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Detroit vs. Philadelphia: Explore Detroit beyond the headlines

By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Thu June 14, 2012
Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, looks out on the Detroit skyline.
Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, looks out on the Detroit skyline.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As part of our Destination USA series, we pit rival cities and let you vote which is best
  • The final city smackdown is a battle of the underdogs: Philadelphia vs. Detroit
  • Jamie Gumbrecht explains there's more to Detroit than "ruin porn" and bad headlines
  • Fight for your city! Show us why you think Detroit or Philadelphia is better on CNN iReport

Editor's note: This piece is part of a series of "city smackdowns" pitting rival cities against each other and letting you decide which one's best. Read the story below and its counterpart defending Philadelphia, vote in the poll, then visit CNN iReport to share your tips and photos for Philadelphia and Detroit.

(CNN) -- We conquered Greektown last weekend like so many Detroit bachelorette parties before -- cheap champagne, slot machines, grown-woman giggles. We stuck to the city's party-friendly district, home of a casino, restaurants that specialize in flaming cheese and Astoria Pastry Shop, where we spent a long, crave-denying half-hour forcing ourselves not to order one of everything.

Some pals and soon-to-be family drove five hours to be there. My clan has long lived nearby, but some guests had never visited the D. I'm sure there was nervous laughter on the way in, recognition of decades of terrifying headlines. Detroit hasn't heard many kind words since the 1960s, and much of what's said is rooted in reality. It's a place with money trouble, population trouble, housing trouble, crime trouble; even the most bright-eyed of the artist-farmer entrepreneurs arriving in the city won't deny it.

City smackdown

It's the battle of the underdogs. Which city is the victor, Detroit or Philadelphia?

It was a merry night, but I know some of our guests left exasperated and disappointed by the view from the expressway and the sense that we shouldn't stray too far from the well-lit hotel perimeter.

I left feeling guilty, like I'd shirked my duties as an ambassador of the Mitten's greatest city. Detroit has problems, but lack of identity and charisma isn't among them.

Its rise and fall resembles the story of other cities, but on the ground, there's nothing like it -- exactly the trait that makes any place worth a visit. I miss it when I'm gone and perpetually wish for a few more days to explore. But without a guide, our visitors couldn't even tell where to start.

City smackdown: Philly, a fine place for 'cast-offs, misfits'

I know what we should have done.

When everybody arrived, we should've had a pile of sunshine-yellow Better Made potato chips, round paczki from New Martha Washington bakery and Faygo Rock & Rye, or maybe Redpop, waiting.

We could've table hopped and ordered often: the Vedgie sandwich at Mudgie's, beef cheek pierogie at Roast, barbecue at Slows, beer at Motor City Brewing Works, cheaper beer at the Anchor.

We should've poked our heads into each of the 52 rooms at The Whitney and requested the creme brulee, just because. There should've been coneys, those chili-cheese-hot dog monstrosities best consumed on the wrong side of 2 a.m. (Or at lunch, if you're that kind of hungry.)

The next morning, we could've gotten coffee and pastries from Avalon International Breads or detoxed in the worth-the-wait crepe line at Good Girls go to Paris. We should've sent everybody home with a box of sugared goodies from La Gloria in Mexicantown.

Maybe we should've planned the party a day earlier, so we could hit Café D'Mongo, the Fridays-only speakeasy.

The next day, we could've shopped Eastern Market -- the old R. Hirt Jr. specialty store recently reopened under the name DeVries & Co. It's still owned by a grandson of the founder, still a wise place to buy cheese.

We might've taken the Dequindre Cut, a pedestrian-only greenway, straight to the Riverfront. In all that concrete, marble and glass, it's easy to forget it's a city made possible by water. We could've stared south at Canada, or crossed the bridge to Belle Isle, the island playland larger than Central Park, with elements designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and Detroit favorite Albert Kahn.

Detroit is, unfortunately, perhaps, the artistic home of "ruin porn," and while Michigan Central Station and the like are worth an ogle, we really should've stopped in the very-much-alive art deco Guardian Building to spin in the lobby. We might've walked up and down the streets of Boston-Edison and Brush Park to appreciate the glorious old houses, or the sidewalks of Lafayette Park to see the more modern Ludwig Mies van der Rohe homes.

We should've stayed a day longer and gone to the Detroit Institute of Arts. We could pore over each corner of Diego Rivera's murals and walk among Warhols, Rembrandts and Egyptian mummies. For another view, we'd stop at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Pewabic Pottery and the Motown Museum. Cruising music: Aretha, Gladys, Stevie, repeat.

We could've at least driven through the Heidelberg Project, the neighborhood art project by native son Tyree Guyton, helped along by artists such as Tim Burke. We would be smarter to stop and talk to people there; a few years ago, they generously blocked off the street for my wedding and applauded from their porches. I will always believe their neighborhood is a place to celebrate.

We'd have to set aside an afternoon for John K. King books, four floors and a basement that smell like your favorite corner of the library and bedtime stories at grandma's. My uncle calls it "the only used book store where you can go with a list," but I've never bothered with one. Like a casual gambler at Detroit's casinos, it's probably better to set a budget and wander.

What would we miss when we took a break? Games at Comerica Park, Ford Field or Joe Louis Arena; shows at the Fox Theatre or the acoustically stunning Orchestra Hall; music at the Magic Stick, Chene Park or PJ's Lager House; classic movies (and real, live pipe organ!) at the Redford Theatre?

The suburbs would be on the someday list -- the Detroit Zoo and its newly born river otters, the glassblowers and re-enactors at Greenfield Village and Buckminster Fuller's geodesic Dymaxion House at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. When everybody is back with their kids in tow, maybe we'll make a day of the Cranbrook Institute of Science's planetarium.

One night of partying is too short for this place, or any place.

I live in Atlanta now, and it too, has a part of my heart. I wouldn't want it, or any of my homes, to be judged on its most dilapidated blocks, its greatest tragedies or the symbolism of its past. No city is so obvious.

So I can understand if our guests drove away shaking their heads, but I won't let it happen again.

They'll be back in August for my sister's wedding. Detroit will be entering its most beautiful season, when the wind is warmer and the temperatures cooler. We will roll down Woodward Avenue, the grand lane in and out, but we'll stop often to look around, because this is Detroit, and that is Detroit, and this, too.

Detroit or Philadelphia, which city gets your vote? Show your support in the poll above, then visit iReport to share your tips and photos for Philadelphia and Detroit.

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