DETROIT is the poster child for urban blight in the United States, despite many attempts to overcome this negative imagery, and in some cases, a rather stark reality. It is a city which boasts a billion-dollar downtown development, ultra-modern motor-manufacturing plants, some excellent museums and one of the nation’s biggest art galleries – but since the 1960s, media attention has dwelt instead on its huge tracts of urban wasteland, where for block after block there’s nothing but the occasional heavily fortified loan shop or unpleasant-looking grocery store. Crippled with debt, the city itself admitted defeat and in 2013 filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. And yet, there are signs that things are improving, with local business promoters pointing to the bustle around Greektown at night and the Detroit Historical Museum as signs of a renaissance of sorts.
As for orientation, it makes sense to think of Detroit as a region rather than a concentrated city – and, with some planning and wheels, it holds plenty to see and do. Futuristic glass-box office buildings and a tastefully revamped park in downtown overlook the glass-green Detroit River, but for the most part it’s rather empty, even in the middle of the day. Other interesting areas include the huge Cultural Center, freewheeling Royal Oak, posh Birmingham and the Ford-town of Dearborn.
Founded in 1701 by Antoine de Mothe Cadillac, as a trading post for the French to do business with the Chippewa, Detroit was no more than a medium-sized port two hundred years later. Then Henry Ford, Ransom Eli Olds, the Chevrolets and the Dodge brothers began to build their automobile empires. Thanks to the introduction of the mass assembly line, Detroit boomed in the 1920s, but the auto barons sponsored the construction of segregated neighbourhoods and shed workers during times of low demand. Such policies created huge ghettos, resulting, in July 1967, in the bloodiest riot in the USA in fifty years. More than forty people died and thirteen hundred buildings were destroyed. The inner city was left to fend for itself, while the all-important motor industry was rocked by the oil crises and Japanese competition. Today, though scarred and bruised, Detroit is not the mess some would have it, and suburban residents have started to return to the city’s festivals, theatres, clubs and restaurants.