Stephen Bayley: Is the Motor City's downturn about to turn around?

Something to Declare

In 2007, BA suspended London-Detroit flights, citing low demand. Metaphors of nails and coffins came immediately to mind.

"Can't forget the motor city," Martha and the Vandellas sang in the preposterously sexy "Dancing in the Street" – like the Ford Mustang, one of the big hits of 1964. The driving rhythm of the music captured the exuberant optimism of a culture at its fabulous, innocent and tragically temporary pinnacle.

But people have rather forgotten Detroit. Tumbleweed, at least of the metaphorical kind, blows down Grand Boulevard where Albert Kahn's mighty General Motors Building once advertised the pomp of history's greatest industrial empire.

In the first decade of this century, Detroit's population fell by 25 per cent. It is now descending past a mere 700,000. If present trends continue, Motown will become an unpopulated desert.

Like all ruins, Detroit is powerfully romantic. It was once the capital of New France, the territory marked out for French traders by the resonantly named and sonorously titled Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Anxious to repel English rivals and subdue the petulant local Iroquois, Monsieur Cadillac commanded a fort at Michilimackinac, but abandoned it after missionaries complained that the Iroquois were indeed subdued ... by cognac. So in 1701, Cadillac built another fort at Pontchartrain du Détroit, between the lakes of St Clair and Erie. "Detroit" simply means "strait". This fort became a great city. In 1863, Henry Ford was born nearby. At heart a sentimental Irishman, Ford died at his house, "Fair Lane". The name refers to the back alley in Cork where Henry's father spent his last night before escaping the famine of 1847. It was in the Fairlane Inn that Henry's successors planned the Mustang over steak and beer.

Elsewhere in Detroit, Albert Kahn's River Rouge factory is industrial architecture at its most sublime. To taste the future that has now passed, no experience could be more deliciously piquant than catching sight of Eero Saarinen's GM Tech Center in Warren. And nor should you miss the Pontiac Silverdome, a vast sports arena whose Teflon-coated roof is supported by internal air pressure.

My last visit was about five years ago. I borrowed a huge F-150 pick-up truck and gas-guzzled around desolate streets and an empty downtown, as much embarrassed as afraid. I escaped to the Nordstrom's in the mall in Troy to reacquaint myself with the more successful aspects of consumerism. There, in the car park, I decided to write something called "Cities of the Dead", a reflection on how very little history and culture can do to prevent shame and decay.

I am glad I never did, because the desertification of Detroit may have reached the bottom of its curve. Things became so bad that rents fell to nothing, property prices imploded and the result was that small manufacturers and creative businesses moved back in. "Calling out around the world/Are you ready for a brand new beat?" It's too early to be certain, but ruined, shuttered Detroit may soon become an exemplar for future post-industrial cities everywhere. "Every guy, grab a girl." Yes. Maybe again soon.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
i100
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsAll just to promote a new casino
News
i100
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering