Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides
Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

Taylor Bruce may have gotten the worst sleep of his life the first night he spent in Detroit.  Bruce, the founder and editor of Wildsam Field Guides, had come to town to begin working on a Detroit edition of his travel books at what could be considered the worst time of year to visit the city—early January.  With Michigan in the midst of one of the most brutal winters in decades, Bruce settled down for the night at a friend’s loft along the Detroit River.

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
Wildsam Field Guides founder and editor Taylor Bruce. Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem

“My friend is an artist, so it was this big industrial workspace,” recalled Bruce recently at an event held at the Shinola store in Midtown Detroit to celebrate the Detroit Field Guide’s release.  “The loft is located along the river, with these big windows, and I couldn’t figure out how to work the heat.  Those industrial windows might be great to look out of, not so good at keeping the cold out.”

In spite of inauspicious beginnings, Bruce did not run screaming for the warmer environs of his native South.  Instead, he stuck around, making frequent trips to Detroit over the course of six months, looking to capture the essence of the city and add it to Wildsam’s growing catalog of city guides (previous entries include Nashville, Austin, and San Francisco).

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
Wildsam Field Guides’ inspiration, a quote from John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” Photo courtesy of Travis Cagle

Started in 2012, Wildsam Field Guides spotlight one city per book, offering a textured and richly detailed portrait of their subject through curated recommendations, historical facts and press clippings pulled from archives, interviews with locals, hand-drawn maps and illustrations, and essays.  The overall effect is not so much a guide that tells you what to do, but one that gives you a sense of the place and the stories behind it.  The reader might not walk away knowing the most fashionable restaurants at which to make reservations, but they will feel as though they have seen a glimpse of what gives the city its identity.

“We called it a travel guide because it’s the easiest way to identify it,” Bruce said.  “Really, it’s good for people who are just travelling there, but we want it to be enjoyed by people who live in the city or even people who just want to read about the place.”

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
All four Wildsam Field Guides. Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

When asked why he chose Detroit, Bruce noted that he liked the city’s grittiness, its multitude of voices and stories.  “It’s not somewhere expected,” he explained.

Indeed, despite its up-and-coming status, Detroit does not have the hipster cachet of previous field guide settings, and appropriately the book does not spend its entirety dwelling on the newly gentrified or the fawned over spaces Millennials flock to in what may be deemed the city’s “safer” neighborhoods. Instead, the book chooses less publicized angles, devoting space to a press clipping of Detroit reporter Sandra West describing the 1967 riots, and interviews with important voices such as Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett.

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
Illustrations from Wildsam Field Guides Detroit. Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

“Things in Detroit are complicated.  They are both better and worse than you’d think,” Bruce says in his introduction to the guidebook.  The pages that follow tend to highlight that.  They do not dwell on the bleak, but they don’t sugarcoat things or act like everything’s going to be great.  What the Wildsam Guides do well is curate and stay within themselves.  Conclusions are not drawn, but left up to the reader to discover.  The book does not try to say too much, but instead uses its various perspectives to add up to an overall picture of the city.

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
Illustrations from Wildsam Field Guides Detroit. Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

Cities are ultimately a collection of people; when their voices are added up, you get the true identity of the place.  Wildsam seems to recognize that and presents you with a rich tapestry of anecdotes, facts, and stories, but ultimately the readers must decide for themselves how they will view the city.  Thanks to the Wildsam Field Guide Detroit, though, even the most seasoned Detroiter will walk away from its pages with some fresh perspective of what makes their town from another perspective. Have you taken a glance through the Wildsam pages? What are your other sources for travel information concerning Detroit?

Discovering Detroit with Wildsam Field Guides - Awesome Mitten
Wildsam Field Guide Detroit party at Shinola in Midtown Detroit. Photo courtesy of Travis Cagle

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Jake Cagle is a contributing writer for The Awesome Mitten. Born in Adrian, Michigan, he has been a longtime resident of Grand Rapids. He graduated from Grand Valley State University. Jake's work has also been featured on The Rapidian, MittenBrew.com, Visit Detroit Blog, and Pure Michigan's blog, as well as his personal website, jacobcagle.com.