“We Americans love happy endings,” says Evan R., a 38-year-old real estate agent born and raised in Detroit. And that of his city, as he understands it, is a story “of rise, splendor and decline” that, against all odds, is looking to a possible happy ending. The Detroit where Evan grew up was an example of a manual of urban decrepitude and obsolescence. A splendid showcase that the industrial reconversion of the late 1980s had corroded and shattered.
As Ronald Reagan focused his efforts on winning the last battle of the Cold War, Detroit was looming over the edge. Ten years later it had rushed into him. The 2011 census showed that Motor City had lost more than half of its inhabitants in just one generation: people were forced to abandon what had already become one of the poorest urban centers in the United States. By then, a tough and enthusiastic basketball team, the Detroit Pistons, became the sole source of pride for an urban ecosystem that was hitting rock bottom. “Many of our neighbors left as soon as the factories started to close. My family decided to stay, “explains Evan,” but the truth is that I couldn’t tell you why. “
The few tourists who came to the city at the beginning of the 21st century were attracted by “those catastrophic and morbid reports of Times O Newsweek that showed old mansions in ruins, destitute and junkies gathered around bonfires in the lots of the old factories ”. It was the Detroit of 8 miles (2002), biopic of Eminem, the white rapper who grew up on those streets reduced to rubble. Visiting that degraded environment portraying the cruel scars left by its peculiar history had become something akin to doing necrophiliac tourism in Chernobyl. Evan even remembers a report from The New York Times describing Detroit as a “posthumous city.” According to the thesis of the article, the old industrial mecca of the United States had died and around 700,000 human beings had been trapped among its mortal remains. It only remained to issue the death certificate and do the autopsy.
However, the return to normality after the pandemic has confirmed that even clinically dead cities can regain health with time, good sense and proper treatment. Rip Rapson, lawyer and philanthropist, magazine contributor Bloomberg, believes that the city “looks to a very promising future.” For Rapson, the turning point came in 2013, just at the moment when everything seemed to go downhill for good. In July of that year, Detroit became the first American city of more than half a million inhabitants to file for bankruptcy. The City Council recognized itself incapable of assuming a debt of around 9,000 million dollars and accepted that its municipal accounts were intervened.
Saved by art
Bankruptcy would end up being the first step in the right direction. The debt restructuring and the austerity plan imposed by the creditors would end up working better than expected. Just a year later, in December 2014, local authorities regained financial control after accepting a cost containment program and accessing a federal loan of 1.7 billion dollars. As part of the endorsement, the city council offered the more than 60,000 works of modern and contemporary art owned by the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
In spite of everything, the rescue plan with which Detroit wanted to give itself a new life was met with skepticism at first. Rapson recalls that it was even said that the first signs of recovery were due to “even a cat thrown into the void bounces up after the first contact with the ground.” But Detroit recovered “with fiscal responsibility and vision for the future.” It is already beginning to be again, according to Rapson, a city “capable of taking advantage of its architectural heritage, in the process of restoration, and attracting an increasing number of visitors and investors”. Evan R. assures that the Detroit suburbs are right now an attractive place to live “and that even the center of the city, in the process of real estate expansion at very competitive prices, is becoming fashionable among liberal professionals who want an experience different urban, with personality and roots ”. Detroit is, in the opinion of the real estate consultant, “the new Berlin.” A broken city that has had the perseverance and courage to rebuild by reinventing itself.
It is not the first time that Detroit has been compared to large European capitals. In its first period of splendor, the first third of the 20th century, it was claimed that it was becoming the Paris of the Great Lakes. It was hyperbole, of course (Paul Auster already said that there is a fake Paris and a papier-mache Venice in almost any corner of the planet), but the truth is that the City of the Straits, next to Lake Eerie and very close to the border with Canada, at that time it had a wide navigable river, a splendid river walk, two cathedrals and a network of majestic skyscrapers art Deco like the Cadillac Place or the Fisher Building.
Then it became the Motor City, headquarters of automobile companies such as Ford, and welcomed about half a million immigrants in search of work between 1940 and 1945. Here the American industrial middle class was born, daughter of the rural exodus and the Industrial strength at a time when wages in one of the local factories were enough to buy a single-family house in the suburbs, a boat, and a small summer residence on the lake. The abrupt decline of this prosperous and dynamic city, which had 1,600,000 inhabitants in 1960, began to appear after the oil crisis, was accentuated from 1985 and seemed irreversible around the year 2000. The vast majority of the factories that closed in the final stretch of the 20th century will never return, but Detroit, the city that seemed defeated by globalization, has managed to recycle itself as an area of innovation, commerce and services.
Among the new projects that reveal what the city of the immediate future will be like, the revitalization plan for the Fitzgerald neighborhood stands out. The local magazine Detroit Curve He describes it as “the restoration of a collection of one hundred houses that represent the best essence of Detroit in the sixties and the development around it in a new environment of urban excellence.” Located next to Detroit Mercy University, Fitzgerald has community gardens and convenient access to the city’s new cultural epicenter, Avenue of Fashion, where restaurants, designer stores and art galleries are concentrated. On the banks of the river, in the Delray neighborhood, construction work has already begun on the Gordie Howe International Bridge, an engineering project that will connect downtown Detroit with the Canadian city of Windsor and is scheduled to open in 2024. At that time The third phase of the renovation of one of Detroit’s great tourist attractions, the Motown Museum, will also be completed, an interactive cultural space that occupies the former recording studios of the legendary record company Tamla-Motown, promoter of the soul, “The sound of young America”, the label that launched the careers of icons of African American popular music such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Martha & the Vandellas.
And that’s not all. The city is restoring and expanding one of its most emblematic buildings, Michigan Central Station, a French-style academic train station that opened in 1912. At the same time, it is improving road access and building developments of such magnitude as The Mid, the new residential complex north of Mack Avenue that will include 250 apartments and a 228-room luxury hotel. And in the very short term, it is planned to restore the historic mansions around Brush Park, complete the Detroit Center of Innovation (an avant-garde building around which the new district of digital economy and technological investments is being structured) and build a public park and an urban beach next to the river walk, one of the most popular areas of the city. In the words of Rip Rapson, “If Joe Biden’s administration is looking for examples of winning strategies on which to build its urban restoration project Build Back Better (build again, build better), all you have to do is look at Detroit ”. Who doesn’t like happy endings?