“There are cities that get by on their looks…and then there are places like Detroit that have to work for a living” – Elmore Leonard
The name alone presents many with images popularized in recent years by the national media: burned out shells of homes, decimated commercial strips, high rates of crime and poverty, and the echoes of deindustrializtion. Certainly, while these illustrations do paint one honest portrayal of Detroit, they do not paint the entire story. After years of false starts and economic upheaval, the city that put the world on wheels finds itself gaining traction as it speeds toward transformation.
Detroit is perhaps the city that most exemplifies the extremes of 20th Century urban American history. Industrialization – led by innovators with iconic surnames like Ford, Dodge, Chrysler – revolutionized how the world would move people, products and ideas. Twenty years after the first Model T came off the assembly line, the city of Detroit had boomed to become one of the five largest in the nation. Art Deco skyscrapers and landmark civic buildings were erected along widened avenues that radiated outbound from the downtown core in all directions. Growth was fueled by immigrants from Europe as well as the great migration from the South, all who all came and worked side by side on the factory floor making comfortable wages that established the modern middle class.
By the late 1960s, social and economic storm clouds had gathered. While the city had roared back from the Depression to help retool factories for war production to defeat Hitler’s armies, the post-war years brought a new crisis brought upon by shifting economics and long-standing racial mistrust. The oldest factories closed up and blue collar production moved to the greener pastures of the suburbs. Detroit’s downtown department stores followed the consumer wave and helped develop the first suburban shopping malls in the nation. A new freeway system tore apart inner city neighborhoods in the name of slum removal.
Race riots ignited in the summer of ’67 and raged for four long days. Over the ensuing years the city lost population at a record clip, even as the metropolitan area as a whole boomed. Detroit by 1990 had fallen nearly 50% from its peak population; the city was over 75% African-American, the suburbs over 85% white. Despite billions in new, if isolated, economic development during the 1990s, the city’s bellweather auto giants careened toward bankruptcy during the 2008 fiscal crisis as poor management and the new realities of the global economy pushed the region to the brink.
You would think that would end our story – but Detroiters – tenacious and hardworking – never seem to give up. Over the past few years a new era has begun in Detroit. A creative class has been welcomed to engage in a process of urban transformation. Deep-pocketed billionaires have structured an incredible revival of the downtown core – with hundreds of small and large buildings restored and billions in new – and more cohesive – development projects underway – including a new streetcar line being constructed in a city that worships the very cars they build. Long suffering city residents have been among the most active in rebuilding their neighborhoods and pushing for a better quality of life. The Detroit region remains massive – over 5 million residents along with several hundred thousand more over the river in Windsor, Canada; while the challenges that remain are extreme, the resources are equally plentiful to promote the city’s nascent revival.