It won’t be easy, but Detroit will rise again

Out of America: For 20 years this newly bankrupt city, in the words of a Tamla tunesmith, has really got a hold on me. The recovery is already beginning

Share
Related Topics

If you want a case of real urban death in America, consider not Detroit but Pithole. If you’ve never heard of the place, don’t worry. There’s nothing there now, just the wind, trees and rough-mown strips marking where streets once stood.

Detroit is today a metaphor for the car industry. Back in the 1860s Pithole was fleetingly synonymous with oil, the modern world’s first oil boom town when they discovered black gold in remote northwestern Pennsylvania. In just 12 months the  population rocketed from zero to 20,000, half the size of Detroit which had been around since 1701. Boom turned to bust, and inside a decade Pithole had quite literally vanished from the face of the Earth.

Not so Detroit, though on reading the news last week, you might believe a comparable fate awaited what once was the fourth biggest city in the United States. It’s just filed America’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy, probably the largest in all recorded history. Incontestably, Detroit is on its knees. But it’s anything but dead.

I first went there in 1991, and ever since, to borrow the words of a great Tamla-Motown tunesmith, the place has really got a hold on me. Detroit’s problems go back half a century and were already evident then. In those days there was “Devil’s Night”, an annual arson fest on the night before Hallowe’en, when one year 800 empty houses went up in flames. You could also visit the Heidelberg Project, set in an inner-city neighbourhood, by then already a virtual wasteland, in which the artist Tyree Guyton painted houses and festooned the streets with baubles and bric-a-brac – testament to a lost past, but also to Detroit’s resilience.

Since then things have gone from bad to terrible. Even so, Detroit remains a great US city, repository as few others are of American history, warts and all, and one that within its shocking decline surely nurtures the seeds of rebirth.

In retrospect last week’s $20bn (£13bn) bankruptcy was the only option. The causes are multiple and well known: the chronic problems of a mismanaged car industry, and a city leadership that was variously confrontational, undisciplined and inept, on occasion downright corrupt. Then came the 1967 riots and a surge in crime, which led to white flight to the suburbs and the consequent collapse of the city’s tax base. Not surprisingly, decay simply fed upon itself.

The city’s population fell from almost two million in 1950 to 700,000 today. Vast tracts of Detroit emptied; the more fortunate parts became urban farms, others simply reverted to nature, much like the lost cities of the Mayans reclaimed by the jungle. And there wasn’t even the money to tear down the graffiti-strewn monuments of Detroit’s glory years, whose continued existence has spurred a genre of voyeuristic photo reportage rightly described as “ruin-porn”. The Mexican-US border has its contrasts, but none to compare with Detroit. Crossing on a dark, wet winter’s from the chic white municipality of Grosse Pointe into the city proper, you might be Orpheus descending to the underworld.

The way back will not be easy. Bankruptcy is a messy business – as shown on Friday when a judge rejected the bankruptcy petition, only for the state authorities to file a countersuit. There will be months, maybe years, of litigation. Lawyers will make fortunes, but many public-sector workers will see their pensions wiped out. It may be a year or more before the process is completed. The reward however is the opportunity for a new start.

And how much there is to work with. Not least, Detroit is a terrific sports city. The baseball Tigers are again among the best in the land. And thanks to the eternally successful Red Wings, Detroit also bears the moniker of “Hockeytown” And where does the team play? In the Joe Louis arena, named after the city’s greatest sporting son.

Even more important, the heart of Detroit is recovering its vibrancy. Despite the trauma of bankruptcy, young people are moving back to live downtown, and small businesses are springing up. As for Ford, Chrysler and GM, they are once again making cars Americans want to buy. Yes, as with the motor industry, federal financial guarantees may be needed. But Detroit has a future. A Pithole it is not.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project