The abandoned Michigan Central Station. Photo: wikimedia commonsThere is a saying in the U.S. that goes: Last one out of Detroit turn off the lights. This was certainly the sentiment when Detroit, Michigan became the poster-child for the 2008 financial crisis. With General Motors’ headquarters in downtown Detroit, the crash of the auto industry significantly impacted the city. They were hit with high unemployment, home foreclosures, and depopulation, both in terms of people and businesses. However, as a result of Obama’s controversial $80 billion dollar auto industry bailout both General Motors and Chrysler are reporting profits and Michigan’s unemployment level is at its lowest in three years. And there are more signs suggesting it’s not quite time to give up on this Midwest city.
Craig L. Wilkins, a professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Detroit Community Design Center, says the changes in Detroit between 1980s and today are stark, “What the rest of the US experienced during the financial crisis, Detroit experienced maybe 10 years before.” Wilkins has been in and out of Detroit for the past 30 years. When he left the first time he remembers thinking that in five years time, Detroit would become a great place to live. When he returned eight years ago this wasn’t at all the case and realized the city may be “less capable of taking care of itself” than before.
Much of this is closely linked with the financial crisis of 2008 and the struggling car industry. However, these troubles also ran parallel to a corruption scandal with former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is currently on trial. He is believed to have run a criminal “enterprise” through the mayor’s office, funneling money into personal accounts. Besides criminals in its public offices, Detroit has significantly high gang-related crime. Just a few weeks ago, Forbes magazine named Detroit the most dangerous city in the U.S. for the fourth year running. For every 100,000 residents, there are approximately 2,137 violent crimes committed each year, which is five times the national average. Surprisingly enough that rate is down 10% from last year, suggesting that improvements are being made. In addition to high crime, the city has long experienced significant population decline, which translates to a decline in internal funds as well. According to 2010 census data, the rate of emigration suggests that one person leaves Detroit every 22 minutes. The Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has challenged these numbers, saying that the census often undercounts people in urban areas, which in return undercuts Detroit’s federal funding.
With declining populations, artists have taken advantage of Detroit’s open spaces creating art from the remnants of the city’s empty houses and lots. One example of the revival is the Heidelberg Project on the city’s east side. For the past 25 years, this outdoor community project has used recycled and found materials to bring attention to the many forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. Walking down Heidelberg Street, visitors experience brightly painted houses, trees plastered with old stuffed animals, and sculptures welded from junkyard scraps. Even more encouraging is the fact that residents still live in the transformed homes.
Although projects such as Heidelberg try to change people’s views about Detroit’s urban environment, other projects have simply perpetuated the negative stereotypes of a struggling city. In an exhibit called The Ruins of Detroit, photographers Yves Marchard & Romaine Meffre show the dilapidated and abandoned buildings of the city in images resembling the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Wilkins disagrees with linking the word “ruins” with Detroit because it is not “…the singular brush that the entire city of Detroit is colored with. It is not the entire story, it is not even half the story of what is going on in the city.” He also notes that people from all over the world come to Detroit only to see the dilapidated buildings. This perpetuates the image of Detroit as a ruin – an image of the city that is no longer valid. Wilkins warns that we need to “Be careful about internalizing the current fad of fetishizing abandoned buildings as the only symbol of Detroit.”
General Motors HQ. Detroit has long been synonymous with the US motor industry. Photo: wikimedia commonsEven if the financial woes, a declining population, and high crime rates portray an image of a failing city, there are other signs of improvement as well. Last year building plans were revealed that would break Detroit’s “food desert” status. Since the last grocery chain closed five years ago, Detroit’s nearly 800,000 residents have been forced to rely on liquor stores and convenient stores for their food supply. Basically, this means residents did not have access to a variety of fresh produce. Major grocery stores, including a Whole Foods Market and Meijer, will be opening in the city. According to Wilkins, “…It’s a good start. It’s not going to end the propensity of people who get their food from a liquor store or convenience store, but it does at least offer more options. ”
As for where he sees Detroit headed in the future, Wilkins cannot say for sure. Rebuilding, both literally and figuratively, has started. Young entrepreneurs and young artists have begun to move back into the city. In 2010, Downtown experienced a 59% increase in the number of college-educated residents under 35. The future of Detroit’s growth may not be tied to one industry. If it’s smart, Wilkins says, the city will learn to diversify. The abandoned buildings, crime, and struggling industry are only one story, but there is more than one story in the city of Detroit. “There’s still 700,000 people who live here,” says Wilkins, “…they can’t all be lovers of abandoned buildings. There’s gotta be something else that keeps them here. So let’s look for those stories.”