The year is 2025. Detroit, the poster child of the Great Recession, is emerging as a model of urban life. The transformation could be called a miracle but for the fact that the change was wrought by the very things that first made Detroit great: innovation, industriousness, and a will to win against all odds.
The metamorphosis grew from desperation. In 2008, two of the Big Three carmakers were swirling toward the sinkhole of bankruptcy. The city's population, which peaked at 1.85 million during the post—World War II auto boom, was approaching 700,000. Tracts of wilderness, abandoned factories, and empty houses sparked a perverse fascination with Detroit's ruins. "This whole area really bottomed out," William Clay "Bill" Ford Jr., Ford's chairman and a great-grandson of the automotive company's founder, says.
But then something powerful and unexpected happened: Visionaries and ordinary citizens, tired of living in a crumbling city, decided to quit waiting for someone to fix it. "I think there was a realization by everybody in this region, not just in Detroit, that the way we were doing things was a broken model," Ford says. "At Ford we had to completely reinvent ourselves."
The reinvention was aided by the group that Ford's great-grandfather had resisted so viciously, the United Auto Workers (UAW). "When things were the bleakest," Ford says, "UAW president Ron Gettelfinger and the union took concessions that allowed Ford to survive and ultimately thrive. Ron said to me, 'Look, we've got to get out of this together.' If you can take entrenched institutions like the auto companies and the UAW and completely redefine the relationship, then it should be possible for the city of Detroit to do it too."
That was Bill Ford's epiphany; other Detroiters had their own. People with foresight and guts began investing in the city again. Detroit natives who had fled their broken hometown trickled back, joined by pioneering young people who saw past the city's blight. Instead, they saw available buildings, cheap rents, and a welcome mat for innovators. They saw an iron work ethic and fierce energy. And in a landscape ravaged by depopulation and decay, some bright people saw a blank canvas on which to paint a new urban model.
Reemerging waterways and feral forests claim land left open by sharp population decline. Detroit goes green with planning that takes advantage of the city's unique ecology.
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