While Australians flock to the US cities of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, Detroit is usually overlooked. Long a symbol of economic decline, the Midwestern city seems to offer little to the international visitor. Described by the New York Times as the “cradle of America’s automobile industry”, Detroit has suffered economic decline for decades as car plants have shut down.
When the factories left, so did people. In 1950, Detroit’s population was more than 1.8 million, but the decentralisation and decline of the auto industry, including the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, ongoing racial tensions, and a reputation for violence – it was dubbed the ‘murder capital of America’ in the 1970s and ’80s – saw the population plummet, dipping below 700,000 in 2015. Depopulation also significantly reduced the city’s tax base. In the summer of 2013, with a debt of more than US$18 billion, Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the largest American city ever to do so. The move triggered a slew of negative headlines. Detroit, it seemed, was a place to avoid.
Resilient and intriguing
Although it still has many problems, especially in how the city continues to be perceived, Detroit is changing. On two recent visits, I was taken by its capacity to surprise. It is a place that is well worth seeing – and not just for car buffs. It is a resilient and intriguing city, one with a rich past and a fascinating present.
For the first time in decades, population loss has been stemmed and in December 2014 the city successfully exited bankruptcy. In many parts of the city, revival is occurring at a rapid pace. In the trendy Midtown district, artists and entrepreneurs are snapping up cheap or abandoned industrial spaces, making the area the fastest-growing in the state. Fashionable eateries and bars, along with a thriving cultural scene, have developed.
So has new infrastructure. With the bankruptcy behind them, a new group of city leaders agreed to spend US$1.5 billion over 10 years on capital improvements, blight removal and other upgrades. The results of this spending are especially evident downtown, where dozens of impressive historic buildings, many of them stone-built, have been restored.