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A vacant, burned house is pictured in Detroit's east end on March 19, 2013. There are almost 150,000 vacant or abandoned parcels of land throughout Detroit, covering ground equal to the size of Manhattan. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A vacant, burned house is pictured in Detroit's east end on March 19, 2013. There are almost 150,000 vacant or abandoned parcels of land throughout Detroit, covering ground equal to the size of Manhattan. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Detroit may not return to past glory, but don’t stop believing Add to ...

It was years in the making and still came as a shock: Last month, Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy, marking a new low in the history of the place that once symbolized American industrial prowess.The crisis has long been obvious to any visitor: The former Motor City is virtually empty of traffic, thanks to the long exodus in which nearly two-thirds of the population has fled since its 1950s peak. From murder and illiteracy levels to jobless and foreclosure rates and its 80,000 empty buildings, Detroit showcases the worst of America’s manufacturing decline.

Race crises and official corruption have made matters worse. Fires, decay and blood-red graffiti have left some streets looking like a war zone. Even the border guard at the Detroit-Windsor crossing warns Canadians on their arrival: “Don’t quote me on this, but don’t wander anywhere.”

But this is not the whole story of Detroit. Its public sector may have hit rock bottom, but among the ranks of private business people, non-profits, artists and activists, there has been bold talk for a while now of a Detroit renaissance.

There may be extra blocks on that road today, but the momentum in Detroit’s core “is real and palpable and provides a strong foundation for future growth,” noted researchers at the centrist Washington think tank the Brookings Institution in July.

Some of this new crop of Detroit boosters even welcome the bankruptcy filing, saying it may be the very thing the city needs to wipe its slate clean, and to begin to act on the new blueprint it adopted earlier this year for a sustainable future.

It isn’t the easiest thing to believe. Here is a city where police take almost an hour to answer an emergency call, and where racial divisions, lack of safety and insecurity have undermined education, leaving the general population well behind any call for modernized 21st-century employment.

But many entrepreneurs and experts really seem to think the poster child for urban ruin could become a testing ground for adaptation to a post-industrial age. If so, it would be just in time. Cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, are undergoing similar transitions. In Canada, Detroit’s neighbour, Windsor, and northerly Thunder Bay, Ont., also have seen populations shrink.

“There is a movement in North America now which is focusing on declining cities and what to do with them from a planning perspective,” says Pierre Filion, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning.

Other cities have gotten stuck in spirals in which government costs grow faster than revenues, adds Michigan State University’s Eric Scorsone. Chicago’s credit rating, for example, was downgraded this summer. “This is a wakeup call for other cities to … avoid Detroit-style problems in the future,” he says.

City journalist Charlie LeDuff argues that the challenge speaks to the very soul of America. In his raw recent book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, he acknowledges that things are “awful.” But, he writes, “Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again.

“Detroit is Pax Americana. The birthplace of mass production, the automobile, the cement road, the refrigerator, frozen peas, high-paid blue-collar jobs, home ownership and credit on a mass scale. America’s way of life was built here. … Detroit cannot be ignored, because what is happening here is happening out there too.”

The Quickening of downtown Detroit

The most optimistic of Detroit’s boosters has already placed a big financial bet on the city’s recovery. Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, the third-largest mortgage lender in the United States, relocated its headquarters from suburban Michigan to downtown Detroit in 2010. He didn’t want his employees just to work there – he wanted them to live and play there, too, and he was willing to pay them to do it.

Today, more than 10,000 people, many of them young, work in Quicken Loan’s city offices, and staff get subsidies for living downtown: $2,500 toward apartment costs their first year and $1,000 the year after, or a $20,000 forgivable loan toward the purchase of a home.

On top of that, Mr. Gilbert has invested nearly $1-billion to buy more than 20 office buildings in the city so far, which he wants to fill up with his own and other businesses, along with residential units. This year alone, he has bought a majority interest in the Greektown Casino-Hotel, snagged a Woodward office tower and brought Papa Joe’s Gourmet Market into the city.

Mind you, there are those in Detroit who regard Mr. Gilbert as a property vulture, taking advantage of a depressed city and feeding off tax breaks to his own advantage. But according to Brent Ryan, who teaches urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Gilbert’s leap of faith is fuelling the biggest privately financed urban-reclamation project in U.S. history.

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