Considering a move to Detroit? Just five years ago this was an unthinkable notion. After all, the city had just entered the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history and was in the midst of a half century of decline. However, to many the city’s financial woes proved just the right concoction of opportunity and reinvention.
Detroit’s rise to economic prominence in the mid 20th Century was marked by its post-World War II dominance of the international auto industry. But Detroit’s economic might was was not limited just to automotive. J.L. Hudson’s department store, was second only to Macy’s in terms of floor space in its downtown flagship location, and presented an annual Thanksgiving Parade that predated Macy’s by two years when it debuted in 1924. Other Detroit based companies such as Stroh’s Brewing Company, Sanders’, Faygo and Vernors were all integral to the city’s rise to success.
The demand for labor swelled Detroit to nearly 2 million by the early 1950s. Workers came from all over the world: Irish, Polish and Germans from Europe, Mexicans and Venezuelan’s from Latin America and blacks from the American south. This vibrant immigration made Detroit more ethically diverse than most of the midwest, a multicultural identity that is still evident in neighborhoods such as Hamtramck (Polish), Mexicantown, Corktown (Irish), Inkster (African-American) and Greektown. Although much of these ethnic populations have dispersed throughout the region their cultural influence remains evident in restaurants, markets and street names.
Between 1900 and 1930 Detroit’s population increased more than 400 percent; and because it occurred during the automotive age, Detroit grew primarily out instead of up like other metropolitan areas. But after a half century of growth and progress, entering the 1960s population began to decline and, compounded by government corruption, mismanagement and the race riots in 1967 and ’68, the city began fifty year death spiral.
The economic impact of the exodus blew a hole in the city budget and Detroit became so top heavy in municipal staff and pensions it no longer had the ability to pay for basic services and infrastructure. Although the slide was gradual, more and more, resources drained as the years wore on. Ultimately the Great Recession of the mid 2000s led the city into default and bankruptcy. Detroit filed a declaration of financial emergency in March 2013 that resulted in the appointment of Kevyn Orr as city ‘emergency manager’ by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. In July the city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, listing an $18-$20 billion debt.
Just five years ago (2013) Detroit’s population hit rock bottom at just under 700,000. According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, during the period 2000 – 2010, the city lost an average of 20,000 residents per year and over the same period the region lost nearly 400,000 jobs as inflation-adjusted personal income dropped from 13.7 percent above the U.S. average to 4.8 percent below it.
But the climate in Southeast Michigan is now shifting and thousands are moving back to the Motor City. Since 2010 most of the region has experienced a slow but steady recovery. Unfortunately, many point to still stagnant progress in the neighborhoods. During last year’s mayoral campaign challenger Coleman A. Young, Jr. outright accused Mayor Mike Duggan of neglect and disinterest, going so far as to suggest that Duggan didn’t care about the neighborhoods. But voters stuck with Duggan, who walloped Young by a two to one margin.
Over the past five years Detroit has experienced unprecedented construction and renovation of living space and the return of basic street lighting and blight elimination. Hundreds of new restaurants and apartment complexes have either been built or renovated from vintage structures. Demolitions, thanks largely to federal government grants, continue to reshape the landscape, transforming blight into viable business and residential space.
Tree plantings and the addition of bike lanes on major streets has become commonplace and three shiny new sports complexes have been built in the past twenty years, Comerica Park, Ford Field and the new Little Caesars Arena.
Detroit still has a great number of assets ranging from fine arts performance companies, museums and professional sports teams. Even the public school system has been largely revitalized through progressive planning and consolidation. The following is a short primer of what Detroit has to offer:
Public education in Michigan is nearly as old as the sate itself: the state board of education was formed five year’s after statehood in 1837, and by 1900 the Detroit Pubic School System operated 90 public schools. As the population grew designers built more schools close to where the people lived, in the neighborhoods.
By 1966, when Detroit student numbers peaked, the district had 370 schools servicing over 300,000 students. But the riot of 1967 – and the resulting white flight – had a chilling effect on the district. By the 1970s a glut of empty buildings forced continual school closings.
Compounding the decline in student enrollment was a plan enacted by the state government to change the way schools were funded. Proposal A, passed in 1994, effectively eliminated the use of local property taxes as a source of school funding in favor of a new state education tax that gave districts per-pupil payments from the state. By the mid 1990s the proliferation of charter schools and school choice laws continued to erode student populations at an even faster pace and each defection cost the district more than $6,000 per pupil in state funding.
By 2015 the district was $467 million in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. After months of negotiation lawmakers launched a legislative package designed to help DPS avoid a shutdown. Similar to the plan that saved General Motors, the district was split in two with the old Detroit Public Schools existing solely to pay off debt with local tax dollars. The new district – now known as Detroit Public Schools Community District – is in the business of actually educating students.
Detroit is home to several world class arts institutions and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1887, is one of its best. It’s home performing space, Orchestra Hall, was completed in less than five months in 1919 and today it is still considered one of a handful of great acoustic spaces worldwide. During the early 1920s the DSO fast became one of the finest and most prominent orchestras in the country. In 1922 the DSO performed the world’s first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert featuring guest pianist Artur Schnabel and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch. In 1934 the ensemble became the nation’s first official radio broadcast orchestra, a tradition that continues today.
The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), founded in 1885, is Detroit’s world renowned art museum. It’s current location, a formal Federalist-styled limestone structure, was completed in 1927. One of its best known artworks is a mural painted in the Kresge Court depicting Detroit industry by Diego Rivera. Today the museum contains over 65,000 works.
The Detroit Historical Society finds its origins in 1914 when Clarence M. Burton, a Detroit attorney and historian, donated his collection of historical papers to the Detroit Public Library, which led to the creation of the Detroit Historical Museum in 1921. Twenty-one years later, after Detroit News columnist George W. Stark assumed the presidency of the society, a permanent structure was sought. On July 24, 1951, the 250th anniversary of Detroit’s founding, the new museum was dedicated. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Museum gained a reputation as a leading cultural institution in the Midwest.
Opera was slow to develop in Detroit. What began as the educational outreach organization Overture to Opera (OTO), which was responsible for the Metropolitan Opera‘s (New York) visits to Detroit, was taken over by David DiChiera in 1963 before he officially transformed it into Michigan Opera Theatre in 1971 (he was named General Director the same year). For decades MOT lived a vagabond existence, using temporary venues such as the Music Hall, Detroit Masonic Temple and the Fisher Theatre before landing a permanent residence at Grand Circus Park. In April 1996 MOT celebrated the opening of its new home, The Detroit Opera House, with a gala event which received international attention and a performance by Luciano Pavarotti. Today the company stages four operas annually as well as dance and other musical stage productions.
Detroit has a long sports history and has flirted with ‘Best Sports Town’ acylates for decades. It is among few American cities with four professional sports teams (two of which are original franchises in baseball and hockey).
Historically the Detroit Tigers and Lions played home games at a field located in the neighborhood of Corktown at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. It was first known as Bennett Park before changing to Navin Field, then Briggs Field and ultimately Tiger Stadium. The Tigers called it home from 1912 until they moved to Comerica Park in 2000. The Lions also played there beginning in 1938 before bolting to the suburbs in 1975 to play at the Pontiac Silverdome. The Lions returned to Detroit, into their new home, Ford Field, in 2002.
The Detroit Red Wings have never played a home game outside Detroit. Built in 1927, their first home, Olympia Stadium, was located on Gratiot Ave near the Stroh’s brewery. In 1979 the team moved to a new home alongside the Detroit River named for Detroit’s own ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis. In 2017 the team moved to its new home, Little Caesars Arena, on Woodward Ave. The facility is also the new home to the Detroit Pistons, who previously played at Cobo Arena in Detroit, the Silverdome in Pontiac and The Palace of Auburn Hills before returning to the city. 2017 marks the first year since 1975 that all four teams are playing within the city limits.
Detroit emerged from bankruptcy on December 10, 2014. Since then a remarkable transformation is gaining steam to reinvent the Motor City. Thousands are returning to the city while hundreds of restaurants, hotels and social hot spots have sprung up to entertain them, joining the already long established destinations like casinos and sporting events.
Once known as the ‘Paris of the Midwest’, partly for its spoke grid streetscape, partly for its heritage as a French settlement (and leadership under Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac) and partly for its hard-nosed, progressive attitude, Detroit still has much to prove. But finally, at long last, it truly is a great time in Detroit!