Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
You've heard the story of the city's downfall. This is the story of its comeback.
We’ve all read the story of Detroit’s downfall by now. Once a booming hub for automotive manufacturing and a center for technological innovation, the veritable Silicon Valley of its day, the city has witnessed devastating economic changes. Between 2000 and 2010, the city's population fell by 25 percent, the largest drop of any city with a population over 100,000. Even New Orleans, despite Hurricane Katrina, didn’t see a population plunge as dramatic. At the height of the recent economic crisis, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 18.2 percent.
But the other story of Detroit, the bigger one – is of its rebirth, its rising. Given the austerity of these times, this is less a story of top-down government efforts, and much more a story of the organic efforts of the entrepreneurs and artists, designers and musicians who have chosen to live in Detroit and be the stewards of its resurgence.
They are drawing on a long legacy of creativity and innovation that are part of the city’s very DNA, from the industrialist Henry Ford to the architects and designers Albert Kahn, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki. And then there is Detroit’s incredible line of musical innovators. The blues’ John Lee Hooker moved to the city in the 1940s. The legendary jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd grew up in Detroit and of course there was Berry Gordy’s Motown, which brought such artists as Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, The Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson, among many others, to national prominence. And it doesn’t end there. Detroit’s influence on rock 'n' roll goes back to the 1960s, with Mitch Ryder, the MC5, Iggy Pop, The Amboy Dukes, Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Marshall Crenshaw, Glenn Frey, Bob Seeger and Kid Rock, not to mention hip hop’s Eminem, Insane Clown Posse and the late J Dilla. In recent years, the White Stripes and Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson of Detroit Electronic Music Festival fame have kept the city in the forefront of popular music.
Detroit’s new generation of place makers and city-builders draws deeply on the city and the region’s many assets. Yes, urban renewal devastated parts of the city, and yes, it’s true that there are too many empty lots and abandoned buildings. But a walk through and around the urban core evidences a fabulous urban fabric with fantastic historic buildings of the very sort that Jane Jacobs was talking about when she said that old buildings give rise to new ideas. Consider, for example, Signal Return-Press on the periphery of the city’s historic Eastern Market, where we filmed much of this series, where young artists and designers are experimenting with printing techniques abandoned by commercial presses.
Organizations such as I Am Young Detroit, Detroit Lives, and Detroit 4 Detroit are the products of energetic and engaged locals who are utilizing everything from citizen philanthropy to social branding to change the way people view Detroit from the ground up. The PowerHouse Project promotes neighborhood stabilization and revitalization by supporting artistic and creative enterprises, while PonyRide supports collaboration among community members as they create new opportunities and ideas. Every time someone signs the Detroit Declaration, they are making a commitment to their community.
This spirit is also alive and well in athletics. The Detroit City Futbol League, for example, now in its third year, is growing faster than anyone could have predicted. With 600 players from 22 neighborhoods, it is yet another way that people are coming together and strengthening their community.
Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has moved his headquarters and team of 3,700 people to downtown Detroit, where he is committed to spurring the revitalization of the city’s downtown core. Twitter has established an outpost in Gilbert’s M@dison Building. The Detroit metro is home to numerous great universities, from Wayne State to the University of Michigan and the College for Creative Studies, each of which attract thousands of students every year. The city’s Corktown district has become a dining destination, with Slows BBQ, Astro Coffee, Mercury Bar, and Green Dot Stables. And while cities around the world struggle to add green spaces, Detroit has Lafayette Park, an amazing intersection of modernist architecture and landscape designed by Mies Van Der Rohe, working in close collaboration with the urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer and the landscape architect Alfred Caldwell.
Detroit is still a part of a large, diverse metro region. With a population of more than five million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s combined statistical area (which includes Ann Arbor), and an economic output of more than $200 billion when you add Ann Arbor, greater Detroit is the nation’s 14th largest metropolitan economy. It remains one of the world’s leading centers of automotive technology and industrial design and with its recently expanded and renovated airport, it has aerotropolis-style connections to the world. Nearby Ann Arbor and Lansing, home to the University of Michigan and Michigan State, respectively, provide research and development assets that few places can match. If Detroit has lost much, it still has much to build on—and it is.
And that is what this video series is all about. Stay tuned in the coming weeks to find out exactly how Detroit is rising.