Revival on the River

Wyandotte celebrates its hip vibe, cool shops, and hot new eateries — and there’s lots to explore
A painted turtle sculpture greets shoppers in an art-filled alley. The area is part of the city’s thriving art scene.
A painted turtle sculpture greets shoppers in an art-filled alley. The area is part of the city’s thriving art scene.

Wyandotte, a friendly little burg of about 25,000 residents along the Detroit River in southeast Michigan, has a long history, a Bohemian vibe, a fun riverwalk, and a thriving art scene. With all kinds of possibilities for boating, dining, shopping, and entertainment, it’s a surprising and definitely different destination to consider for a day trip.

According to Wyandotte Museum records, the city was initially settled along the banks of the Detroit River in 1732 by a branch of the Huron Tribe called the Wyandots — originally from Ontario, Canada — when their French allies founded Detroit. More than a century later, in 1867, the home-rule city of Wyandotte was incorporated.

Two years before that, Wyandotte’s Eureka Iron Works launched the industrial revolution in the U.S., as it was the first steel mill to employ the Bessemer process for quality steelmaking. Other important early industries included the Wyandotte Shipyards and Wyandotte Chemicals, which were incorporated into the conglomerate BASF, which stands today. The melting pot of immigrants who came to work in these industries also shaped the city’s culture.

There are plenty of areas where you can perch and grab lunch while strolling the city.
There are plenty of areas where you can perch and grab lunch while strolling the city. – Photos Courtesy of Joe Gruber

Gena Conti has lived in the city’s downtown for 40 years, and the elaborately festooned handmade hats from her Gena Conti Millinery Salon on the main drag, Biddle Avenue, are prized by men, women, and Kentucky Derby-goers. She loves that she can walk to her friends’ houses, to the downtown stores and restaurants, and to her recently married daughter’s house, just a few blocks away.

“Plus, we have the river,” Conti says. “I’ve always felt like I live in Europe.”

Her daughter, Jenny Senior, loves the town, too — so much so that, after working on and off at the Upndown store from junior high through earning her art history degree at U-M Dearborn, she bought the business last summer. It’s a custom-framing, gifts, and greeting card shop with an upstairs gallery that showcases prints and original art, and has a space for artist openings.

Both Conti and Senior see exciting signs of the city’s revitalization all over downtown: new apartments and condos going up, lots of young people rehabbing homes, many hip new restaurants and shops, lots of downtown events, and few empty storefronts.

“The restaurant scene here has mushroomed,” Conti says, naming great places such as The Vault on First, located in an old bank building, for fine cuisine; Whiskeys on the Water bar and grill; Magdaleno’s Italian Ristorante for authentic European fare; the eclectic Iron Gate; and H2O for fresh seafood.

Hip Looking Downtown Wyandotte Michigan
Photo Courtesy of Joe Gruber

“There’s definitely a younger vibe, too,” Senior adds, mentioning restaurants like vegan-friendly Bobcat Bonnie’s and Taco Bros Mexican Street Food, and cool shops like Glow Fish Studios and the newly relocated Cheryl Zemke Boutique, which offers fashion designs, alterations, and fine art.

“It’s all happening kind of organically,” says Senior, who belongs to a loosely united group of downtown entrepreneurs called the Gallery and Gift Squad. “We always have events and try to do something once a month.” Senior points to Bark on Biddle and Clue Day, with a scavenger hunt, as a couple of the fun events.

The city is home to the James R. DeSana Center for Arts and Culture and the Downriver Council for the Arts, and it also hosts one of Michigan’s largest summer arts festivals, the Wyandotte Street Art Fair, which runs in this year from July 13-16. The annual event fills downtown with more than 200,000 visitors, 200 fine artists, and more.

The art fair was what made Joe Gruber fall in love with Wyandotte when he first visited 10 years ago. “I knew it was a special place,” he says. Now he’s executive director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, part of a team that’s working to make the community even more special.

Every third Friday, for example, there’s an art walk, where retailers, restaurants, bars, and other businesses offer specials; complimentary trolley rides to businesses north, south, and west of downtown; free horse-and-buggy rides; and family entertainment in warmer months.

 History fans will love the 1896 Ford-MacNichol home, which is open for tours.
History fans will love the 1896 Ford-MacNichol home, which is open for tours. – Photos Courtesy of Joe Gruber

Visitors can also take guided tours of the elegant 1896 Ford-MacNichol home, a late-Victorian manse built by American plate-glass pioneer Edward Ford for his daughter, Laura, and her husband, George MacNichol.

After you’ve seen the town, grab six of your besties and take a private two-hour, captained Wyandotte Tiki boat tour of the “Downriviera.” Bring your own food and drink; Bluetooth speakers are provided to help you get your groove on.

If you’d rather watch the freighters pass by while savoring a delectable repast, try the Waterfront Restaurant and Lounge or the big-windowed Portofino on the River, which also offers Sunday brunch river cruises and other festive events.

Or maybe you’ve been on the water all day and are craving a burger and shake. Head to Joe’s Hamburgers, where sliders, hot dogs, fries, pierogis, and the Canadian dish known as poutine are served up in a sports-memorabilia atmosphere.

A Plus: Wyandotte offers a downtown social district every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. where bar and restaurant patrons can purchase and consume beer, wine, and spirits outdoors within specific boundaries.

The City of Wyandotte

By Patty LaNoue Stearns – Photos Courtesy of Joe Gruber

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