Ben Ross: Will bankrupt Detroit lure tourists back one day?

 

I arrived in Detroit ready to roll, ready to rock. At last I was in Henry Ford's Motor City, where he conceived the Model T, the vehicle that made modern America. Finally, I was in the place where Motown was born, where Berry Gordy built a musical dynasty: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5. For me, Detroit was iconic, a symbol of America in its mid-20th-century pomp.

Sadly, I'd arrived too late. There was a surprisingly short queue at Wayne County airport's immigration desks, and I should have been through in a flash. I had the required post-9/11 journalist's visa, after all. But wait. Hold up. A Homeland Security official felt that something was awry.

"You're a travel writer and you're writing about Detroit?" she said. "Why?" Henry Ford, I stammered, as I submitted my fingerprints. Smokey Robinson. Her frown deepened. Did I know what Detroit was like these days? Well of course, I knew it was on the skids. Cheap Japanese cars had started the rot. And Mr Gordy had long since moved his musical empire to LA. But this was Detroit. Motor City.

Emboldened, I asked her where she would rather live, if she had the whole world to choose from. I expected her to say Hawaii, or Bermuda. "Chicago," she said, then added: "Anywhere but here."

Anywhere but here. Chicago is just 220 miles west of Detroit, and plenty followed in her footsteps. A quarter of a million people left the city from 2000 to 2010; just 713,000 residents remain, from a peak of two million in the 1950s. And on Thursday, Detroit became the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy, with debts of $18bn (£12bn). Motor City has finally run out of road, a potent symbol of industrial decline in the US.

Maybe one day tourists will help raise the city up again. At the moment, far more Brits simply change planes here than ever venture into Detroit – scared off by a sky-high murder rate and awful urban blight that reaches to the outskirts of the Downtown area. But a Detroit that could re-awaken its historic allure would showcase genuine grace and glamour. The glistening blue tube of the GM Tower rises alongside wondrous Art Deco architecture: the 1920s Penobscot building, with reliefs inspired by Native American culture, and the Guardian building, once called the "Cathedral to finance", with its dazzling tiled lobby.

Then there's the Henry Ford museum in nearby Dearborn. Founded 84 years ago by Ford himself, his intention was to collect "the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used". Its collection of motor vehicles is stunning. Or the Pontiac Silverdome, one of the venues for the 1994 World Cup, an event that showcased America to the wider world. Or the Motown Museum, where the tour guides let you sing "My Girl" in Studio A where it was recorded.

I met a woman called Jeanette Pierce on that visit to Detroit. She'd founded a company called Inside Detroit which, she said, "exists to fill the holes. We want to show people this incredible city". She is still at it now with D:Hive (dhivedetroit.org), which took 8,000 people on tours of Detroit in 2012.

Eight thousand people? Well, it's a start.

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