Touring the Motor City


I’ll admit, we seldom think of driving to Detroit. We live halfway between Chicago and Detroit, so either one is a two hour drive. Can you guess which one we have visited more? I suppose in some kind of burst of Michigan pride, I realized we were missing out. So we ditched any plans for The Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, or The Museum of Science and Industry- and headed for the Motor City instead.

Taking Teghan to a museum is risky. But if it’s a really big one, it feels safer. The Henry Ford Museum is perfect. It was easy to get into, and on a Tuesday there were no crowds at all. We will have to go back, since we did not have time for Greenfield Village. The place is overwhelming, and includes such pieces of history as the actual Rosa Parks bus, Kennedy’s limousine, and the chair that Lincoln was shot in. It is actually multiple museums in one, so if you plan on visiting I would recommend two days. It will not disappoint.

But for all of its impressiveness, The Henry Ford was not the standout museum of our day. Believe it or not, we took Teghan to Motown.

We already know she will hate it. Hitsville USA is not a big place, and seeing the Motown Museum means an hour-long tour. It includes a fifteen minute movie, lots of standing around listening, and absolutely no touching. Not only will Teghan hate this, but no one in our tour group will enjoy her hating it. Especially not us.

So when we go in, our plan is to take turns. That way one of us can stay outside with Teghan. When I approach the counter, a woman tells us that a tour is just starting and we can go ahead since we haven’t missed anything yet. She also mentions it will be an hour and a half. Concerned about time, I explain our situation and ask if it will be convenient to step away during the tour in case Teghan acts out. She assures me it will be no issue. Okay, that might work. 

The tour begins with a short movie. Teghan is having none of it. I bring her back upstairs to the entryway so she can scream and throw herself on the floor out of earshot. Dave and I switch at some point. The film isn’t offering either of us any new information, so it isn’t a big deal. We are prepared for this part. When the movie is over, we all go upstairs.

Hitsville is two houses connected. The original house is like a time capsule, while the adjoining house fills the needs of the museum. You begin in the adjoining house. The downstairs has the lobby, gift shop, bathrooms, and the movie viewing room. The upstairs has more bathrooms, and a display of Motown artifacts and photos. This is where we end up next.

MotownStudioAThe tour guide is fantastic. She gives an enthusiastic presentation on the history of Berry Gordy and Motown, going over details of every item in the room. The whole group participates in singing and clapping as prompted- except for Teghan, who is obsessed with the drinking fountain by the bathrooms.

Thank you for that drinking fountain.

The area is far enough removed from the group that she is not disturbing others, but secure enough that I can stand in between her and the group and still pay attention to both. Again, Dave and I take turns, and Teghan seems somewhat content. She even uses the bathroom for me while we are here.

Next we take a door that crosses over to the original house. Since we are still upstairs, we find ourselves in Berry Gordy’s restored living area, complete with lots of original furniture. Here our guide tells us stories of how Marvin Gaye used to come upstairs and sleep on that couch after he had too much to drink.

Then we follow the staircase down to the original Motown lobby. It really is like going back in time. Unlike most other museums, this one makes time travel seem real in a way that is difficult to explain. You are there, just as it was. Our guide continues on with stories of how Martha Reeves and Diana Ross became secretaries for Motown, pointing out that the same typewriter is still on the desk (among other things).

As we all crowd into that small space, Teghan begins screaming. There is absolutely nothing for her in this room, and she is not happy about having to stay in one spot. The biggest challenge we have in the tour is that the presentation for each space is quite lengthy. While very interesting to the rest of us, it is a painfully long wait for Teghan. Her ability to wait lasts about one minute if we are lucky.

Dave takes her back up the stairway to Berry’s apartment until the group is ready to move on to Studio A. At home, Teghan puts herself in a time out on our stairs when she needs to calm down. It’s pretty effective. But no matter how great the tour is, or how bizarre it is that our daughter is experiencing the “naughty step” in 1960, we are pretty stressed at this point.

As the group passes the control room down into the studio, we are the last to arrive. The tour guide stops us outside the control room. She wants to thank us for being so considerate. She says children act up all the time, but many parents seem unconcerned. She thanks us for letting her know about Teghan’s autism and what to expect ahead of time, and assures us that it has been no problem. I think she can see we are worried about Teghan being a distraction and wants to put us at ease. It works. In fact, the entire group doesn’t seem to think twice about the little girl who occasionally screams and is still wet from repeatedly sticking her head under that drinking fountain.

Studio A is the highlight of the tour. As I sit on the stairs listening to more stories, Dave is examining the control room. Unlike the studio, you are only allowed to look at the control room from the doorway. Teghan is trying to figure out how to get chocolate bars out of the original candy machine. We are told the chocolate is also original, so luckily she is unsuccessful. After the tour, our guide allows Dave to go under the ribbon and examine the control room more closely. He leaves his fingerprints on everything.

I would not recommend this tour for your child with autism. Teghan would give it two big thumbs down. But I would recommend it as something you should not miss when visiting Detroit. In spite of a few hiccups, it was by far the highlight of our day, and maybe the best museum tour I have ever been on. The tour guides are amazing, the museum is a true time capsule, and the experience is more than worthwhile. I cannot say enough good things about this museum and its staff.


Of course, our trip to Detroit would not be complete without a visit to The Grande Ballroom. No museum here. Despite its place in rock history, this building has met a fate similar to many parts of Detroit. While there is a desire to bring it back to life, little has been done to make it happen. It isn’t much to see, but we drove by anyway.

Our driving tour of Detroit revealed undeniable devastation everywhere. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The combination of ruins and street art was an experience all its own. Both sad and beautiful. It is impossible to drive through Detroit and not feel something. It is a worthwhile destination for anyone wanting an experience. Don’t count Detroit out. It is filled with history, culture, and a drive to reclaim its former glory. If you get the chance, you should discover it for yourself.


3 thoughts on “Touring the Motor City

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