• Requiem For Detroit

    I watched an interesting documentary recently, on the rise and fall of the city of Detroit, ĎThe Motor Cityí. It outlined how this one-time super power grew through Americaís love affair with the automobile, how the automotive industry spawned thousands of businesses within it that supplied that industry, and how the downfall of the US automotive industry has also brought about the downfall of Detroit.

    This was once one of the most powerful cities in the world. At its height, nearly 2,000,000 people lived there. Now, itís a city in ruin. As the domestic automotive industry collapsed, so it took Detroit with it. Now just over 700,000 people live there. Itís a ghost town, with empty motorways, and empty buildings. The Packard facility was the largest building in the world at the time it was built. Now itís the largest abandonment in North America.

    Crime in Detroit is now rife, as is unemployment. Officially, unemployment figures yo-yo at around 22 Ė 28%, but many consider the number to actually be around 40%. Detroit is now considered the most dangerous city in the US, and has been for some years. 70% of all murders in Detroit remain unsolved. Years of racial tension, segregation, and decades of misguided leadership have come to a head, and that which is left is the result.

    Itís a sad sight now, to see this once powerful city brought to its knees. Its former grand, imposing buildings, many of which were designed by celebrated architect Albert Kahn to proudly portray the might of Detroit, are crumbling ruins, coated in graffiti. Anything of value within them has been stripped out and sold off by looters. The once thriving communities are now rows of empty homes, as foreclosures have become increasingly common. The average house price in Detroit is now just US$6,000! But, it gets worse. With so many foreclosures, most empty houses have been stripped out by looters. These can be bought for as little as US$500. Yep, $500 gets you a three bedroom house. Of course, if nobody buys it for $500, the price continues to drop. Indeed, hundreds of houses have sold in Detroit for $1. In recent years, less than half of home owners have paid their property tax, further deepening the financial hole the city is in.

    The documentary described Detroit as being a Ďone trick ponyí, structured on the naÔve belief that the US automotive industry would somehow thrive forever. Its problem stems from the fact the city was built around one industry, and only a tiny handful of major companies, into which everything else funnelled. Much like a business who relies completely on a single large contract from one client to survive, so the city of Detroit relied entirely on the US automotive industry remaining healthy forever.

    Detroit lost 25% of its residents in the last decade. Thatís more than any other city in the US with a population over 100,000, other than New Orleans, which lost 29% of its residents following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Per-capita, income in Detroit is less than half the national average, and one-third live in poverty. This is truly a sad story.

    However, its not all bad. Many parts of Detroit are in good health. Its not all ruins and crime. Some historic buildings have survived and are still used today for various businesses. Some have even been restored to their former glory, such as the Ford Piquette Street plant, which is now a museum to celebrate the Ford Model T. The elegant Cadillac Hotel, which sat empty for many years, has also been returned to its former glory. The large Studebaker Piquette plant which was destroyed by fire in 2005, now has a centre for homeless war vets built where the old Studebaker factory once stood. As neighbourhoods are abandoned, houses crumble, and are eventually bulldozed, so mother nature has slowly began taking hold. And with it, wildlife has returned, some of which hasnít been seen in this area for the best part of a century. And as this one trick pony continues its decent back into the earth, so it appears that horticulture may possibly be one of the industries that saves it. With land now being so cheap, and there being so much of it (figures suggest as much as 120 square kilometres), a whole horticulture industry has now sprung up where once there were towering factories churning out products feeding the automotive industry. Who could have possibly imagined this fifty years ago?

    There is a fascination with Detroit, its decline, and its abandoned buildings that once produced a large percentage of all the worlds motor vehicles. Eventually, there will be little evidence left of its industrial heritage, so the haunting images photographers and film crews are scrambling to capture now, while they still stand, will provide a small window for future generations as to the decline of this former super-power.

    Whether its current state is a sea-change, that points toward a new future for Detroit remains to be seen.

    A preview to the excellent BBC documentary Requiem For Detroit can be viewed here > >

    Comments and photos from this article can be viewed here > >

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