Before I left Detroit, a resident handed me a bumper sticker. “I have people in Detroit,” it reads. There are 700,000 people, in fact, and while that may sound like a lot, this is a city whose population reached a much higher 1.85 million in 1950. The current figure is just one more reminder of this once great industrial titan’s painful rise and fall.
Detroit is a city where the good is laced with the bad; a city that somehow is doing both better and worse than you think. Outside the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station – a neglected, 18-story masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture – I watch a man take a picture of his girlfriend. Later, he might apply a dreamy Instagram filter, hashtag it #RuinPorn and upload it for the world to see.
Some local Detroiters hate this crude way of showcasing their hometown, while for others it’s little more than a meaningless bit of visual fun. Either way, these artistic portraits represent the traumatic decline of thriving neighbourhoods that were once flooded with cars, wealth and people – the epitome of the American Dream. By 2013 the city had fallen so hard that, with $18 million’s worth of debts, it had to declare bankruptcy. According to reports in the Financial Times, there were slums in Calcutta that offered more hope than parts of Detroit did.
But for the first time in 56 years, the D’s population is rising. New Virgin Atlantic flights now allow access to a city crammed with art, music, fascinating history and admirable entrepreneurial spirit, where optimistic residents are eager to tell their own born-and-raised-in-Detroit story.
For the first time in 56 years, the D’s population is rising
And there are plenty of them. The Michigan Central Station may still loom, sombre and neglected, but aided by savvy locals, its neighbourhood of Corktown – named after the influx of Irish immigrants from County Cork in the 1840s – is experiencing a rapid, hipster-led revival. That’s where I find Ponyride, a cheap-rent facility aimed at socially-conscious artists, and the home of several Detroit-based start-ups including Beard Balm (“Good for your face, and your marriage,” they enthuse. I’ll take several).
Old and new residents are part of this comeback effort. In Astro Coffee, a café run by a couple who met working at London’s Monmouth Coffee Co, I meet Patricia Berdish – or ‘P from the D’, as everyone calls her – the sticker-giver, and a fiftysomething Detroit native. “My mom arrived at that train station when she was five years old,” she says, pointing at the defunct building I was just snapping. “The changes in this city are awesome. I mean, we have working traffic lights now. But living in Detroit? You need to thick it out.”
And that’s what she did. Others fled for the suburbs, but as a child, Patricia lived in a one-bedroom house with her four siblings and her parents. Her grandpa worked in the famous Ford Rouge car factory. Then her dad worked there. Then, finally, it was Patricia’s turn.
It’s car manufacturing that once kept Motor City moving, and Henry Ford, Detroit’s most famous son (rivalled by Eminem, and, er, Kid Rock) sparked the industry in 1908 with his game-changing Ford Model T. You can still see the brand’s assembly line in progress today, and I watch captivated as gargantuan F-150 pickup trucks slide through the factory, tended to by casually dressed staff and robots that work together to produce a truck a minute.
Ford is the don of the Detroit success story, but other car manufacturers that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, compete with Asian post-war competition helped propel the city into one of the largest financial collapses in US history. Today the city’s empty roads are lined with the eerie skeleton structures of over 90,000 long-abandoned buildings – certainly an eyesore for some, but visual viagra for a Londoner constantly confronted with generic new-build flats. Tours are available, but instead I take a ride with Jeff Herron, a social justice lawyer who’s moved here to spur on the revival.
Our first stop wouldn’t look out of place in a post-apocalyptic thriller. Today the former Packard car plant exists only as a photographer’s dream, and I tiptoe through dilapidated, damp rooms filled with abandoned desks and debris that sit within a teetering structure whose future will be decided by a Spanish developer.
Our first stop wouldn’t look out of place in a post-apocalyptic thriller
Meanwhile, the Lincoln Motor Company’s former site has already been cheerily revived. Now home to the Lincoln Street Art Park, a party site and recycling programme that urges locals to #ShareYourCandy, it’s a green space of arty abandoned furniture, including a horse structure made out of plastic chairs, and a repurposed shipping container – now a classroom, of course. Blue, red and yellow LINCOLN letters line the building, a nod to the site’s former motoring glory.
It’s at nearby Milwaukee Junction that I really see the part street art now plays in Detroit’s identity. Driving past the hundreds of smashed-out windows of the decrepit Fisher Body 21 factory (rumoured to soon be converted into a techno club as part of the Detroit-Berlin Connection, a 60-year-old rave-loving Berliner’s revival effort), we pause at a crumbling building adorned with a soaring multi-coloured mural. A tiger charges across the brick, while along the front are the words “Rise Up” – a symbol of the speed at which the city is moving forward.
If this place has been spoiled in any way, it’s with talented artists. At the nearby ‘infinity wall’, a stretch of empty road cocooned within a ring abandoned buildings, I stroll the who’s- who of the art scene: a purple cartoon shark by RIFT, a crazy, luminous-orange jumble of symbols and letters from Kosek and three plodding turtles by an artist known as Turdl.
It’s not just for hardcore graffiti fans either. In a tight-knit Latino neighbourhood where gardens are strewn with toys and twirling plastic flowers, we find a green caterpillar mural.
He romps merrily across a school playground’s walls, his smiley face providing optimism and inspiration – no wonder the city’s children aspire to be entrepreneurs more than any other job.
One of those ambitious kids was politically-minded Detroit-born artist Sintex, who, motivated by comic books, now decorates the Grand River Creative Corridor with some of the most visited murals in the state of Michigan – including the black and white painting of Rosa Parks, the ‘mother of the freedom movement’ who famously didn’t volunteer her bus seat for a white person in 1955, and who moved to Detroit in the 1960s.
A new idea for a start-up is generated every 27 minutes in Detroit
In the last year, over 30 new restaurants have opened in the city
Detroit is home to the second-largest theatre district in the US after New York
The current campaign to #SayNiceThings was started by a small business owner in the 1970s
The urban farming community in Detroit produces enough fruit and veg to feed 20% of the community
The 27-panel mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts took Mexican artist Diego Rivera nine months to complete
Driving on, I sit back for the calmest, most car-less rush hour I’ve ever seen. “That building was supposed to be a jail,” Jeff comments as we approach Downtown. “It’s a bad location, but the city ran out of money before it was even finished.”
Thankfully, some people do have cash to splash. None more so than billionaire Dan Gilbert, who’s purchased 60 downtown buildings for the bargain sum of $1.7 billion, while also convincing tech companies such as Twitter and Microsoft to create satellite offices in the city. Despite the new shops and restaurants, the Downtown district is still eerily quiet by London standards. There’s no throng of city workers, and bumbling, slow-walking tourists are virtually unheard of. Though Detroit suffers a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the US – a reputation backed up by the statistics – I don’t feel unsafe.
The visual result of this desolation is an intriguing faded beauty. Empty, ornately decorated buildings – the former sites of ballrooms, hotels and theatres – stretch into the sky, stark reminders that this was once America’s most wealthy city.
The visual result of this desolation is an intriguing faded beauty
“The roofs aren’t as fancy anymore, because the ornaments kept falling off and injuring people,” Jeff remarks, as we pass by a sign that says “free coffee with the purchase of the Wurlitzer building” – an appeal from the neighbouring shop’s owner for someone to purchase and repair the structure.
Downtown is easily walkable, but I fork out 75 cents for the novelty of seeing it from the front of the People Mover, a monorail designed in the 1970s. Today it skirts along the restored riverfront, with views over to Canada, past planned hotels and new shops, before weaving through the classic sites: the grand Guardian building; Greektown, the former fur-trade epicentre (now home to casinos and garish bars); and Lafayette Coney Island hot-dog restaurant, a sticky-tabled institution where I chomp through chilli-laden hot dogs (a Detroit staple) alongside enthusiastic locals kitted out in orange silks for the evening’s Tigers baseball game.
I clock even more murals decorating the Z-deck, a Downtown multi-story car park, but craving more history, I take a taxi to ‘the Temple’, aka the Detroit Institute of Arts, which, come Autumn 2016, will be even easier to reach thanks to the new M-train connecting Midtown to Downtown. Inside the bright marble atrium I gaze up at Diego Rivera’s 27-panel mural depicting workers at the Ford Factory during the Great Depression of 1932. Today it exists as one of the city’s most prized possessions, alongside Van Gogh’s self-portrait, which is rumoured to be moving to Japan. “It’s a shame it might be going because this city is coming back in full force,” the gallery guide tells me, “but it’s an underground movement, and cosmetically you don’t see it. Yet.”
What you do see is enthusiasm. Heaps of it. At the Motown Museum I’m led through an interactive rendition of Motown’s birth, which has me dancing (no walking allowed here, thanks) from room to room. “Berry Gordy,” our teenage guide sings at us, “worked two days at the Ford factory and said it was the dullest job he ever had. So he quit.” In true Detroit entrepreneurial spirit, Gordy founded Motown Records, his home-grown record label, in 1959 and went on to sign the likes of Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Temptations and other crazily successful Motown acts whose vinyl and pictures scatter the museum’s walls today.
where else can you watch bands in the trippy, neo-gothic architecture of the largest Masonic Temple in the world?
Detroit’s past may be famous for soul music, but the city is still home to some blinding live venues: where else can you watch bands in the trippy, neo-gothic architecture of the largest Masonic Temple in the world? Downtown I find street cleaners, grannies and teens shimmying together at an al-fresco concert in Harmonie Park. The streets and abandoned warehouses mark the old, and current, sites of raves – the city was the birthplace of techno in the 1980s – and the gritty rebellious vibe makes it the host city for the anti-commercial EDM festival, Movement.
For something a little more chilled, I head to Old Miami, a dive bar that opened for Vietnam veterans in the 1970s – it’s a dimly lit venue, where you can rave it up, or flop onto defeated sofas while guzzling some Michigan-brewed Raggedy Ass IPAs and Ghettoblasters – “the beer you can hear”.
Time to work off the booze belly. Cycling in Motor City is surprisingly laid-back – eight-lane roads, no cars, miles of bike lanes on the way – and it’s the best way to reach the Eastern Market (the largest historic market in the country, and a hotbed of antique shops and food stalls) as well as the more affluent neighbourhoods such as Indian Village, where huge, Home Alone-style mansions are set along handsome tree-lined boulevards.
Need to know
Stay in a converted factory via airbnb.com; take a bike ride with Slow Roll Detroit, a weekly group cycle that stops off at neighbourhood bars and shops (slowroll.bike); book a graffiti tour with thedetroitbus.com; Virgin Atlantic offers return economy fares from London Heathrow to Detroit from £489 pp. virgin-atlantic.com; visitdetroit.com
For a city so blighted, it’s unexpectedly green. Plants splinter the cement of once-prosperous factories and ruined buildings (there’s still an average of 14 arson incidents a day, but the Afterhouse project is converting many buildings into greenhouses), while some spaces have developed into locally run urban farms – 1,300 have sprung up in the past few years.
It’s this local enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit that will help drive the city forward. Detroit’s motto refers to the great fire of 1805 that wiped out the entire city: “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” And I have no doubt it will do so again. On my last day I leave my book at a bench provided by Sit On It Detroit – a community initiative aimed at addressing the lack of seating in the city by creating book-swapping benches out of repurposed wood from burned-out homes.
Detroit is full of good ideas like this. It’s a city of hospitality, honesty and hope. If, like me, you’re always rooting for the underdog, then this is your town. And you’ll have people in Detroit, too.