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Seeing America in Detroit

In the early 20th century, Detroit held the key to the American Dream. Detroit was quintessentially American. The birthplace of the Model T represented the nation’s ambitions and spurred national progress through incredible industrial innovation. The automobile transformed the American landscape and ordinary ideas of property and community. The city’s contributions were hardly limited to industry and suburbs. Motown and Detroit’s black culture redefined popular entertainment and awarded national prominence to a growing number of African Americans. Fights for collective bargaining and workplace safety in Detroit’s factories galvanized support for what would become Big Labor. 

It was this progress and innovation, largely emanating from Detroit, that gave the American people reason to believe that every American, poor and privileged alike, could be productive and prosperous members of the nation. The city came to bear the notion of the American Dream and the great rise of the middle class on its shoulders. In this period, the city was a burgeoning and thrilling place. The saying was “Go to New York if you want to get famous – but go to Detroit if you want to get rich.”

By the end of the century, that city had disappeared. Once the fifth-largest city in the country, Detroit lost half of its population and became the largest city to file for bankruptcy in American history. Rows of deserted homes and the sprawling, derelict Packard Auto Plant became the new icons of the city. Detroit’s decline was evident among its citizens and the built environment alike: unemployment hovered around 20% and blocks of scorched one-family homes became commonplace. Innumerable Detroiters began making livings as scavengers, stripping the abandoned homes of iron pipes and anything else of value. In the 1980s and 1990s, Americans no longer thought of Detroit as a hub of prosperity and invention, but as an urban nightmare – the very worst of American crime, corruption, poverty and racial animosity. 

In the mid-2000s, everything changed. Thirty years after a generation abandoned Detroit, their grandchildren returned. A revival was no longer rumored, but was beginning. Entrepreneurs and activists started transforming empty lots into urban farms, neglected factories into small businesses. Old Detroit corporations moved from the suburbs back downtown. Detroit was not on its own anymore – and interests from far beyond Michigan placed stakes in the city’s future. The United Nations criticized City Hall when it shut water off for nearly 20,000 residents in 2014. A few months before, the Ford, Kresge and Knight foundations and others pledged an unprecedented $330 million to save the Detroit Institute of Arts, home to one of the nation’s most celebrated collections, from being auctioned to fund the city’s pension debts.

Pride replaced economic humiliation, and resilience became Detroit’s brand. Chrysler and Eminem’s “Imported from Detroit” ad harnessed this idea – “What’s a town that’s been to hell and back know about luxury?” Outsiders set up shops like Shinola, a watch and leather goods company, and evoked the history of Detroit manufacturing. Detroit reclaimed its gloried past.

The New York Times once called Detroit the most American of American cities. It is a city that has mirrored American progress and changing ideas about the American Dream in its rise, collapse and resurrection. Detroit propelled the country’s growth only to fall the farthest in the economy’s retreat. The city’s grand expanse, filled with scorched homes and entrepreneurs, fine art and trafficked guns, provides a frightening and important preview of the issues faced by postindustrial cities across the country. Welcome to Detroit. 

 
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Detroit, Michigan

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