Magazine article The American Conservative

Detroit Never Died: When the City Government Went Bankrupt, Private Citizens Continued Rebuilding

Magazine article The American Conservative

Detroit Never Died: When the City Government Went Bankrupt, Private Citizens Continued Rebuilding

Article excerpt

In the 1950s, on a per capita basis, Detroit was the richest city in America. The Broadway-Capitol Theatre offered showings of Casablanca in palatial Renaissance decor. The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum boasted one of the world's greatest collections, including works by Picasso, van Gogh, and Matisse. The city's vibrant downtown was populated by soaring Art Deco skyscrapers, burnished with sculpted ornamentation.

With a city plan derived from L'Enfant's master plan for Washington, DC--which in turn was modeled on France's capital city--Detroit truly was America's Paris. And with its array of factories adapted into the "arsenal of democracy" supplying Eisenhower and Patton's efforts to liberate the Continent from Nazi occupation, the "Motor City" repaid its symbolic debt with interest.

Seventy years later, Detroit was already decades into its identity as the American City That Failed, which culminated in its declaration of bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. Michigan governor Rick Snyder then appointed an emergency manager who would usurp the power of Detroit's elected officials in an effort to do for the city what it had apparently been unable to do for itself. The image-blogging service Tumblr made its name, in part, through a cottage industry of Detroit "ruin porn": an unending series of artistically taken photographs of the fields of empty former neighborhoods, the factories rusted out, the homes decades since stripped from the inside out for any precious metals in their wiring and pipes. A small number of artists started to head into Detroit, drawn by low property values and the prospect of a "blank slate" onto which they could project their creativity, and the New York Times took notice in breathless profiles of hipster-creative colonialism.

This year, though, a different sort of immigrant gathered in Detroit, albeit only for a week: the 24th Congress for the New Urbanism brought together 1,500 city planners, real estate developers, architects, and journalists to learn from Motown's tantalizing efforts to rebuild itself.

Literally the biggest part of Detroit's rebuilding, the restoration of its downtown, is the best known, as it has its own press office. Detroit native and home-mortgage billionaire Dan Gilbert returned to his home city to invest in it and has been leading efforts to resurrect the once-proud downtown into a compelling place to do business. Gilbert poured money into buying the Art Deco and Beaux Arts skyscrapers that Detroit could never afford to tear down when the rest of the country's great cities were replacing their ornamented skylines with sheer glass geometries. He has moved his Quicken Loans company into that same area, putting his business where his philanthropy is. He provides private security that patrols downtown Detroit around the clock to give a sense of order, and he continues to invest in downtown placemaking in areas like the Campus Martius plaza, bordering the Detroit Institute of Arts.

At a time when the city itself is in bankruptcy court, large private investors like Gilbert are providing the public services that government stopped supplying. They are even helping to build a streetcar line on Detroit's main boulevard, Woodward Avenue. Gilbert and his peers--such as Mike Ilitch, the Little Caesar's pizza magnate and owner of Detroit's Red Wings and Tigers; and Manuel Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario--have been controversial figures, given the natural suspicions of Detroiters toward outsiders with big plans for their city. But almost all of the Motor City's residents acknowledge that even if Gilbert is looking to make a profit, he is also adding value to the place where they live.

Far from Gilbert's newly built-up downtown, though, on the northwestern edge of the city, is a set of neighborhoods known collectively as Grandmont Rosedale. Originally streetcar suburbs, Grandmont Rosedale was among the last areas incorporated into Detroit proper before a change in Michigan law effectively prohibited annexation. …

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