Lost in Detroit

The Rust Belt city went bankrupt in 2013. Six years later, we’re told it is on the path for a major comeback. But the city shouldn’t count its chickens before they hatch.

By Laurence Bekk-Day (promo 18)

The Michigan Central Depot in Detroit. © Shutterstock

The Michigan Central Depot in Detroit. © Shutterstock


There was no one.

I was told Detroit was back, but there was no one. I was wandering on foot, mid-afternoon, in the middle of what used to be the city’s busiest junction: downtown Woodward Avenue. But there were no cars; there were no people. The only noise I heard – a faint whirring – came from the automated people mover, riding towards oblivion on its overhead track, with nary a driver nor passenger. I was smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

Downtown Detroit. © Laurence Bekk-Day

Downtown Detroit. © Laurence Bekk-Day

It didn’t use to be like this. In the past, Detroit did more than merely chug along. In 1960, the city was nicknamed “The Paris of the Midwest.” It was the richest city in the United States. It is now the poorest. In its heyday, it was home to over 1.8 million people; 1.1 million people have left and never came back. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of it all in the news: you’ve seen miles upon miles of urban prairies, you’ve seen the rotting factories, the derelict houses, the rundown mansions, the harrowing signs placarded on lawns that read, “Stay away! Scrappers will be shot!” And you’ve wondered: how did Motown get there?

Detroit’s flag.

Detroit’s flag.

Detroit’s decline is a sobering tale, a symbol of the Rust Belt’s never-ending decay. As a city entirely dependent on the auto industry, Detroit started falling apart when General Motors started outsourcing its manufacturing to lower their costs. 60 years later, outsourcing is nearly complete: the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly, the city’s very last large car factory, will close down later this year. Running on fumes, the city went bankrupt in 2013, with an eye-watering $18 billion debt it couldn’t pay back. This is a foreign concept in France, where cities can’t go bankrupt because the government is set up to bail them out in a pinch.

In 1960, the city was nicknamed “The Paris of the Midwest.” It is now the poorest city in America.

Such is America: a country that swings from high highs to low lows. And there is nothing it loves more than a good rags-to-riches story. Perhaps you’ve heard that, according to the press, Motown is experiencing a rebirth. Forbes claims that Detroit is “America’s comeback city”; The New York Times says “Detroit is reviving.” Betting on the come, many investors are drawn to the rock-bottom prices of real estate, gobbling up huge chunks of the city and hoping for a win.

The Shinola Hotel, completed in 2019.

The Shinola Hotel, completed in 2019.

A month ago, the Shinola Hotel, a luxury-cum-boutique hotel that involved a complete rehabilitation of the Singer building, opened on Woodward Avenue. The owner, a mogul from Texas who goes by the name of Tom Kartsotis, is making a stupendous bet: that people will want to come to Detroit. Dan Mullen, the hotel’s co-founder, calls the hotel “Detroit’s living room.” But businessmen native to the area know the city is a tough nut to crack. Manoj Bhargava, the Michigan-based entrepreneur most famous for creating the “5-Hour Energy” energy drink, says that “nobody moves on purpose to Detroit.” And although lavishly furnished and impeccably decorated, the $300-a-night Shinola Hotel is not yet fully booked. This underlines a simple chicken-and-egg problem: you need people to attract new businesses, and yet you need new businesses to attract people. If you’re an avowed minimalist, you’ll be happy to learn that Detroit has very little in the way of shopping; you won’t even find an H&M store. There are fifteen in Manhattan alone.

I can’t help but feel a strange case of déjà vu. In 1978, The New York Times did a feature on Detroit, aptly titled “Renaissance City.” In the article, Reginald Stuart posits that “as the era of gloom subsides, dramatic changes are taking place on all sides in Detroit. The downtown area is beginning to recover from its despair. The entertainment and eating spots are expanding, and cultural activities have recovered.” Three decades later, however, very little progress has been made. In 2017, there were 267 homicides in Detroit; there were 3 in Windsor, Canada, a 10-minute ride away. And so the McDonald’s restaurants that haven’t closed in Detroit have bulletproof glass at the counter.

Excerpt of  The New York Times  (June 18, 1978) about Detroit, “Renaissance City.”

Excerpt of The New York Times (June 18, 1978) about Detroit, “Renaissance City.”

And then there is the issue of race. One of the main reasons Detroit descended into blight was the 1967 race riots, caused by festering racism as some whites refused to work and live alongside blacks. The whites left, as did Detroit’s African-American middle class. But in a city that is now over 82% African-American, those who remain do not see eye to eye with gentrifiers, who are mostly white. They feel whatever improvement will occur will not benefit them. “It feels like – not like I’m displaced but I am somehow,” one Detroit resident told the researchers of the Turning the Corner project that strives to analyze neighborhood changes through interviews and focus groups. So the bitterness will continue. And as I was standing still at Detroit’s once-busiest intersection, lost in limbo, I couldn’t help but remember what Quick Loans founder Dan Gilbert said about the city: “People are more optimistic about Detroit outside of Detroit.”

Detroit © Moon Man Mike

What Detroit hopes to do is emulate New York’s rebirth. But New York is many things Detroit can never be.

Photo © Moon Man Mike

Make no mistake: what Detroit hopes to do is emulate New York’s rebirth. In the 1970s, the Big Apple was a cesspool of violence, drugs, and grime. Daylight shootouts in Manhattan were commonplace; the population left the city in droves. Yet New York experienced a stunning comeback, thanks to new jobs created in the financial sector, tough police action, gentrification and a global economic boom. But New York is many things Detroit can never be. Manhattan is much smaller; it isn’t crisscrossed with highways, chopping up Detroit like large scrapes that will never heal; and it hasn’t experienced such a protracted slump. The longer it lasts, the harder it will be for Detroit to bounce back. ●



Banlieues parisiennes : marche ou rêve

Banlieues parisiennes : marche ou rêve

Christophe Guilluy : "La classe moyenne n’existe plus."

Christophe Guilluy : "La classe moyenne n’existe plus."