the beginning, then as things happened and the story evolved I saw a different side of them, altering my view. Things are always shifting, we’re always looking for balance. The actors are marvelous, the story timely, what a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

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We’re having an early dinner at Ima, a new Japanese-influenced restaurant that took over the old Rubbed space on Michigan Ave. Serving signature noodle soups, rice bowls, curries and small plates, the restaurant has received high praise from diners and critics alike. The communal tables are full but two seats have opened at the bar overlooking Michigan Ave. The menu is simple and concise, making for easy ordering. We are having the Golden Curry; silky curry sauce, root veggies, ginger pickle and roasted tofu, it’s fantastic! The Boombap is Ima’s version of Bibimbop; a fried egg, shitake, slaw, cucumber, ginger beef all served atop a bowl of rice with pepito chili sauce on the side, it’s outstanding. A line of people waiting has formed, we finish every last grain of rice and we’re off.

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Bobcat Bonnies is on the other side of Michigan Ave, something about the name has always intrigued me, tonight I finally get the chance to check it out. The space was formerly The Red Devil and O’Blivion’s after that, see those names did nothing for me… We’re stopping in at the neighborhood spot for an after-dinner-drink. We grab a couple of seats at the bar, order drinks then chat with the bartender and the couple next to us. The place has a very comfortable, chill vibe. I like the orange brick, the geometric patterns of the tile and the original wood ceiling that’s over 150 years old. This is a nice way to end the evening. Oh and I did find out about the name, Bonnie is the grandmother of one of the partners, rumor has it she likes to drive a bobcat around her farm in Ohio–sweet!

DETROIT: Historic Sainte Anne’s

16 Feb

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July 24, 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrives on the banks of the Detroit River establishing Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, a French settlement in ‘New France’ which later would become Detroit. Two days later the Sainte Anne de Detroit Catholic Parish was established; on July 26, 1701 the Feast of Sainte Anne was celebrated in a modest thatched log structure that sat near the present intersection of Griswold and W Jefferson, this was the first of 8 subsequent buildings that would house the parish of Sainte Anne. Think of it, in 1701 Detroit was part of the French colony, in 1763 Detroit passed from French to British rule, after the Revolutionary War the territory came under United States rule. Ste Anne is the second oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic Parish in the country, it was the only church in Detroit for more than a century, it has continuous records going back to 1704 (earlier records were destroyed by fire), it has borne witness to Detroit’s entire existence, I find that incredible!

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It’s Sunday and Mass is about to begin, we park across the street from the church, the wind is strong, the temperature in the teens and yet we stand in the brick-paved plaza staring at this beautiful orange-brick Gothic Revival structure built in 1886. Twin-spired octagonal towers soar to the sky, large crosses are mounted to the peaks, a large Rose window takes up much of the lower facade, a limestone first-story is decorated with gargoyles above the main entry doors. Architectural details such as flying buttresses, pointed arches, slate roof, stained glass and steep pitches flatter the structure. The 5-building complex is made up of the church, rectory, school, social hall and convent. Inside, we pause in the vestibule to take in the sight of the stunning interior as a whole, cream-colored walls rise 85 feet to a pale blue ceiling decorated with gold-leaf stars. A Gothic arcade is supported by decorative iron columns, this separates the nave and side aisles.

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Oak pews embellished with pinnacles at each end cap hold worshipers, stained glass windows are aglow in red, blue, pink, purple and lime green, I don’t think I’ve seen such a wide variety of colors before–Ste Anne’s has the oldest stained glass in the city of Detroit. A 26 rank pipe organ rests in a loft at the back of the church, the large Rose window above is gorgeous. The beautiful, unusual clock that hangs near the vestibule doors was a gift, wrought iron and opaque glass chandeliers hang evenly spaced from long chains. The centerpiece of it all is the apse, here stained glass surrounds the upper portion while metallic gold paint covers the lower, in the center sits the magnificent altar piece with its statues, carvings, spires, pinnacles and more flying buttresses. The wood altar where Fr. Gabriel Richard celebrated mass, communion rail carved by Julius Melcher in 1851, statue of Ste Anne and church bell all came from the previous church. Several small altars fill corners and long walls, they are exquisite.

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Buried below the steps of the main altar is the tomb of Father Gabriel Richard, a prominent figure in the history of both Detroit and Ste Anne. Born in France, Fr. Richard made many contributions to Detroit; he founded churches, schools, he co-founded U of M, he helped initiate a road-building project that connected Detroit and Chicago. He brought the first printing press to Detroit and started The Observer, Michigan territory’s first newspaper, he was the first priest to serve in congress. He imported spinning wheels and looms so women could learn a trade. Fr. Richard died of cholera in 1932  leaving behind a rich legacy. The church has changed as the city has changed, the once french-speaking parish came to serve Irish-Americans then Hispanics as immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico moved into the neighborhood. The last sermon in French was given in 1942, the first Spanish sermon was given in 1940, the Spanish tradition continues today. At the end of Mass announcements are made of a bake sale and dance performance at a luncheon taking place today.

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We head over to the social hall, Hispanic music plays in the background, long tables offer a buffet of Mexican dishes for only $5. We sit at a large round table near the back, the room is large, thin columns offer the only decoration to the space. A deep red curtain hangs above the stage, visitors await the performance. When the curtain opens 2 couples wearing traditional Mexican dress begin their dance; the men are all in white, the ladies wear a colorful sash. As they move the ladies twirl a lacy skirt overlay, the dance is lovely. A solo number is next, a man dances upon a wooden box, his steps strong and loud, the room is still as we all watch and listen. The troupe continues performing time-honored dances. Such an unexpected pleasure to watch.

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We’re having lunch in Mexicantown at the Huron Room, a fish-centric restaurant among the many Mexican restaurants on Bagley. The single-story white brick building is also home to Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room. The restaurant is easy to spot, the head and tail of a big fish stick out from the top corner of the space. Inside it’s all about Lake Huron, the owners fondness of the great lake is apparent; the deep blue wall behind the bar is a map of the lake complete with city names, on the back wall a painting of the lightship Huron consumes the wall. Light blue glazed brick, a neon fish and fishing line put us in a lake state-of-mind. Though Great Lakes fish is the main attraction here, there are choices for every kind of diner. We are having the fish sandwich, we choose the beer-battered walleye, served on bolillo bread and topped with the house slaw it’s quite a mouthful. The sandwich is served with the same skinny fries they serve at Green Dot Stables (same owners), I douse them with the spritz bottle of malt vinegar that sits on each table. The walleye is delicious, light, and crispy–don’t forget to add the house made tartar sauce. We also ordered the U.P. pierogi, three little dumplings stuffed with up-north beef pasty filling, served with a sour cream gravy, I could eat about 6 of these! The price point is on the high side, but the food is fresh and delicious.


DETROIT: Southwest Sunday

26 Nov

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With so many new things in Detroit grabbing the spotlight, it’s nice to go back and visit things and places that made Detroit the architecturally rich, diverse, amazing city it is today. A good place to start is one of the many historic churches that have stood the test of time; today we are visiting St Hedwig Roman Catholic Church on Junction in SW Detroit. St Hedwig was the third Polish parish established on Detroit’s west side, the first service held in this building was November 30, 1916, Thanksgiving Day. Here’s a little history.

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 St Hedwig was founded in 1903, From 1910 to 1914 increasing numbers of Polish immigrants settled in Detroit, the parish quickly outgrew their building, in 1911 Architect Harry J Rill designed the church we are standing in today. In 1917 the Vorrler-Holtkamp Sparling Organ Co. of Cleveland completed the installation of the pipe organ, in 1918 Daprato Statuary Co, installed the stained glass windows. In 1928, for the Silver Jubilee, 3 bells were purchased and hung in the south tower, at the same time five clocks were installed in both towers. Hispanic population grew three-fold from 1993 to 2003 in southwest Detroit, the first Spanish mass was added in 2003. In 2013 St Hedwig and St Francis D’Assisi merged into one new parish.

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The exterior is a combination of red brick and stone; arches, columns and windows are grouped into three’s, statues stand near the main stairs, wood doors grant us access to the interior, a tile medallion on the vestibule floor reads A.D. 1916. It is nearly 30 minutes before mass begins, all of the lights are not on yet, our attention is immediately drawn to the stunning high altar, aisles leading to the front are made of tiny tiles grouped into fanciful patterns. Dark colored wood pews rest upon a wood floor, light seeps through the stained glass windows. As we near the sanctuary we see the baptismal font, a work of art in itself, the pulpit was installed in 1978 along with the main altar to comply with Vatican II, there it is, the High Altar! The High Scagliola Altar is an original work of the Daprato Statuary Co of Detroit, they also made the other statues and the stations of the cross. On the upper tier, St Hedwig is at the high, St Peter and St Paul, on her sides, the Evangelists occupy the middle tier while the lower tier contains the Tabernacle. Large-winged angels flank the lower tier holding elaborate gilded lights, at the base of the altar rests a rendition of the last supper. Here the ceiling soars into a high Gothic arch, murals surround it, sanctuary lamps hang from delicate, ornate chains.

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To the right and left of the main altar are the Blessed Virgin Mary Altar and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Altar, the St Therese Altar is enclosed by a wrought iron gate as is the St Francis Altar on the south side, all are lovely. Facing the back of the church the first thing we notice are the pipes in the organ loft, there are over 2900 pipes in the organ that imitate instruments such as tubas, clarinets, oboes and trumpets. Columned arches line the nave, capitals are highly decorated in gold leaf, the ceiling is solid ivory in color, making details such as murals and windows stand out. Stations of the cross are mounted to side walls, each one tells a story; the lights have been turned on, it is clear these are not the original fixtures. Filled with light, the church has come to life, parishioners are filing in through front and side doors, today’s mass is in Spanish.

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We drive over to Vernor and park in front of the familiar yellow awning belonging to Taqueria Nuestra Familia. For over 11 years they have been serving up family recipes handed down through generations, the restaurant is packed! We are seated at a table near the front and close to the picture of the Holy Family; the menu offers the usual tacos, tostadas, tortas etc. What brings people in is the variety of fillings: Beef Head, Beef Tongue, Beef Tripe, Chorizo, Lomo, Carne al Pastor, Carne Asada and of course, chicken. Our server arrives with a basket of tortilla chips and 3 homemade salsas; a creamy green one, the standard fresh tomato and a golden one I suspect is made from roasted tomatillo’s, it has a nice spice to it. We place our order and try not to finish off the chips.

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The space is filled with families out for a Sunday meal, it’s not unusual to see three generations sitting together at a table, infants are passed from one family member to the next. The mood is light and cheerful as is the decor; tables and chairs are finished in bright pink, yellow, blue, orange and lavender. Chair backs are decorated with scenes of birds, flowers, fruit and Mexican themes. Before we know it our meal arrives, we are having the combination plate of a taco, tostada, burrito and two enchiladas, we were hoping to try a few different fillings, but the same meat comes in each, today we ordered the carne asada. I used a different salsa on each to give it some variety, all was good.

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Heading east on Vernor we stop in at Neveria La Michoacana for dessert. Serving up homemade Mexican popsicles (Paletas), aguas frescas, chocolate dipped bananas, fresa y crema and ice cream, the shop does a good business. Walls are magenta and green, ceiling tiles are blue and white, coolers and chest freezers with pictures on the front line the counter. There’s a short line so we have time to look around. They offer snack items like nachos made with Doritos, or hot Cheetos and Cheese, fresa y crema (strawberries and cream). After studying the menu I order a mango aguas frescas, the owner reaches into a cooler packed with clear square bins filled with icy, colorful liquids and fills my cup, tasty and refreshing it reminds me of punch. Be sure and ask for a sample of the Cajeta, it’s pink and made with a combination of fruit and milk, nice and sweet! After much debate Kris orders the mango paleta de chile, a housemade mango popsicle sprinkled with Tajin, placed stick up, in a cup of Chamoy– a tart sauce made from fruit pulp, lime and spices; the result a sweet, spicy, tart, frozen treat.

Hola Detroit!

23 May

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It is a  gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Southwest Detroit as throngs of people line Vernor Hwy in anticipation of the Cinco de mayo parade. Cinco de mayo is a celebration of the victory of the Battle of Puebla and is celebrated annually in the Mexican-American communities in the US.  People are stacked four and five deep along the route, as we near Most Holy Redeemer we see a break in the crowd and take our place among them. The mood is distinctly festive, the street a sea of green, white and red, Mexican flags in a variety of sizes are being waved high in the air. Alongside Luna’s Bakery a stand is selling glasses of cold juice; mango, pineapple, honeydew and pomegranate. We duck inside for a cookie, purchase our juice and are back on the other side of the street before the parade begins. Pedestrians continue to crowd the sidewalks as the activity begins.

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Music fills the air as the sun shines brightly overhead; folks in traditional Mexican dress stride down the street, vaqueros wearing sombreros and embroidered shirts ride high upon perfectly groomed horses. Banners bearing names of local restaurants are draped across the front of antique cars and semi trucks, a huge black semi carries a multi-piece band on its bed. Representatives of Wayne State University, community groups and mounted police join in the fun. Senorita’s in colorful dresses toss strands of beads into the crowd, others toss handfuls of candy to the smallest spectators; the line of participants stretches long into the horizon. As the parade finally winds up we  head over to see the Blessing of the Low Riders near the Michigan Welcome Center.

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Cool custom low riders are parked irregularly up and down the street, swarms of people make the lanes nearly impassable. A Cadillac Brougham in silver and magenta wears intricate pinstripe patterns, a red Buick Regal resting on the driver’s side tires gives us insight into what kind of stunts the hydraulics are capable of. 1960’s Chevy Impalas seem to be the vehicle of choice here, many are convertibles, decked out in amazing paint jobs, they are simply works of art. Chunky red metalflake  adorns one vehicle, designs in orange and yellow jump out at you, the red velvet interior is ultra sweet. There are lowered Monte Carlos and more unusual, a vintage car from the 40’s in white with a brown painted roof. At first a blue Buick Regal looks rather plain, that is until you notice the amazing abstract design  in turquoise, silver and lavender that adorns the roof! Pinstriping is found everywhere; colors, width and style vary from vehicle to vehicle, the scene is eye candy for professional and amateur photographers alike. We spend a little more time at the celebration, off to the left a DJ plays tunes as a group of break dancers take turns showing off their best moves. A Mariachi band assembles on a nearby stage an begins to play traditional Mexican songs. White tents cover tables selling souvenirs, T-shirts and food. Speaking of food, it’s time for lunch!

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When looking for fried chicken in Detroit, the southwest district is probably not the first area that comes to mind, it will now. Over on Junction just north of Vernor is Pollo Chapin; a little yellow house trimmed in green, serving up some of the best fried chicken in the D along with Guatemalan specialties. Inside you will find a small dining room and a counter for placing carry-out orders; a large brightly colored menu is mounted on the wall. We are eating in, we seat ourselves at a small round table and begin the process of deciding what to eat. Chicken comes in regular and spicy versions, combos vary by the number of pieces and sides. We order a three-piece; two regular fried, one spicy, our sides are curtido and egg noodle salad. On our waitresses suggestion we add a chicken tamale and a side of slaw. First to arrive is a bowl of house made chicken noodle soup, it’s delicious. On the table a large glass jar is filled with homemade pickled vegetables. Only halfway through the soup the rest of our food arrives, plates are piled high with scrumptious fried chicken and colorful salads. While Kris digs into the chicken I unwrap our Guatemalan tamale (tamal), wrapped in a banana leaf the masa is made with broth and lard producing a moist, rich and fluffy outside to a tasty filling of chicken, vegetables and spices, yum! The slaw is a combination of cabbage and cilantro, there’s some heat to it too, very tasty. The chicken is cooked perfectly, juices flow as we peel off chunks, the spicy sauce is flavorful without being overpowering. The egg noodle salad is excellent, lots of black pepper, the curtido a blend of cabbage and beets has a nice taste. We rest our forks and sit back in our chairs as our server reappears with a complimentary plate of sopapillas for dessert. Portions are generous and the food is excellent.

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On our way out of southwest we make one last stop at Chilango’s Bakery on W. Vernor; a tip from our friend The Detroit Foodie. Before we enter we are greeted by the aroma of fresh-baked goods filling the air, we open the door to find rack after rack of fresh from the oven items cooling on metal trays. On the left, glass cases are filled with everything from cookies to sweet breads. The bakery is self-serve, simply grab a tray and a pair of tongs and help yourself. Spanish is the primary language spoken here, but staff members are happy to answer questions as best they can. The empanadas with fruit filling are one of my favorites, bright pink cookies are dusted with a layer of powdered sugar, cream cheese and cherry filling spill out from  pastries on the cooling rack, it all looks wonderful. We fill a tray with an assortment of goodies, the cashier packs them carefully in a white paper bag. Back in the car I am already thinking about which one I will have for breakfast.

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DETROIT: Rock City ?

30 Mar

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I’m not sure what it is about Detroiter’s, maybe it’s the hard working blue-collar mindset; all I know for sure is that when it comes to the weekends, we know how to have fun! What do you like? Broadway shows, professional sports, casino gambling, guided tours on foot, bike or bus, the symphony, ping-pong, art, concerts, movies, fine dining, taco trucks, grand architecture, festivals? You’re in luck, Detroit has all of that and more! Tonight we are set for a night on the town; dinner, concert and cocktails, sounds good doesn’t it? We will spend our entire evening in the Bricktown district, beginning with dinner at Sweetwater Tavern. Housed in a charming 1800’s orange-brick building, Sweetwater has been a local favorite for over 30 years. It’s almost 8 pm on a Friday night,the warmth feels good when we step inside; exposed brick walls, large arched windows and stained glass light fixtures give the room a cozy glow. Every seat at the bar is taken, lucky for us a booth remains empty, platters of chicken wings and ribs are being delivered to hungry patrons. We scan the menu, everything is homemade and it all sounds good. Deciding on a burger and Cajun Steak Bites we take turns between watching the Pistons on TV and checking out Detroit memorabilia that hangs on the walls. The food arrives; the burger is cooked just right, grilled onions and crispy bacon make a tasty combination, fries are served in a small deep-fry basket making a nice presentation. The steak bites are well-flavored, served with grilled pita bread and slaw, the mild pepper rings go great with the meat. We ate every last thing on the plate! A line was forming near the door, and our show was about to start; time to go.

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We cross the street and arrive at St. Andrews Hall, we are seeing Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas. The brick and stone building was originally built by the St. Andrews Society of Detroit, the Society was made up of Scotchmen and Scottish descendants to provide relief for Scots in need. The handsome space was used for meetings, celebrations and entertaining.  St. Andrews Hall has been a music venue since 1980, hosting trend-setting bands such as New Order, REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Green Day.  In true concert fashion there are two warm-up bands before the headliner. There’s a short wait to get inside, the sound of music drifts out onto the street. We make our way in to the main floor ballroom, a crowd is beginning to form, people stand in small groups, drinks in hand, smiles on their faces. James Linck is on first, his music is dreamy and mellow, red and blue lighting drifts across the crowds. The Mexican Knives are up next, they are louder, more rockin’ and seem to pump up the crowd. We wander around, checking out the building, there is a second floor balcony that allows you a birds-eye view of the goings-on below, there is additional meeting space on this floor too. The Knives play their last number, the stage goes dark, instruments are interchanged preparing for the big show of the night. Female bartenders hustle behind the black Art Deco style bar, the wall behind is antique wood with pastel colored back lighting, the joint is jumpin’

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We find ourselves a spot with a good view away from the crowd, the anticipation grows as individual spotlights shine down onto the empty stage, stilted members of the Detroit Circus announce Jessica and the Deltas, the crowd cheers for the hometown star and the music begins. Jessica is a 25-year-old beauty who does it all; singing, songwriting, she even manages the band. The product of a Mexican mother and Cuban father, she  grew up above the family business, Mexicantown Bakery, on Vernor in Southwest Detroit (YUM!). Her music is a combination of influences; Latin, New Orleans, gypsy, producing a one-of-a-kind sound. Tonight she is performing with six other band members, sure there’s a guitar player or two, a drummer and a keyboard, throw in a Tuba and saxophone and you have the Deltas. Her music is powerful and happy, it consumes her; you hear it in her voice, see it in her dance, feel it in your soul, even sad songs feel upbeat and make you want to dance. The audience was filled with family and friends, a true homecoming for an up and coming artist returning from touring and recording an album. She transitions from song to song, applause, cheers and whistles filling the space between, everybody is having a great time. The hour she played flew by, I wasn’t still for a moment, my mood was light, I had been thoroughly entertained. 

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With a spring in our step we walked around the corner to Jacoby’s on Brush Street to wind down with a night-cap. This is another one of those places that has been around forever, well, actually since 1904. The interior is endearing; antique tin ceiling, lots of wood, through the generations it has retained a bit of old world charm. We take a seat at the bar, order cocktails and drink in the surroundings; regulars are easy to spot with their easy-going conversation with staff members. As we sip our beverages we feel relaxed, another week has ended, but the weekend fun has just begun.

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DETROIT: Dinner and a Movie…

25 Feb

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It’s a Saturday night in Detroit; there’s an event at the Senate Theater on Michigan Ave at 7pm, Senor Lopez Taqueria is just down the street, perfect! We are no strangers to Southwest Detroit, the amount of restaurants in the area is staggering; Senor Lopez is a little off the beaten path, and a little different from the rest. The owner, Rafael Lopez, is originally from Apan Hidalgo Mexico; using his mother’s recipes he opened his restaurant in Detroit in 2002. The menu is filled with the typical fare you’d expect to find at a Mexican restaurant, what separates Senor Lopez from the rest are the “house specialties”; dishes from Hidalgo. We stepped inside the tiny storefront, there were only two open tables; taking the one furthest from the cold air of the door, we were greeted with menus, chips and two types of salsa’s. It didn’t take long to decide, we chose one item from the list of house specialties and a combination plate.  Our plates arrived, everything looked scrumptious. The Chiles en Nogada is a dish of poblano peppers stuffed with granada, walnuts and other tasty items, the peppers are then fried in a light batter, covered with a sweet white sauce that tastes like honey and cinnamon and garnished with pomegranate, very appealing. As for taste, it is a wonderful blend of sweet and savory with a touch of heat mixed in, delicious, and like nothing else we’ve ever tasted, yum. The combination plate is perfect to split; two beef tacos, two cheese enchiladas, a burrito, rice and beans. It too was tasty, the sauce and seasonings different from most places in Southwest. When we had finished I went up to the counter where our waitress wrote up our bill and collected the money; we left the tip on the table and were out the door, we had a movie to catch!

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 The Senate Theater has called Michigan Ave home since 1926, mainly a neighborhood movie house it also hosted comedians and entertainers from time to time; as a matter of fact Danny Thomas performed here when he was still known as Amos Jacobs. The theater was remodeled several times, in the 30’s it was remade in the Art Deco style so popular at the time and was given a new facade and vertical  marquee. In 1949 it was remodeled in the Art Moderne style, after years of struggling, resorting to the showing of horror and X-rated films, it closed in 1955. In 1962 the Detroit Theater Organ Society had outgrown the space at the Iris Theater and was looking for a new home; there was the Senate, the seats gone, broken glass and mirror scattered about, the basement flooded and a large part of the roof  blown off, the DTOS said “we’ll take it”. After two years and countless man hours the DTOS had a new home.

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Tonight we are seeing five silent film shorts that will be accompanied with music played by Dave Calendine on the Mighty 4/34 Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ (Opus 1953), not your average night out on the town!  We enter the theater, the ceiling of the outer lobby is plastered with light bulbs, walls are porcelain coated in pale pink.  We pass through swinging red doors into the main lobby, here we purchase tickets and are tempted by the smell of popcorn. The Senate was never an extremely ornate movie house, the DTOS has been working on the renovations as funds have allowed; they’ve got a ways to go, but have recently done work on the lobby and replaced light fixtures. We have time to investigate before the show starts; a red Art Deco style ticket bin remains in place, the plaster pattern on the ceiling prevails and is trimmed in gold, vintage signs direct patrons to the restrooms. The 800 seat auditorium is plain, large grates flanking the stage were put in place to accommodate the pipe organ. We take our seats as the lights are dimmed, Betty Boop appears on the screen, remember when a cartoon was always played before the movie?

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The films are accompanied by music that is dramatic, whimsical, despairing and merry; reflecting the character’s situation. Buster Keaton is fantastic in One Week, we are introduced to silent actors by the names of “Snub” Pollard and Jimmy Aubrey.  When the last movie ends we are surprised how quickly the time has passed. Anyone interested in seeing the mighty Wurlitzer and the organ chambers is invited onstage for a tour, we are so there. Standing  close to the organ we can really appreciate the craftsmanship and details. Originally built for the Fisher Theater in 1927, it was played there until 1961 when the theater was remodeled. The Fisher brothers spared no expense, the organs specifications allow it to be played for both cinema and concert work, it is the eighth largest organ Wurlitzer ever made. With 34 ranks (rows) of pipes this organ can make almost any sound from chimes and xylophone to castanets and a bird whistle. The console is huge, painted gold it is decorated in Aztec motif; the decoration on the side reminds me of a totem pole, patterns are painted in terracotta, green and blue. There are countless rows of keys and numerous foot pedals; imagine this, the organist is moving both hands, both feet, reading music and watching the film for cues all at the same time, now that’s incredible. We go behind the stage into the chambers, it’s warm in here and there is little room to walk, instruments are made of tin, lead, zinc, brass and wood, labels help us to discern what we are seeing.  Room after room, a maze of pipes, tubing and wire, there’s way more to this then I expected. A 25 hp Spencer turbine blower installed in the basement under the stage makes it all work. When the organ was being installed new chambers had to be built on the old stage in addition to the original chambers that already existed. We finished our tour and thanked our hosts, Cool.

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We finished off the evening with cocktails at Abicks Bar on the corner of Gilbert St and Dennis, in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood. Manya is the current owner, at nearly 90 years old this is the only place she has ever lived. Her parents bought the bar in 1919, she was born and raised here and when she married, her husband moved in. She raised her own children here and then her grandson who these days helps run the place. This truly is a neighborhood bar; it has a vintage tin ceiling, old photos hang on the walls, there’s a pool table, juke box and a TV, if you’re interested there’s even a cigar room.The bar is the beautiful old-fashioned kind, dark wood, a big mirror and cabinets with pretty stained glass doors on each end. On any given night you will see a variety of folks stopping in for a cold beer or cocktail; hipsters, factory workers, locals and suburbanites, everybody is welcome. The music isn’t too loud, fellow patrons are friendly, it’s a cool place to relax and have a drink.

SOUTHWEST DETROIT: Most Holy Redeemer & More…

11 Sep

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It was a lovely Sunday morning; today we decided to get down to Most Holy Redeemer in Southwest Detroit and take some pictures of this magnificent church. When we arrived mass was still in progress, we’d have to come back; no problem, there is always something to do on West Vernor. Luna’s Bakery rests in the shadows of the Most Holy Redeemer complex, we knew if we wanted to shop at the bakery it would be best to stop in before mass let out. We stepped inside to the delightful aroma of freshly baked sweet bread or conchas as they are called in Mexico. Glass showcases line the right wall and continue across the narrow back. Like most of the bakeries in the area it is self-serve; grab yourself a tray and a pair of tongs and go crazy. We peered into each case as we walked across the back, how does one decide? Cookies come in bright pink and yellow, some are sugar-coated while others are studded with nuts, jam or chocolate chips. We picked a few different ones then arrived at the cake section; Luna’s makes an awesome Carrot Cake, had to buy a slice of that. Conchas are a must; topped with pink, yellow or cream-colored sugar, these sweet rolls are wonderful with a cup of coffee in the morning, or in the evening, heck, they’re good anytime! We grabbed a few of those too; on the urging of the owner we tried another pastry with a pumpkin filling, delicious. With enough baked goods for a large family we were off to see the church.

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Before we take you inside, I’d like to tell you a few things about this place. Situated on the corner of Junction and West Vernor, it has graced this community since  1921. The building is huge! A red brick basilica style church, it is adorned with intricately carved stone, beautiful mosaics, striking wood entry doors, murals and a Pewabic tile floor that, according to Pewabic’s records, cost $12,560.65 when it was installed. This church was important to the community, it served the neighborhood in many ways; it even had its own schools. At one time Most Holy Redeemer was the largest Catholic parish in North America; it is said that it once was the largest English-speaking parish in the world. On Sunday the church offered 15 masses to accommodate all who worshiped there and on Tuesdays when the Devotions to our Mother of Perpetual Help were held, special streetcars were added to the city line to get folks to and from MHR. I have read several different articles on the church and while numbers vary a little bit the general consensus puts attendance at 9,000 for Sunday masses and 18,000 who participated in the devotions, WOW! The church has also been featured in the spotlight; it served as a major fixture in the movie “The Rosery Murders” starring Donald Sutherland. More recently, MHR made a cameo appearance in the White Stripes video “Hotel Yorba”, how cool! Ok, now we can go inside.

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We enter the church as the last of the worshipers straggle toward the exit; beauty is everywhere. The priest stands in the main aisle way talking to a parishioner, he smiles at me and waves, I wave back and nod my head to thank him for the opportunity to wander through. Kris cannot decide where to start taking pictures; the obvious draw is the altar. Marble steps lead you upward,the back wall is amazingly tall, at the top a half dome where Jesus is looking out over us; right above the altar is a smaller half dome painted with a mural. The windows behind the altar are most unusual in color; pinks, purples, indigo and blue are quite pleasing to the eye, I read somewhere that these are the work of a Detroit artist by the name of A.K. Herbert. There are many spectacular stained glass windows throughout the building done by different artists, but I found these particularly attractive.  On each adjacent wall you will find side altars; each mimics the same half dome, one is covered in gold leaf and pays tribute to Mary, while the other side features enchanting Angels. Whether you are standing in the front of the church or the back the nave is quite impressive; the stunning coffered ceiling rises three stories, lantern style lights hang from delicate chains, stone archways line each side, every inch of space is decorated. We walk around with our head tipping upwards, hoping not to trip.  We go out through a side door, the exterior is lavished in artistic details; light fixtures and windows are ornate. A portico runs parallel to Junction; more stone columns and a brick walkway, I feel as if I am somewhere else. The atmosphere both inside and out is serene. A stone bell tower was built years after the church, in remembrance to parishioners lost in the war. It reaches way up toward the sky; I stare at it until I can no longer take the glare of the sun in my eyes, Kris keeps moving further back to try to capture the full image. We take one last look inside before we leave.  On the steps outside church-goers are saying their goodbyes, the bicycle vendors have run out of customers for now and move on, children in Sunday clothes run around on the sidewalk as their parents try to corral them. It’s wonderful to see the continuation of the land standing ritual of Sunday Mass.

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For us lunchtime had arrived; we drove deeper into Southwest on Vernor until we reached El Rancho Mexican Restaurant. There are so many places to eat in this district, we try to alternate between our favorites and places we’ve never been. Located on a corner, the building resembles a large home; the front is brick with wrought iron embellishments, the side a lovely painted mural of Mexico. We went inside to the dining room; golden-yellow walls and brown vinyl booths give the space a warm feeling. We were greeted immediately; with a quick look at the menu we placed our order. We always go with some sort of combination when trying a new place, that way we can find out what we like best. Our chips and salsa arrived super fast, and before long our food. We had a botana, and a combo plate of a hard shell taco, tostada, enchilada, flauta and of course rice and beans. While not a flavorful as some of our favorites, still a good meal for a good price. 

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I needed to pick up a few things for home, so we walked across the street from the restaurant to E&L Supermercado. Whether you need something or not, a trip to the mercado is always fun. Near the entry wooden crates are filled with summer favorites; whole watermelons, corn on the cob and cantaloupe. Inside, the store is bustling with shoppers; carts are filled with traditional Mexican foods. We roam from aisle to aisle admiring all the colorful packaging. The fresh meat counter offers a large selection of  fillings for tacos, enchiladas and burritos. The dairy department is a paradise for a cheese lover like me, so many new things to try. In addition to the standard items, the produce department has piles of tomatillos, poblanos and jalapenos; not to mention things like coconuts, yuca, yame and yuatia.  I was looking for simple flour tortillas; I had about 15 to choose from! The store is bright and airy; the ceiling painted light blue to mimic the sky, mock palm trees and cheerful looking pinatas decorate the market. We reached the last aisle; I had gotten everything on my list, and then some! 


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DETROIT: Mexico and a Movie

30 May

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On any given evening you can find something interesting to do in Detroit. Kris read somewhere the movie My Week With Marilyn was showing at the Cass City Cinema at the Burton Theater; cool venue, fun topic, why not? The 140 seat theater is housed in the former Burton International School on Cass Ave. The old auditorium has been renovated into a legitimate movie theater equipped with the latest technology. Showing both Hollywood movies and independent films tickets cost only $5.00. Owner Joel Landy purchased the building in 2009, he owns many properties in the area and thought a movie theater would be a nice addition to the neighborhood.

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The attractive brick building is easy to find; parking is convenient, they have their own fenced in lot adjacent to the structure. We were the first to arrive for the evening showing;  with no other movie-goers to follow, we got out of the car and walked toward a sign with an arrow directing us to the entrance. We trailed from one sign to the next and then the next, where was everybody? Did we have the right time? Alone, we reached the door; once inside we encountered more signs and arrows directing us up the stairs.We came across this wonderful display of vintage projectors; that and the smell of freshly popped popcorn assured us we were on the right track. At the top of the stairs was a small concession stand to the right, ah ha! the source of the popcorn, the left wall displayed posters of upcoming movies.  We purchased our tickets along with a bag of still warm popcorn and proceeded into the theater. The space is small, intimate and cozy; heavy curtains hang in the doorway dividing the lobby from the auditorium. The decor is definitely vintage; dark wood, antique light fixtures, velour seats. More people started to arrive; a mix of regulars and newbies, we all took our seats as the trailers were projected onto the screen. By the time the movie began I was comfy in my seat and surroundings, there’s something really cool about seeing a movie here. It’s like a private screening, your focus is entirely on the story being played out before you, drawing you in. My Week With Marilyn is based on the making of the movie The Prince and the Showgirl filmed in 1956 in England. I thought Michelle Williams did an outstanding job capturing the essence of Marilyn Monroe. We both found the movie quite enjoyable, can’t wait to come back.

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For dinner we drove over to Southwest Detroit, there are just so many restaurants there I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to try them all; it will be fun trying! A little deeper into that section of the city is El Nacimiento on West Vernor.  The dining area is spacious, the decor traditional Mexican. We sat in a booth along the window overlooking all of the activity outdoors. Our server arrived quickly with water and menus, multiple page menus, this wasn’t going to be easy….everything looked delicious. Moments later a big basket of warm chips arrived with a platter that held three different salsas, sliced radishes and lime wedges. We munched on chips sampling each salsa as we perused the menu, when in doubt order one of everything…….well, almost everything. We had a Botana, llomo tostada, chorizo taco, cheese enchilada and chicken flauta, it was all soooo good! There were lots of freshly sliced avocado, jalapeno, ripe tomato, onion and finely shredded lettuce garnishing each, well seasoned, each meat had its own distinct flavor. We could have easily fed at least one other person! 

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After leaving El Nacimiento we drove around a bit; over on Sprigwells St we noticed Sheilas Bakery was still open. Another thing we like about Southwest, things stay open late; where else can you find an open bakery at 8:30pm on a Sunday night? Sheilas is awesome; when you come in the door there is a series of large refrigerators with glass doors displaying a huge selection of beautiful sheet cakes. Sheilas is known for her cakes, especially the Tres Leches. The next section of the bakery is mainly traditional Mexican baked goods, we try something new each visit. This time we selected a flaky type rolled pastry filled with cream cheese and passion fruit, some kind of triangle shaped baked cheese thing, and I couldn’t resist a piece of yellow cake with the pink frosting and sprinkles. Too full to eat on the spot we took it home to enjoy later…….and enjoy we did! The cheese triangle kind of reminded us of a less sweet cheesecake, though equally delicious. The rolled pastry was light and crisp, the filling very tasty. The cake was exactly how good cake should be; moist and tender, the frosting creamy and delectable.  The bakery also sells these amazing looking little desserts that appear to be a flower suspended in gelatin, next time we’re getting one of those. It turned out to be a wonderful evening of new tastes and adventures, I can’t wait till next weekend!

Southwest Detroit Murals, El Barzon, The Alley Project, MexicanTown Bakery

29 Aug


Friday was the perfect Summer day; Bright sunshine, blue sky, and a light breeze; the kind of day that compels you to be outdoors. Southwest Detroit is a  wonderful area to explore, it has a character all its own; lively and vibrant, bright colors and appealing artwork abound, even in the most unsuspecting places. We started our adventure at the recently opened Bagley Pedestrian Bridge, part of the $230 million dollar Ambassador Bridge  Gateway Project, the project itself provides bridge travelers a stunning introduction to Detroit. The pedestrian bridge is an asymmetrical 155 foot high pylon cable-stayed design, it is actually the first cable-stayed bridge in Michigan. From it you have panoramic views of downtown, St. Anne Church (the second oldest Catholic parish in the U.S.), and of course the Ambassador Bridge. The east side of the bridge features a towering metal and concrete sculpture; a dynamic tile mural highlights the crossing showcasing the Detroit River, Detroit landmarks and the local flavor of the neighborhood. The bridge unites the area after many years of separation with the building of I-75, now locals and visitors alike can enjoy the district on foot.

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From there we wandered around Mexican town east of the bridge in search of the murals that decorate Southwest Detroit; a drive down Bagley and Vernor reveal fantastic ironwork and art. Cross over I-75  further into Southwest; the area is dense with restaurants, shops, and local businesses. Large murals occupy the entire side of buildings; a bright purple wall is the background for a portrait of a woman and her guitar, children’s imagination’s are illustrated on one wall, a giant rendering of a farmer in his cornfield reaches out to passerby’s on another, public benches are decked out with mosaic tile decor and embellish the area.

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After a combination of walking and driving to take pictures, we were ready for lunch. We strayed from the beaten path a little bit to Junction and Michigan where El Barzon is located. When you walk through the door you will notice this is not your typical Mexican restaurant; a bit more upscale with white tablecloths, glass stemware and a rose on each table. When you are seated you are offered a wine list and menu, open the menu to the unexpected; one side is traditional Mexican dishes, the other side Italian. Servers are very attentive, our water glasses were filled quickly and the chips and homemade salsa arrived shortly thereafter. Immediately we dug into the chips eager to try both the red and the green salsa; red being spicy, this is a smooth sauce bursting with flavor and just the right amount of kick to it. The green on the other hand was very light and fresh tasting, it had a creaminess to it that I would bet came from avocado, both are delicious! We didn’t stray from the Mexican page and ordered a Tamale; over-sized, moist and flavorful. The enchiladas; filled with cheese and topped off nicely with a green sauce, this is not your usual melted white cheese that oozes out when you cut into the enchilada, but more of a mild crumble type, oh it was so good. We also tried the Pozole, served in a large bowl, it is a spicy broth base with pozole (hominy), vegetables, tostadas, and chicharrones, and we chose the chicken; break up the tostadas and use them like crackers in soup, then top with the vegetables, a little radish, some avocado, so tasty. We have to come back and try the Italian one day soon.

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Refreshed and refueled we were ready for more exploration, this time through the neighborhoods.We had previously noticed a number of residential fences painted with delightful murals designed to beautify the area. This time we came across a building with an impressive graffiti-type mural; the owner explained to us that students from Wayne state were going around to local businesses and offering their services for free, how cool is that? That’s when we stumbled onto The Alley Project (TAP). This walking gallery is awesome; spanning one full city block the project takes you through the alley behind Avis past a multitude of garages serving as canvasses for high quality multi-color murals, Wow! On July 4th of this year The Alley Project opened a common art space comprised of two empty neighborhood lots for neighbors and artists; providing places to sit and gaze at the billboard style displays, there are also raised flower beds and a gravel pathway that takes you from the street to the alley. This is definitely worth checking out!  

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We parked on Vernor in front of Cafe Con Leche and walked the short distance to the MexicanTown Bakery.  We love this place; the scent of fresh baked goods perfumes the air, tall metal racks with a dozen shelves hold the most recent items to come from the ovens, the wall to the right is cabinet after cabinet filled with sweet delights. Further back are rows of Mexican groceries and canned goods, everything you need to cook and authentic meal. Each time we come I like to try something new, I haven’t found anything yet I didn’t like; cookies, pastries, rolls and cakes they are all delectable. Kris really likes their chocolate cookie covered with tons of mini chocolate chips. Me,I don’t know what it’s called, but I’ll tell you my new favorite; when you look at it you will see that it is covered in granulated sugar, I mean it looks like it was rolled in sugar and then rolled again, really. There are two halves and they are held together with a raspberry filling that has squeezed out the sides. Take a bite to reveal the yellow colored dough, it is more crisp and crumbly than soft and chewy, the cookie part reminds me in the slightest way of a chinese almond cookie in color and flavor. The combination of flavors and textures is just right and went perfectly with my iced americano from the coffee shop.

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Heidelberg Project, Father Solanus, Cafe con leche

24 May

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Within about a mile of Jefferson on Mount Elliot there is an interesting variety of places to see including two historic cemeteries, a riverfront park, East Riverwalk and our destinations of the day.

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The Solanus Casey Center is located on Mt Elliot in Detroit. Inspired by the life and example of Father Solanus the center strives to be a place of pilgrimage, healing, reconciliation and peace. Father Solanus was well known in Detroit throughout his more than twenty years of service at St Bonaventure. His ministry of charity, comfort, and concern for the poor inspired the Detroit Capuchins to establish their Soup Kitchen which continues to this day.  The center welcomes people of all religious backgrounds and all walks of life.

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Park on the street, then walk through the garden on your way inside. When you enter the building through the beautiful glass doors you will notice an instant sense of tranquility. Skylights flood the lobby with sunlight and it draws you further inside. There is a small museum like section that tells the story of the life of Father Solanus that I believe anybody would find interesting.  He spent his life in the service of others, in times of trouble and sorrow people sought his prayers and advice, many still pray to him today.  The St Bonaventure Chapel is connected to the center and is open daily from 7:30-5:00pm. Be sure to wander in, religious or not you can’t help but admire the intricately carved wooden alter, the architecture is simple and elegant at the same time. Feel free to have a seat, it is a perfect place to meditate or reflect. 

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Just a short drive away is the Heidelberg Project, these two places couldn’t be more opposite.  Here there is a sense of energy and controversy, it feels loud.  The colors are bright, houses are painted with polka dots and numbers, found items are grouped together in unlikely collections. It challenges you in a way that is whimsical not offensive. Walk the two block area with an open mind, just have fun.

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The Mission of the Heidelberg Project is to inspire people to use and appreciate artistic expression as a means to enrich and improve their lives, and to beautify and preserve the environments in which we all live, work, and play. Tyree Guyton created the Heidelberg Project 25 years ago, in an effort to bring positive change to his community and the city of Detroit. It began as an outdoor art project in the heart of a blighted neighborhood in Detroit, but has grown to be much more. Today the project is recognized as one of the most influential art displays in the country. It is a demonstration of the power of creativity and its ability to transform lives. Each day the project attracts visitors from all over Detroit, the nation and the world. It offers a seed of hope, a forum for ideas, and a bright vision for the future.

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After all of the activity it was time to go to Southwest to Cafe con leche, this is the coffee shop I mentioned in an earlier post. It is one of our favorite places to go and have some sort of espresso drink, sit at a table in the window overlooking Clark Park,and watch. In warm weather or cold, Kris always gets a large Cubano, it is wonderfully rich espresso that is brewed directly into a cup containing raw sugar, so the espresso and sugar mix together, then it is stirred gently and enjoyed. My selection varies from visit to visit, but when it is cold outside you can’t go wrong with a Spanish Hot Chocolate. Owner Jordi comes from Barcelona Spain, so he knows how to make them right. Hot chocolate so thick, you can eat it with a spoon! It has almost a pudding like taste and texture to it, heck, it’s so good, get it anytime.

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This cafe has a loyal following, regulars come and go at the same time each day, the baristas greet them on a first name basis, and ask “your usual”? It is comfortable and friendly, Spanish is the primary language being spoken, but people easily change back and forth to English, and there is usually a nice selection of music being played quietly in the background. They offer a small selection of mostly Mexican pastries, and they recently added Panini sandwiches. Located at 4200 W Vernor, it is a great place to kick back and relax and just hang out.