I visited Detroit in August 2019.
I wanted to learn about the city’s resurrection.
According to a book called The Arsenal of Democracy, in 1941, Detroit had a bigger economy than any foreign country except Britain, France, Germany, and possibly the Soviet Union. (I’m skeptical of this statistic). Today, Detroit is a growing city with an up-and-coming downtown.
Here’s what I learned during my visit. Take everything with a grain of salt. Nothing is fact-checked.
1. Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans, comes up in every conversation with a local. When you listen to locals speak, it sounds like he’s involved in every major project in the city. His family of companies employs 17,000 people, and he is the largest employer and taxpayer in Detroit.
2. Downtown is up-and-coming. According to our tour guide at the Detroit Institute of Art, Dan Gilbert subsidizes house and apartment purchases in the downtown area. He pays people $10,000 to purchase an apartment and $30,000 to buy a home in the city. I’ve never seen a city with so much local pride.
3. Except for Woodward Avenue, downtown Detroit is surprisingly empty. At times, it feels like a ghost town. Foot traffic stays on just a couple streets between Bricktown and Downtown Detroit. One street-art-covered alley called The Belt has a thriving bar scene, which compares with any major city.
4. Most of the wealthy people live in the Northern suburbs in cities like Auburn Hills and Blomfield Township. I asked one father if he lived in downtown Detroit. He replied: “Oh god. No way.”
5. City dwellers were overwhelmingly optimistic about Detroit. But people outside the city, especially those I met in Northern Michigan, were overwhelmingly pessimistic. The people I spoke to who live outside the city, most of whom were wealthier, rarely go into downtown Detroit. They spend most of their time in the Northern suburbs instead.
6. 2013 was a low-point for Detroit. The city’s per capita income was just $15,261 per year. In that year, 40% of the street lights didn’t work. There were 78,000 abandoned buildings and blighted structures. The entire city had only 36 ambulances. Generally, no more than 14 of them were in operation at a time. Among cities with more than 200,000 people, the violent crime rate was the highest in the country. Out of the 344 murders in 2011, only 39 were solved.
7. Detroit-based companies might be able to take advantage of a talent arbitrage. Michigan has two large and excellent universities: (1) the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which is 40 minutes away from Detroit, and (2) Michigan State University, which is 90 minutes away. Many of the younger people I spoke with want to stay in-state. Chicago is too big for them and New York is too far. There may be opportunities for Detroit-based companies to recruit from these universities and receive tax benefits for doing so.
8. Detroit’s population declined from a peak of 1.8 million in 1950 to roughly 700,000 people in 2013. Abandoned buildings that haven’t been torn down are everywhere. The windows are covered by wooden boards. Most surprisingly, Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings played until 2017, still hasn’t been torn down. The eye-sore slaps you in the face as you exit the highway and enter downtown Detroit. Tearing it down should be a priority. Why hasn’t the city demolished it already? [Reader update: “The Joe Louis Arena has been under demolition for some time. The interior has already been gutted; they’re taking off the external panels and taking great care with the hazardous materials demolition. Because of its proximity to other buildings, it cannot be imploded and must be dismantled.”]
9. I’m happy to see that Detroit’s sports teams have moved to a central location downtown. Bringing the stadiums into a central area downtown should spur economic development and revitalize the downtown area. Ford Field (home of the Detroit Lions football team) is right next to Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team). The Little Caesars Arena (home to the Detroit Pistons basketball team and the Detroit Red Wings hockey team) is within walking distance. For years, the Pistons played 40 minutes outside the city in a suburb called Auburn Hills.
10. Detroit has birthed some excellent musicians. In the world of soul, the Motor City gave us Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Eminem. That’s why I was surprised to hear so little music in Detroit. The speakers at restaurants were quiet, and there were no live bands. None of the bars or coffee shops emphasized music either. Perhaps I’m just used to cities like Nashville and New York. But even in the heart of summer, Detroit didn’t feel like a music city.
11. Detroit is the largest American city to ever go bankrupt. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013. According to Wikipedia, Detroit “is the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S history by debt, estimated at $18-20 billion.”
12. Major American cities are increasingly accepting of casual dress. In cities like San Francisco, nobody dresses up. Women tend to look like they are ready to go to gym or climb into bed. In New York, women dress up in edgy or fashion forward ways. But in Detroit, the percentage of women who dress-up is the highest I’ve seen in any American city north of the Mason Dixon line. There were high-heels and classic dresses everywhere.
13. The General Motors headquarters, the tallest building in the city, looks like what the future looked like in the 1960s. It was straight out of The Jetsons.
14. Back alleys are sprinkled through downtown Detroit. The nice ones have superb street art. At certain times of the day, they are backdrops for serious Instagram photoshoots. Others have been converted into small walking streets, but those that haven’t look dark and dangerous.
15. Detroit should win an award for classical architecture. Most of the charming buildings were built during the Detroit boom in the 1930s and 1940s, many in the Art Deco style. My favorite buildings were the Westin Hotel, the Wayne County Building, and everything along Woodward Avenue.
16. Detroit has a massive Arab population. I noticed this before I visited the city. In the past few years, I’ve spoken with multiple Middle Easterners who grew up in Detroit. Their parents were from Iraq and Lebanon. According to this article, these Arab immigrants moved to Michigan to work in the car industry. I suspect that there were network effects for these immigrants. Many immigrants want to surround themselves with family, friends, and people who share their culture. Since Detroit has so many Middle Eastern immigrants, it is a go-to destination for future Middle Eastern immigrants. Next time I visit, I plan to explore the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.
17. On our first day in the city, we walked up to the Detroit Athletic Club to see if we could rent a day pass for the gym. Spoiler alert: we couldn’t. The building is beautiful, so it caught our attention. After they didn’t let us in, we had a brief conversation with the doormen. When he asks how we liked Detroit, we said we liked it. He said: “Yep. It’s not as bad as everybody thinks.” This attitude defines the locals. They carry a passionate local pride. They’ve made physical, intellectual, and emotional investments into the resurgence of the city.
Places to Eat:
Have dinner at Standby (Order the burger and the Kimchi Old Fashioned).
Try the coffee sampler at Madcap Coffee.
Hop on a scooter and have brunch at Parks & Rec by the Detroit bus terminal.
Visit roasting plant, take your coffee to-go, and sip it in Campus Martius Park across the street.
Have a drink on the rooftop of The Monarch Club.
Have lunch at Al Ameer in Dearborn, Michigan.
Visit the Rouge Ford Factory and the Museum of American Innovation.
Hop on a scooter and explore the water front. Start by the Cobo center and ride north to the Millken State Park Lighthouse.
Visit the Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Art
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