Detroit rising

Travelling Well | Timothy Minchin | Photos by Getty. | Posted on 08 April 2018

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.

Detroit from the ground up

Detroit from the ground looking up.

Dwontown Detroit

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.Then my eye catches the Learn To Play The Bagpipes Beginner Kit (i.e., the pipe minus the bag). Hmmm. But I think of the neighbours. Best to leave it to the locals, with generations of musical tradition behind them, to make the pipes sound sweet this afternoon.

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.

Detroit art institute industry mural

Motown without a motor

I made Midtown – home to a new organic supermarket that is a symbol of its revival – my base. For a city built on freeways and car culture, it’s surprisingly easy to get around without one. Midtown’s grand main artery, Woodward Avenue, is served by a recently opened tram service. Adorned with quotations from prominent Detroiters, the trams are new, clean and safe. Connecting  Midtown and Downtown, they’re a
familiar sight for homesick Melburnians, who will even hear the “ding” of a tram bell. 

The city has also launched an inexpensive bike-share scheme, a great way to explore its flat terrain. Wide streets, a sign of the city’s heyday, mean there is plenty of space to go around.  Among the locals, there is a burgeoning cycling culture. On summer evenings, large groups of cyclists are as common a sight as motorists.

Midtown offers plenty to see. At its heart is Detroit’s Institute of Arts, one of the best in the country. Housed in an impressive marble building, it contains a huge selection of significant 19th and 20th-century art, including works by Monet, Van Gogh and Warhol. All can be appreciated without the crush of large crowds. 

Diego Rivera’s drawcard

Its most famous exhibit, and commissioned especially for the Institute, is Mexican-born artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, 27 huge panels depicting the assembly line at Ford Motor Company in the 1930s. Worth a visit to Detroit just to see them, the murals constitute a National Historic Landmark.

Right across the street is the Detroit Public Library. Another remarkable monolith, it was built in the 1860s from Italian marble. A block away, the Detroit Historical Museum features interactive and revolving exhibits on the city’s history, including an operating assembly line from a former Cadillac plant. To understand Detroit’s history, it is a must.

Michigan is at the heart of the craft beer revolution that has swept across the US, and most restaurants feature local brews prominently. At the heart of Midtown, the appropriately named Hopcat has 130 craft beers on tap.

Detroit historical museum kid rock museum lab

Detour to diversity

Surrounding neighbourhoods are worth a detour. Many of their names – Corktown, Greektown, Mexicantown – testify to Detroit’s ethnic diversity and the economic opportunities the booming manufacturing city offered migrants from the 1900s to the 1950s.

Best-known as the home of the Henry Ford Museum, an essential experience for car industry aficionados, the Dearborn neighbourhood also has one of the biggest Middle Eastern communities in the country and the largest mosque in North America. In all of these suburbs, you will find great ethnic food and friendly locals.

Detroit has also played an important role in African-American history. Along the restored riverfront – where you can look across to the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario – the eye-catching Underground Railroad Monument tells the story of Detroit’s place as an important stop for slaves from the South escaping to Canada.

Music fans will be drawn to the excellent Motown Museum. Detroit is also one of a small number of American cities where major league baseball, hockey, “football” and basketball can all be enjoyed.

Revival patchy, but real

To be sure, Detroit’s revival is incomplete and ongoing. Away from Midtown, the city has plenty of dilapidated neighbourhoods. It remains scarred by acute racial divisions, including fallout from the harrowing civil unrest of July 1967, which contributed to widespread “white flight”. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 film Detroit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the disturbances.

While revival is patchy, it is real. In late 2016, Detroit’s U-turn was symbolised when the city literally turned its lights back on. Three years ago, nearly half of the city’s streetlights were broken; now 65,000 new streetlights powered by LED shine proudly. Even as nature has reclaimed parts of their city, residents have adapted, growing food on formerly  urban blocks and selling it in new farmers’ markets.

Detroit is a city that refuses to admit defeat, a city that symbolises American optimism. Although revival is a work in progress, many residents wear their scars with pride. A sign outside the historical museum says it best. “Nothing,” it declares, “Stops Detroit.”

Timothy Minchin is a professor of North American history at La Trobe University. He has written several books on the history of American labour, civil rights, and on the US South.