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

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

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...