And yet there is a Detroit beyond the decay. Glance at the map and you realise that here is a city framed by water – as it was in 1701 when founded by the French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe. He appreciated his chosen location's position on the strait (now the Detroit River) that links lakes St Clair and Erie. The latter is, of course, one of North America's five Great Lakes. In summer, Detroit is a perfect launch-pad for a road trip north in search of two other members of the quintet, lakes Huron and Michigan.

Visitors prepared to tarry in Detroit for a day or three will also notice that this duckling of ugly reputation has swan-like tendencies. It is, after all, a city as ingrained in American folklore as New York or Los Angeles. It has been the proving ground for a raft of musical acts – the smoky blues of John Lee Hooker, the guitar-driven fury of the MC5, the White Stripes and Iggy Pop. It has been referenced by many – David Bowie's apocalyptic vision on 1973's "Panic In Detroit"; the goofy grins of glam-rock clowns Kiss on 1976's "Detroit Rock City". It brings out rage in some: "Look at y'all, runnin' your mouth again, when you ain't seen a mile road south of Ten," raps Eminem on 2000's "Marshall Mathers", a track informed by his tough background in the northerly district of Warren. It urges wistfulness in others: "Speeding on the highway in my little red Mustang. Things were a lot simpler in Detroit," replied Madonna in 1984, when asked what she missed about her home city.

Then there is the soul mother-lode. From 1959 to 1972, West Grand Boulevard hosted a musical revolution that was heard far beyond Detroit. Entering the Motown Museum, I briefly find it hard to equate this tiny structure with the indefatigable songs recorded here – "My Girl" and "Baby Love", "Dancing In The Street" and "The Tracks Of My Tears", "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and "Mercy Mercy Me" – though evidence is everywhere: photos of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson on the walls; the switchboard that a pre-stardom Diana Ross once manned; Studio A, where alchemy was mastered.

The city's cultural side continues elsewhere – in The Henry Ford, a Dearborn museum that shelters historic artefacts accrued by the motoring magnate, including, macabrely, the 1961 Lincoln Continental in which John F Kennedy was shot and Abraham Lincoln's assassination chair from Ford's Theatre. And Detroit Opera House strikes a pose for music at its most elevated in the core of Downtown. Detroit Institute of Art, meanwhile, is one of America's top galleries. For now. Since bankruptcy, there have been whispers that parts of its collection of 60,000 works – which features pieces by Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Degas, as well as US masters such as John Singer Sargent – should be sold to help drag the city from the financial pit. This issue has become a literal hot topic. Last month, two young artists staged an inventive protest, bending scrap metal into the words "#Save The Art", and setting fire to the petrol-infused letters outside the Institute's wide entrance.

Such spirit shows that Detroit's heart still beats. This is certainly so when its helmets-and-headgear stars are in action – particularly the Detroit Red Wings, statistically the greatest American ice-hockey team, with 11 wins in the sport's totemic Stanley Cup. And their baseball counterparts, the Detroit Tigers, are enjoying a fruitful era. Last month, they just failed to make the World Series for a second year running, losing to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series (effectively the semi-final of US baseball).

There are mutterings about the Tigers when I walk into Plaka Cafe on Monroe Avenue, Greektown's restaurant drag. Two construction workers are mulling over the team's defeat by Boston in game three of the series, gloomily eating pancakes. The waitress makes little eye contact as she takes my order, flitting between tables like a hummingbird between flowers, but my corn-beef-and-cheese omelette, when it arrives, is thick and tasty, and my coffee cup scarcely troubled before she swoops in to replenish it.

You could barely describe this scene as a "green shoot" – but it is an intriguing picture of a struggling American city carrying on regardless. There are others: Lafayette Greens, an urban garden where fruit and vegetables burst forth and a farmers' market is held every Thursday on the site of the Lafayette Building – a 1923 office block, demolished in 2010 – and the Grand Trunk Pub, selling 23 Michigan-brewed beers in a former railway ticket office.

The key shard of rebirth, however, is the Guardian Building, a late Twenties skyscraper, lovingly refitted and dedicated to regional government. It is open to all, and when I peek into its Art Deco hall, I find shops and cafés. And Icarus. He is here again, perhaps, in the form of a 1928 mural by the artist Ezra Winter. It depicts a quasi-angelic figure standing tall over a Michigan where machines buzz profitably and mines are inexhaustible. Like Michigan Central Station, it is a sliver of broken time, conceived before the Wall Street Crash that would change everything. Yet, as locals swirl below it, sipping their coffee, buying lunch, it is difficult not to admire Detroit's resilience. Or its raw, bruised beauty.

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