Hope surfaces as bankrupt Detroit eyes rebirth



The hollow hulk of Detroit’s once-majestic train station draws a steady stream of tourists to see how far the mighty Motor City has fallen.

The Beaux Arts building was the tallest railway station in the world when it was built in 1913, and its 18-story office tower once housed more than 3,000 workers.

Abandoned to the elements — and to vandals who smashed its windows, spray-painted its yellow brick walls and stole its brass fixtures, marble and decorative railings — Michigan Central escaped demolition largely because the city lacked the funds for such a monumental task.

“It’s kind of like the ancient pyramids — once an amazing place and now completely run-down,” said Bernhardt Karg, an IT manager who was taking a group of friends visiting from Germany on a ruin tour.

There are signs of life behind the razor-wire fence erected to keep the vandals and squatters out. A handful of new windows fill the gaping frames, and trucks and workmen come and go. So far, no formal plans for the building have been announced.

Detroit’s spectacular bankruptcy was the largest in U.S. history when it was filed in July. A trial to determine if the city is even eligible to erase its debts in bankruptcy will begin Oct. 23. The complex legal process, expected to take years to complete, has masked a long-sought revival that is gathering momentum.

On a recent sunny afternoon, crews could be seen painstakingly repairing the brickwork on yet another downtown skyscraper slated to be transformed into condominiums.

Posh bars and restaurants dot the streets near the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium across from the beautifully restored Fox Theater on the northern edge of downtown.

A short drive up Woodward Avenue is the bustling Midtown neighborhood, where upscale shops like the expensive Whole Foods supermarket have followed the influx of young professionals seeking an urban lifestyle within walking distance of the renowned Detroit Institute of Art.

Key to the revival has been the policing provided by Wayne State University and two major hospitals to supplement the overwhelmed Detroit police department, which has an average response time of 58 minutes.

The island of safety and good management has attracted craft manufacturers like Shinola, which proudly stamps “Made in Detroit” on handmade watches built with Swiss components.

“While the city will go through this (bankruptcy) transition, we fully believe it’s in the process of regenerating itself,” Shinola Chief Executive Steve Bock said during a tour of the chic office and assembly room on the campus of the College for Creative Studies.

The 120 jobs at Shinola are nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands who were employed by the auto industry as it built Detroit into a wealthy industrial giant.

But Shinola’s “hipster story” is helping to change perceptions of a city that has for too long been synonymous with “deindustrialization, obsolescence and ruin porn,” said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State. “The real challenge is how do you connect the improvement, the investment, the incoming new residents in the midtown, downtown area to the rest of the city,” Boyle said.

Outside the handful of healthy or reviving neighborhoods lies an urban wasteland housing 78,000 abandoned buildings.

Many are homes whose wooden structures have collapsed after years or even decades of neglect as the population shrank from 1.8 million in 1950 to 685,000 today. Plenty bear the scars of arsonists.

Step inside and the detritus is puzzling. Scrappers are quick to pull out the copper wiring and metal fixtures. Yet there are often piles of clothing, furniture and clues to a past life. Too often there are used needles and rats.

Frank Pickett, 69, sat on the sidewalk watching as bulldozers attacked the Frederick Douglass Homes, America’s first public housing project.

Pickett grew up in the projects, which were once home to Motown legends Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson and actress Lily Tomlin. He stayed on after they were officially closed in 2008, squatting in the brick buildings behind boarded-up windows that kept out the worst of the cold.

“It hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” Pickett said. “All these years I never thought the city would tear them down. They said they were going to rebuild it. I don’t understand why they’re doing this.”

Clearing out blight is a critical component to transforming Detroit into a livable city, and the federal government is providing millions to help cover the cost of demolition.

Yet it is not clear how — or if — Detroit will be able to fill in huge expanses of empty lots or to link its few vibrant but scattered neighborhoods into some kind of functioning whole.

A new light rail system is in the works to connect downtown and midtown. Urban farming projects are popping up. And the latest in a series of master plans for the city seems promising.

  • kyushuphil

    I grew up in Detroit and its suburbs — a boy there in the 1950s, long ago.

    If The Japan Times wants to publish this Mira Oberman piece, looking for rays of hope in that beleaguered, black hole of a city, people might see it as a note of caution for Japan itself, too.

    Japan has also invested heavily in car culture, and now invests, or must invest, heavily in its logical consequences — the sprawl of concrete in roads, housing towers, fast food franchises, and shopping malls with their giant parking lagoons all over where good farmland used to be.

    It also invests in schools where young people do not learn how to question this tilt to environmental ruin but, rather, mindlessly to take their places in all the component parts of the seken 世間 and tate-shakai 縦 社 会. of full-speed ahead consumerism.

    Please, my Japanese friends, don’t look at Detroit and hope for something other than what may also have begun here in Japan — if industrialism’s death wish doesn’t first bury Japan under its epidemic of youth suicides, and if the yellow cloud degradation of the air from nearby China hasn’t sooner also swamped all Japan.

  • Toolonggone

    Unfortunately, this article does not reflect the reality of the city that got wrecked by a right-wing pro-reformer/privatization governor(Rick Snyder) and historical corruptions(including the prosecution of an ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.). The city is completely in a mess because of Snyder’s horrible politics to cut the pensions for public workers($19,000 a year), give corporations tax breaks, and throw millions of taxpayers’ money into construction of professional hockey team(!). Here’s the article that reveals the truth and myth about Detroit.


    It’s a textbook example of crony capitalism/corporate welfare gravy train that gives the people a death wish. Definitely not the tale Japan should follow.