Long regarded as a synonym for urban decay, the battered city of Detroit has begun to flex its economic muscles again. But the process of regeneration is only just beginning, reports David Usborne
Anyone who thinks Detroit will never again be anything but a synonym for urban decay need only read the minutes of a recent City Council meeting, where members authorised the repair of 5,000 street lights at a cost of $750,000 (£475,000). There are thousands more such lights in need of repair, yes. But something is underway. The headline practically writes itself: the lights are coming back on in Motor City.
It is crime, often conducted under cover of darkness, that more than anything else has hollowed out Detroit, home of the Model-T and Motown. Between 2000 and 2010 its population fell 25 per cent, according to census numbers. Entire blocks became derelict and strewn with weeds. Add corruption, joblessness and poverty and it seemed there were no depths Detroit could not plumb.
Detroiters are leery of come-back boosterism. Ten years after the 1967 riots that more than any other event set this city on the path to purgatory, they said the building of the shiny Renaissance Centre by the Ford Company on the river front would provide a boost. Hopes rose again when the Super Bowl came here in 2006, but then the Big Three car companies hit a wall only to be saved by a controversial bailout from Washington and new rounds of plant closures and lay-offs.
There are still plenty of frightening statistics. Of the 702,000 now living here – from 2 million in 1950 – a third exist below the poverty line and unemployment runs above 14 per cent. But there are better numbers too, in the economy, changing demographics, even in sports. The car makers are profitable again and in baseball, football and ice hockey, Detroit has had a thrilling few weeks of winning – a big deal because all the major teams play downtown. All of this leads to a spurt in something much harder to measure: spirit.
"Are you kidding? We are in a huge upwards surge and it's because the people really want to support the city exactly because it has been through such hard times," insists Renee Adams Schulte, 57, who recently had dinner with her friend at Roast, a high-end eatery with décor and prices that would not be out of place in Manhattan. A native of the mostly upscale suburb of Grosse Pointe, she has long made a point of coming into Detroit's downtown to support it.
"When I was a kid I used to get on the bus with my friends to go shopping in Detroit," Ms Adams Schulte, who runs a women's rowing club, recalls. "Would I have put my (now grown-up) kids on the bus to downtown? I don't think so! But now new businesses are coming back. There are all the galleries and the stores and the restaurants and it's great."
Some of the new pride was captured in a Chrysler commercial in this year's Super Bowl broadcast. Featuring local rap king Eminem, it was a celebration of the city's grit. "What does a town that has been to Hell and back know about the finer things in life?" the narrator asks. "Well, I will tell ya... it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel." The tagline read: "Imported from Detroit." A huge banner draped down the side of a downtown building today declares: "Outsource to Detroit". It's a not too subtle message that Detroit won't take it from Japan and Korea any more.
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