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‘Secret Detroit’ Reveals Weird and Wonderful Facts About the Motor City

April 16, 2018

Grosse Pointe Woods author Karen Dybis shares an excerpt from her latest book ‘Secret Detroit: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.’

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit reporter-turned-author. She has authored four books: “The Ford Wyoming Drive-In,” “Better Made in Michigan,” “The Witch of Delray” and “Secret Detroit: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure,” which was published April 15 by Reedy Press.

“Secret Detroit” is one part trivia and one part travel guide to the Motor City. The book features 90 items that are weird, wonderful and obscure about the city of Detroit. These range from historical monuments and unique locations to crazy destinations.

“My goal for the book was for someone to take it along with them on their everyday adventures and go see all of these great sites,” Dybis says.

Read an excerpt from “Secret Detroit” by Karen Dybis below.

secret detroit

A city that is more than 300 years old is bound to have some amazing people, places and things. Founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, quite a character himself, sought a settlement near Le Detroit, or The Straits, because the land was fertile, the riverfront defendable and the climate pleasant.

All of these aspects remain in Detroit, a city that symbolizes the ups and downs of the nation itself. It has enjoyed the highs of sports championships, incredible architectural achievements, beautiful homes, parks and landmarks as well as incredible people who have made Detroit proud.

Yet it also is a city that has weathered riots, ruins, racial strife and the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. However, the 2012 reorganization gave Detroit its best hope to rebuild on what was an already strong foundation of manufacturing muscle, resilient businesses and resolute residents who never left the city.

Detroit is the kind of place that gets into your heart and mind. You learn it through actual experience – reading about a place like this only whets your appetite, something that’s sated by getting out there, meeting people and seeing what the conversation is about. Detroit begs for you to see, feel, touch and taste. Everything here is sensory, and you have to experience it to understand it. It is Motown music. It is coney dogs. It is Albert Kahn, Joe Louis, James Scott.

Never heard of that last guy? You soon will.

Detroiters are incredibly loyal, smart, creative people. During the past three centuries, they have developed a city full of pride, purpose and potential.

True North Quonset Huts

  • A live/work development of nine Quonset huts designed to serve as a community for creatives and visitors.
  • 4699 16th Street, Detroit
  • Pro tip: If you want to stay the night, check out the units available for rent through AirBnB and other online hotel websites.
Secret DetroitKaren Dybis

True North Quonset huts in Detroit.

Why did a community of Quonset huts pop up near Detroit’s busy Corktown district?

With Detroit’s many demolitions and the resulting empty lots, large area of land have become available for new developments. One such area that has seen a revitalization is True North, a group of nine Quonset Huts. The project, developed by Prince Concepts under the supervision of developer Philip Kafka, was inspired by the Quonset hut communities that popped up during and after World War II, especially in areas such as Berlin. For Detroit, Kafka and Prince Concepts wanted these live/work spaces to serve as private residences, but one hut also includes a gallery and another has rental units that are available as hotel rooms. As you approach, the buildings appear as traditional Quonset Hut with their shiny metal exteriors and semi-circular shapes. However, the interiors are taller, larger and more upscale with tall windows, well-appointed kitchens and large living spaces. Each hut ranges from 475 to 1,600 square feet in size. Prince Concepts also added new landscaping including wild grass, a clay court and 30 trees to the previously overgrown lots. To keep the units affordable, builders used readily available materials such as durable polycarbonate for most of the structures. Lots. The award-winning project is just one of Kafka’s in the city; the former Texan is developing a variety of properties in Detroit, including a restaurant called Takoi.

The Schvitz

  • An urban health club and the only historic bathhouse left in Detroit
  • 8295 Oakland Street, Detroit
  • Pro tip: There are nights for men and women as well as some co-ed events; make sure to call ahead to know what is available that day.
Secret DetroitCourtesy The Schvitz Facebook Page

The Schvitz, Detroit’s historic bathhouse, recently reopened in New Center.

Where have generations of Detroiters gone to eat, meet and enjoy the heat in the city’s last remaining steam bath?

The Schvitz is an old-world tradition that found its way into Detroit culture around 1930. At least, that’s the date written in tile around the cooling pool of Detroit’s last remaining Schvitz. Detroit once had a sizable Jewish community, dating back to the mid-1800s. The Jewish middle class had a variety of businesses around the North End, Delray and Black Bottom or the Hastings Street area. The Schvitz, which opened in 1918 as a community center of sorts, became a gathering space where men, women and sometimes couples could relax, enjoy a sauna and reconnect. A regular night at the Schvitz involved getting into a robe, prepping your skin with traditional oak-leaf bundles, talking to friends as you slowly sweated out the week’s toxins, cooling in the pool and doing it all over again after a drink and some food. It was said to be a regular hangout for the city’s infamous Purple Gang, a group of Prohibition-era gangsters known for violence, rumrunning and their Jewish heritage. By the 1970s, the Schvitz gained a reputation for wild parties and its swingers scene. Its regular customers left, and the building began a decades-long decline. In 2017, new owners began a renovation and reinvention of the Schvitz, knowing that the city’s revived Jewish population needs a place to gather, to enjoy natural therapies and unwind in a safe and healthy space. The goal is to make the Schvitz a space where men and women can warm themselves in the sauna, enjoy the steam heat, cool off with a splash in the cold pool and take in a meal together in a communal, spiritual way.

Detroit TARDIS

  • A fake telephone booth that holds books but may have a secret entrance to another dimension. No, wait, that’s just for Dr. Who.
  • 5007 Vermont Street, Detroit
  • Pro tip: If you’re heading to see the TARDIS, bring a book. Anyone is welcome to come take a book and/or leave one.
Secret DetroitKaren Dybis

The “Dr. Who” replica TARDIS — which holds new and used books the public is welcome to take home — is a landmark for the Woodbridge neighborhood.

Who is a big enough “Dr. Who” fan to create his own TARDIS in Detroit?

Think of it as the ultimate father-and-son bonding project. When Dan Zemke wanted to build his own lending library for the public, he had a vision. Zemke, who runs a local youth reading program with Reach-Out-and-Read, wanted a mini-library that would stand out at its Warren Road location. So the longtime “Dr. Who” fan came up with a novel idea: He would custom build a TARDIS to hold the volumes he wanted to share with the masses. With his dad’s tools and insights, the two worked over the course of several months to put together their own police-station-turned-spaceship. Zemke and his pop put together the 10-foot, one-ton behemoth to replicate the longtime British television show’s iconic Time and Relative Dimension in Space time machine, or TARDIS. “We changed the name to Totally Awesome Reading Dispensary in Society,” Zemke told The Detroit Free Press. “At first, I thought this was going to take about a month, but it unfolded into a much longer and awesome project.” The bright blue TARDIS is an eye-grabbing sight, Zemke admits. He told interviewers he has seen people almost run off of the road when they catch a glimpse for the first time. But kids of all ages love the unique structures and the books found within.

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