The Other Story

Some districts of a city have a national reputation. ‘De jordaan’ in Amsterdam has always been a synonym for popular humour and sociability. No red-light district enjoyed for decades its reputation as much as ‘Katendrecht’ in Rotterdam. And no working-class district enjoyed its reputation as much as the ‘Schilderwijk’ in The Hague, with its street rows and scuffles during the New Year’s Eve celebrations. It is no different in foreign countries. Think, for example, of the French suburbs, the London’s EastEnd and Harlem in New York. Our idea of these districts is mainly based on what we hear and see in traditional media. After personally visiting these districts, image and identity turn out to lie far apart.

Detroit is no different. In the fifties, sixties and seventies of the last century, the city was part of the Rust Belt, the former industrial heart of the United States of America. The city earned its nickname ‘Motor City’ thanks to more than hundreds car manufacturers, among which were Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. By meeting the needs of the car industry in every single way, the city and the surrounding area grew very quickly in various fields. In this way, Detroit became the home of Motown (a portmanteau of the words motor and town).

As everybody knows, the flourishing industrial town  of olden days no longer exists. The monotonous economy also became the biggest pitfall. The car industry was more and more relocated to low-wage countries. The subsequent massive redundancies created unemployment, an underload of the city and descending home prices. With great consequences for the city and its inhabitants (Michael Moore portrayed a similar decline in his documentary Roger & Me on the little town of Flint, about 110 kilometres north of Detroit). The credit crisis, the rising oil price and the descending demand for typical American cars like the SUV in the last few years didn’t help. More factories went out of business. There are only 700,000 inhabitants left of the original 2 million. There are vacant buildings and neighborhoods in abundance (see map). In september 2009, Time magazine gave a powerful summary of the problems: ‘By any quantifiable standard, the city is on life support. Detroit's treasury is $300 million short of the funds needed to provide the barest municipal services. The school system, which six years ago was compelled by the teachers' union to reject a philanthropist's offer of $200 million to build 15 small, independent charter high schools, is in receivership. The murder rate is soaring, and 7 out of 10 remain unsolved. Three years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, unemployment in that city hit a peak of 11%. In Detroit, the unemployment rate is 28.9%.’

However, this is just a small part of the story. In Detroit Lives, a famous shoe brand (!) introduces us with all kinds of new, local initiatives. An impressive documentary that tells a different story than the cold statistics. A large group of volunteers, unemployed people, students, social entrepreneurs and artists ( like in the Heidelberg Project) see the opportunities and work in that way towards a new design of the former industrial city. At which passion and creativity beat planning and rules.

Source photo: Flavorwire. Photo by Kevin Bauman

Read more? See A City Lover's Guide to Detroit