American Way: 'Detroit Revival'

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Peter Baker

America’s Motor City is no longer running on fumes.

Fans pour into Comerica Park to watch the Detroit Tigers take on the New York Yankees. Across Woodward Avenue, at the Fox Theatre, hordes of young girls wait in line to see the popular British boy band One Direction. Down the road, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are playing to a full house at Joe Louis Arena. And the loud hum of revving engines in the distance is the sound of Formula 1 racing cars practicing for the Grand Prix on Belle Isle, the first time in three years the race will be held in Detroit. This city, once the poster child for the Great Recession, is hopping.

This city, once the poster child for the Great Recession, is hopping. This might come as a surprise to folks who thought Motown was ripe for vultures — especially considering the steady diet of “Detroit on the decline” stories these past five years. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way; that Detroit wasn’t always the punch line of a cruel national joke. In 1950, a thriving automobile industry helped the city’s population swell to 1.85 million, making Detroit the fifth-largest city in America. Slowly, though, the city changed. Race riots in 1967 and an exodus of citizens to the suburbs took a heavy toll on Detroit, as did the sagging fortunes of the U.S. auto industry. By 2008, the unemployment rate was above 20 percent, and crime and poverty soared. It got so bad that Detroit made national news when it was discovered that inmates were committing new crimes immediately after release so that they would be re­arrested — because they preferred a jail cell over a life of freedom in the city.

The city got more embarrassing national attention that year when then-­Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was forced to resign and went to prison after being charged with 10 felony counts, and the NFL’s Detroit Lions lost every game they played en route to a 0–16 season.

Then, in 2009, two pillars of Detroit industry, Chrysler and GM, went bankrupt. The 2010 census found that the city had lost a staggering 25 ­percent of its population over the past dec­ade, making it the 18th-most populous city in the United States, with 713,000 residents. The reduced tax base simply couldn’t support the city’s infrastructure, and debt rose to a mind-boggling $12 billion.

From afar, the former home of boxing great Joe Louis looked like it was about to be knocked out.

Yet in the midst of all this turmoil, certain areas were showing signs of life. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy started to convert an area of urban blight into the first phase of a river walk that will one day extend 5.5 miles between the east and west riverfronts and 1.35 miles inland on a rail-to-trail called the Dequindre Cut Greenway. Downtown, the long-dormant Book Cadillac, the tallest hotel in the world when it was unveiled in 1924, underwent a $180 million renovation and reopened as a Westin in October 2008. In August 2010, Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures, made the decision to move his headquarters from a western suburb to the city’s financial district. In spring 2011, longtime community developer Sue Mosey created a program called Live Midtown, with incentives that would help spur growth in her neighborhood.

Today, GM and Chrysler are both out of bankruptcy, having paid off their government loans ahead of schedule. GM posted a record profit and is once again the world’s top-selling carmaker, while Chrysler’s­ net profit exceeded $150 million in 2011. Quicken­ Loans and Rock Ventures have moved more than 6,000 workers into the city, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan recently relocated 3,000 workers from Southfield to downtown’s GM Renaissance Center. A new port will host several cruise ships touring the Great Lakes this fall. More than 500 people have already taken advantage of Mosey’s Live Midtown program to move into that neighborhood. And with the 2012 NFL season a quarter of the way done, the Lions look back on a 2011 that saw their first winning campaign (10-6) since 2000 and their first playoff berth since 1999. No wonder the city buzzes with optimism.

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