Detroit is broke but it can rise again

As it happens, I was in Detroit last month. It’s broken, and it’s broke, and now it’s officially bankrupt too.

As it happens, I was in Detroit last month. It’s broken, and it’s broke, and now it’s officially bankrupt too. But bankruptcy is actually a device for escaping from unpayable debt — and although two-thirds of Detroit’s population have fled in the past 50 years, there are reasons to believe it could flourish again.

It was the race riots of 1967 that triggered the city’s decline. Large numbers of African-Americans from the southern states migrated to Detroit to meet the demand for factory workers during and after the Second World War. They started in the unskilled jobs — and even after they had acquired the skills, they stayed in low-paying jobs because of racial prejudice.

Spurned by the unions and victimized by a racist police force, they eventually rioted in the summer of 1967. Brutal policing made matters worse and hundreds were killed, but the worst consequence was the fear that the violence engendered. The great majority of the whites just left town.

The big automobile companies also took flight and the new car plants were built elsewhere. As the jobs disappeared and the population dropped, the tax base fell even faster. The city could no longer afford to provide good police or medical services, so even more people left.

This vicious circle has lasted half a century but the bankruptcy might give the city’s government enough leeway to begin rebuilding public services. If they are restored, much else could follow.

Let me explain what brought me to Detroit early this month. We were doing what we dubbed the “Rust Belt Art and Architecture Tour”: driving from Buffalo to Cleveland and then on to Detroit.

All these cities took a terrible beating as the industries they were built on died or moved overseas. But three generations ago, when they were the industrial heartland of the United States, they were very rich — at just the right time.

The first decades of the 20th century were the heyday of art deco, the most beautiful architectural style of the modern era. That was also the period when newly rich captains of industry could scoop up bucketloads of new European and American art: impressionist, expressionist, abstract, the lot — and they lived mostly in what are now the Rust Belt cities.

So they put up dozens of art deco towers. They also filled their homes with best of modern art — and, in the end, donated most of it to the local art galleries. Even in Detroit, where so much has been lost, more than half of those buildings are still there. So is all of the art.

In a post-industrial economy where people have more choice about where they live, these are assets that can actually attract population — especially since, in Detroit’s case, the people who left didn’t go far. Most of them are still out there in the suburbs that surround Detroit.

The city of Detroit’s population has fallen from two million to 700,000 over the past 50 years but the metropolitan area’s population has stayed stable at around 4.5 million for all of that time. The job, really, is to bridge the devastated middle ring of low-income Detroit housing and reconnect the outer suburbs with the city centre. Detroit can rise again. It just takes the right strategy.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.