By Rebecca Cuddihy
When you Google search ‘Detroit,’ the first three questions are:
- Is it safe to go to Detroit?
- When did Detroit go bad?
- Is Detroit, Michigan a ghost town?
However, Lonely Planet also named Detroit as the second-best city in the world to visit in 2018. So, you can see the contrast. There are reasons for skepticism about Detroit. It is often known as a city of racial tension, gun violence, and poverty, but this article aims to highlight that the city has much more to offer and that it is definitely on the rise.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Detroit’s success in the automotive industry was unmatched as thousands flocked to the city to work in Henry Ford’s factories, and thus gaining the title of the “Motor City”. During WWII, factories used to produce cars were now making weapons for the Allies, giving Detroit the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ title. Detroit is also the home of Motown music and produced music legends like Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. It is the birthplace of Techno music and has hosted Movement festival since 2006, which attracts over 100,000 people. It is also home to an unbelievable number of Coney Island restaurants. First established by Greek immigrants in the early twentieth century, Coney Island’s have become a staple of Detroit’s culture.
However, Detroit’s reputation in recent years has been that of violence, poverty, and abandonment. Although the 1967 race riots are often blamed for the demise of the city, Detroit was declining long before this. Reliance on a single-industry economy, racial discrimination, poor housing and, perhaps ultimately, a lack of urban planning were all contributing factors to its downfall.
My first thought when I moved to the Royal Oak area of Metro Detroit – around thirteen miles from the downtown area – was, “I am confused.” Living in Glasgow my entire life, I was used to living in a suburb with easy access to Glasgow via several public transport links. Once I reached Glasgow city center, everything was accessible by foot or more transport, and there was hundreds of bars, restaurants, and shops right in front of me. Detroit is not quite there, yet.
What struck me as most frustrating was how obviously divided Detroit was from its Metro suburbs and even more so from the idea of Pure Michigan. The Metro Detroit suburbs like Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Birmingham have their own bars, restaurants, and retail spaces. Although these areas are very successful and vibrant, to me they also spelled isolation, segregation, and a continuing subconscious boycott of downtown Detroit.
Since moving here, I’ve had the wonderful experience of working at the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward Avenue in Midtown Detroit. I worked with people from different backgrounds, different ages, different races, and some all-round creative and interesting people. But most importantly, they were smart, educated, and passionate about Detroit. Contrast this to working (at the same time) 40 minutes north of Detroit in the suburb of Sterling Heights. My colleagues were all older, mainly female, all of them white (except the cleaning staff), and the majority of whom rarely stepped a foot outside of Sterling Heights. It was here, I felt, that there was a hostility towards Detroit and, more importantly, fear.
Detroit has a long way to go if they want to become a fully functioning major metropolitan area again. Amazon recently rejected Detroit as a finalist to house their new headquarters, citing largely to a lack of sufficient talent, with a non-existent mass transit system and an inadequate school system as additional factors. Although the people of Royal Oak and Birmingham have different needs to those of Detroit, there needs to be more cooperation and support between these areas. Detroit has amazing museums like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Furthermore, you can also visit 40 important historic places that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, such as Belle Isle and the Eastern Market, or watch a Detroit Tigers baseball game. Additionally, Michigan Central Station, abandoned since the 1980s, is a further example of Detroit’s beautiful architecture and has recently been sold to Ford Motor Co., signaling a new and exciting chapter for Detroit’s future. All of this goes to show how rich the city is and how much it has to offer.
I think it’s important to appreciate Detroit’s turbulent history and continue to talk about it. But, at the same time, we should use these past issues to help Detroit move forward and shake off this dangerous image. Detroit might not be an obvious city, and it took me some time to figure it out; however, it has a lot to offer, and we must continue to get past the fear and hostility of the city’s past and embrace its future. As the city motto goes, ‘We hope for better things; It will rise from the ashes.’
Rebecca Cuddihy graduated from Central Michigan University with a Master of Arts in History in 2017 and currently works as a Collections Assistant at the Augusta Museum of History. She is aiming to visit as many states as possible before returning to Scotland next year. She has also recently started a blog on her time in the USA so far: https://rebeccanormanusalife.wordpress.com/. You can follow her on twitter @rebeccacud92.