Detroit: The great American city built on hard work and honest wages. A city whose residents built the first affordable cars forever changing the way we live, then two decades later created the Arsenal of Democracy by manufacturing a WWII bomber every hour helping the Allies win the war all the while creating a strong middle class. A city that through the collapse of the auto industry, the rise of racial tension and the lure of the suburbs lost half its population as entire neighborhoods fled the city abandoning all hope along with once stately homes suddenly only worth an insurance claim after a fire. When the 2008 recession put the final nail in Detroit’s economy the city gained a reputation as a failed metropolis of deserted buildings, widespread poverty, and rampant crime. But the news of rock-bottom real estate prices enticed investors to purchase block after block, then let that real estate ripen until the time was right for development. Now is that time. In the last five years, the occupancy rate of downtown Detroit has skyrocketed from 11 percent to 78 percent. The $862 million dollar Red Wings arena and its 50-block entertainment district is underway, 70 new bars and restaurants opened in the past two years, Quicken Loan founder Dan Gilbert bought nearly 100 buildings ready for rehab and new startup companies are opening their doors every day. Downtown streets are safe at night. White lights hang along alleyways inviting visitors to stop by open doors for a craft cocktail. “It is unbelievable how much it has changed in the last two years,” is the common sentiment.
Like any rapid development, it is not all positive. Rents and property values are quickly rising pushing out artists and activities who have added to the city’s vibrancy for years. But the excitement of the possibility to build a city to be proud of is palatable.
Some, especially those profiting from the development, rave about where the city is heading. “Never in my day did I think I would see Detroit heading so quickly in such a positive direction. I never thought a comeback like this was possible in my lifetime,” said Tom Wilson president of Olympia Entertainment. Others bury themselves deeper in the angry “Detroit v Everyone” mentality distrustful of rich outsiders profiting off the decaying city, while in the process squeezing them out of a city they stood by during its darkest days.
Detroit still has a long way to go. Abandoned buildings and homes line almost every street, broken out windows are not uncommon and vacant lots add to an eerie silence of an abandoned city. Sidewalks are clean, but graffiti still lingers. Some want to leave dirty edges of the city, using it as a benchmark to measure how far the city has come. “We embrace our grit. We have been up and down so many times that we know no matter how far we fall, we will always get back up again.”
Nowhere is that more clear than the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a former railway line recently repurposed into an urban recreation path. Decade-old graffiti associated with the rail line covers walls alongside new murals expressing the sociopolitical climate of new Detroit. The walls along the greenway are the new canvas of Detroit turning the greenway into the part recreational path and part art gallery.