Detroit went bankrupt in 2013 and you can still buy a house for $1,000, but optimists now see signs of hope, writes Susan Dalgety.
Optimists call Detroit the Comeback City.
This once great metropolis, home to Henry Ford and his Model T car, has been laid to waste in recent years.
A race riot in 1967, which had to be quelled by the US Army, was the catalyst. The violence left 43 people dead, over 7,000 arrested and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
It also led to the frantic flight of the majority white population. In three years, nearly 200,000 people fled the city, once dubbed America’s Paris because of its broad boulevards and beautiful river.
Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, wrote in 1994: “The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money.”
Desperate attempts at regeneration stalled in the wake of the 2008 crash when Chrysler and General Motors filed for bankruptcy, and a foreclosure epidemic destroyed thousands of lives. People simply abandoned homes they could no longer afford.
Five years later, the almost unthinkable happened when the city itself announced it was broke. Detroit filed for bankruptcy with debts estimated at around $20 billion – the largest municipal failure in US history.
Even the most basic public services, such as street lighting and refuse collection, were under threat.
Walking along the newly restored river front on a balmy summer evening, with the sound of live jazz floating across the air, it is hard to imagine a city in crisis.
We had not expected to be here so soon, but the intense heat in the south drove us north to the cooler climes of Michigan. Texas can wait.
Detroit’s Rivertown area has everything a Millennium hipster requires for a civilised existence: bars awash with craft beers and cold-brewed coffee, Banksy-lite murals and miles of cycle paths.
We could be in downtown San Francisco. Except we are not, because only a couple of miles away lie thousands of abandoned houses, on sale for $1,000 – or less – and acres of urban land that has returned to the wild.
“Go left that way a few blocks,” says our taxi driver, “and you can buy a house for a grand.
“Go just a few more blocks to Royal Oak, and it will cost you millions to buy one. The inequality here is just terrible.”
But there is also opportunity amid the chaos, as Mesifin told us over a glass of IPA. He and his two friends are new to the city. They work for the US Patent Office, in its beautifully restored office by the river.
“This is a really interesting place, there is lots to see and do,” explained Mesifin, a lawyer who left LA for Detroit. His family is from Ethiopia.
“Mine is from Alexandria,” chipped in his friend Bast, who has a PHD in computer engineering, “but I came here from Pennsylvania.”
“And I was brought up in Birmingham, England,” laughed MJ, who has a Masters in mechanical engineering, “but my family is from Jordan, and we lived in Georgia when we moved to the US. We arrived just a few days before 9/11.
“It was terrible man, I was only 15. Can you imagine, I was a Muslim teenager after 9/11, new to the country, and the area ...” and he shook his head.
He didn’t have to say any more. America’s Supreme Court has just upheld Donald Trump’s controversial Muslim travel ban, to the delight of his supporters.
None of the three were sure if they would make Detroit their long-term base. “We just work and work,” said Mesifin, “and enjoy the beer.”
But thousands of Arab-Americans have already made metro-Detroit their home.
Drive 20 minutes along the freeways that cut through the heart of the city and you’re in the suburb of Dearborn, home to both the world headquarters of Ford and America’s biggest mosque.
More than a third of Dearborn’s 98,000 population has Arab heritage. The first migrants came from Lebanon in the 1880s, to be joined by Palestinian Muslims in the second half of the 20th century, and today it is a welcome home to refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
Spend a Saturday afternoon in a shopping mall in Dearborn and you can, fleetingly, imagine the American dream has come true right here in Detroit.
Beautiful young women in hijabs scour the rails of H&M and Macy’s, alongside laughing African American teenagers and white suburban moms. The car parks are full of shiny new SUVs and the houses are straight out of the glossiest estate agent’s brochure.
Dearborn is eight miles from the heart of Detroit, yet it seems a million miles away from the broken neighbourhoods downtown. But not for much longer if the city’s mayor, Mike Duggan, is to be believed.
In his annual State of the City address a few weeks ago, he promised to rebuild the city. “I told you the first four years we’re there to try to fix the services, get the grass cut in the parks, get the streetlights on.
“I’m not talking about that stuff anymore. Now we’re talking about building one Detroit for all of us. And we’re going to do it together.”
But the challenges facing Detroit are so basic, so stark that even the most optimistic politician must wonder, in his heart of hearts, if the city has a long-term future.
In 1950, the city was home to 1.8 million people, about 84 per cent white. When it was declared bankrupt in 2013, the population had fallen to 689,000, about 83 per cent black. Lonely Planet may have named Detroit the second best city to visit in the world this year, but the music and craft beer festivals that attract hip young tourists are largely out of reach to half of the city’s population who live on less than $25,000 a year.
Its public schools have been branded a “national disgrace”, the FBI says Detroit is once again the most violent city in America, and its public transport is almost non-existent.
And yet magic can happen in this city. In 1959, Berry Gordy, a young African American songwriter borrowed $800 from his family, bought a house in downtown Detroit, moved his young family in upstairs, and turned the downstairs into a recording studio for local artists such as the Four Tops and Diana Ross.
For nearly two decades, Tamla Motown made the world dance. Berry Gordy became a very rich man, Motown artists were global superstars and Detroit was dubbed Hitsville USA.
Standing in the tiny studio where Marvin Gaye once sang, it is hard not to feel optimistic about a city that produced classics such as ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ and ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’.
Berry Gordy decamped to LA a while ago, but there is a lot of soul left in the Motor City.