We started at the beginning in 1701. The name derives from the French, le détroit, meaning a strait; in this case linking Lake Huron and Lake Erie. It had been first settled by a French trader called Cadillac who saw the strategic advantage it offered to keep the British in the East. These names are just a couple of many that connect through three centuries of the city’s heritage to the current day...
Mark pointed out the site of a proposed waterfront development; part of an ambitious scheme clearing the edges of the city of derelict buildings and exposing some magnificent views of the river and Canada on the other side. New residential developments are planned here to capitalise on the prime location, stitching the waterfront to downtown but also to increase the number of people living in the downtown area. Mark is one of the few stalwarts and boasts that he doesn’t use the car to get to work.
We passed a huge, empty car parking lot by a massive Chrysler factory. “Look at that!” Mark said enthusiastically. I looked at him perplexed, assuming that I was looking at yet another symbol of the declining motor industry before I realised - the new Cherokee Jeep had sold out. “My brother works there, they’re all on overtime.” This was the pulse of motor city. Some 600,000 of the award winning Volts are planned to roll off the Detroit assembly lines in 2011. We later see the gleaming new GM Renaissance Center, (or RenCen as it’s been dubbed by Detroiters) standing proudly by the river.
It had become clear by this time that Mark was passionate about this city. Even as ironically he was showing me a crumbling hulk of a structure, explaining sadly that it had been his college. Born and bred in Detroit, his enthusiasm was infectious;
it was to be a common thread between the people I met on my visit. Those remaining in the city are there because they want to be and they are determined to make a difference. The American Spirit may have flickered but it’s still there waiting for the moment of re-ignition.
“People are often asking me when will Detroit turn the corner? But I reply, maybe it already has, these things take time,” The signs are already there, the award winning bus station, the 2.9 mile elevated people mover, the planned $400m light railway along Woodward, (the spine dividing East and West Detroit) and the riverfront walkway, are all part of a new, post-car city.
But people are leaving. Still. Built for 2 million people the city has barely 800,000 residents and falling. Detroit is stubbornly flying in the face of the global trend, a fact made clear once you move out into the suburbs. In some areas, the gaps left by demolished homes are gradually merging, forming meadows and fields, leaving a handful of isolated homes dotted here and there. It is as if the city is receding into the past. Some communities, like the well-heeled Indian Village are untouched by this dilemma with homes still commanding high prices.
We then inevitably pass into the dark side, road upon road of houses literally falling down. Thirty per cent unemployment has to impact on something and these neighbourhoods are it. Here was the much publicised squalor and poverty: wholesale devastation. But much of it was juxtapositioned with good quality, well maintained housing stock. The city’s clearance programme in these areas is ambitious and relentless, but will require $250m USD to demolish just the most dangerous of the abandoned properties. Yet no sooner had we passed through a ghetto, than we arrived in a comparative paradise. Sherwood Forest is one such estate bordering a street of crack houses and collapsed buildings. Here some of the finest homes in the city nestle along tree lined avenues.
Of course it’s not just the decline and automation of the motor industry and its financial repercussions that have led Detroit to its current hiatus. When the city was expanding in the early part of the twentieth century, it drew in vast numbers of workers from across the US and beyond to feed the relentless demands of the production lines. Unfortunately, inherent in that intake were a myriad of social fault lines that are sadly evident and probably enhanced to this day.
The signs of
decline are not limited to the residential sector. Standing in front of the once magnificent railway station, formerly used to transport Henry Ford’s first cars, I’m told that it is scheduled for demolition. When the funds can be found.
But does a shrinking population have to be bad? Journalist and author of a thought-provoking book, Reimagining Detroit, John Gallagher thinks not: “A city with significant open spaces like Detroit can think about re-shaping its urban fabric - building up the stronger districts to be even healthier, and encouraging people to abandon the dying districts so the land there can be used for greenways or community gardens or other innovations.”
Dan Austin, author of Lost Detroit has come back to the city after living in Manhattan and Seattle saying: “There’s no place like Detroit, one person can make a difference in Detroit, they can’t in New York,” adding, “Detroit is at a crossroads right now, in the city’s 300 year history, we’ve never been at such a crucial moment. Now is the time for Detroit to rise from the ashes.”
Many blame the city’s decline on the successive administrations who have consistently failed to react to change and desperately clung onto the hope of a return of the motor industry to its previous levels rather than diversification. The current administration, headed by Mayor Dave Bing is aiming to turn the tide with the Detroit Works Project - a well defined, far reaching roadmap embracing public participation at all levels.
Mayor Bing opens with an impassioned plea to Detroiters: “We are embarking upon a project that is critical to the future of our city and I need your help. It will be our best and hardest work – and in the end, will result in a roadmap from the Detroit of today – to our future…”
The Volt could just spark the beginning of a new Detroit, a green Detroit.
Michael Hammond Editor in Chief
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