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The Motor City Revival

Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1942
Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 1942, looking south towards downtown (US Public Domain)

When we hear the name Detroit, we think of cars. We think of ingenuity, inventions, automation, mass production, industry, and manufacturing; as well as a city on the move with connecting multi-lane freeways. We also think of prosperity. And how could we forget the 1960s music trend known as Motown.

Unfortunately, times change. Detroit, Michigan has been in a steady decline for decades. Parts of it have reached ghost town status: unlit streets, boarded-up buildings, and weeded lots. Case in point, the old Packard auto plant built on East Grand Boulevard, the largest abandoned factory in the world. Closed to production since 1958, it’s a half-mile length of crumbling bricks and concrete, neglected and defaced by looters and vandals from nearby slums. More about Packard later.

Although the metro area has 4.3 million people, Detroit has slipped down to twenty-first in population among major US cities: a mere 677,000, a far cry from its glory days. Despite its shortcomings, Detroit is a city close to my heart. I feel for it. My in-laws reside minutes away in Windsor, across the Detroit River on the Canadian side. I’ve been to Detroit dozens of times for hockey and baseball games, sports memorabilia meets, shopping, and a couple car shows at Cobo Hall. I’ve also seen the downtown and outlying neighborhoods up close since my first visit there May 1976. Yes, it can be scary. But the city is making an effort to rise up through urban development brought on by the private sector and politicians who still believe the city can be revived to its former charm.

Just a little over a hundred years ago, Detroit was known as the “Paris of the West.” Detroiters were proud of their mansions, and grand tree-lined streets, avenues and boulevards along upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Detroit was the transportation hub of the Mid-West and a major Great Lakes port, a haven for industries such as shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing, including the lucrative carriage trade before autos made the scene.

That changed in a flash by 1903, with Henry Ford along with fellow automotive tycoons William C Durant, Packard, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge Brothers, who all quickly turned Detroit into the Motor City. Packard, for example, began manufacturing automobiles from inside their 3.5 million square-foot plant. On a 40-acre site, this state-of-the-art, first-ever reinforced concrete building in Detroit housed the most modern car manufacturing site in the world, handling 80 different trades.

By 1920, Detroit was booming, the fourth largest city in America with a population of 995,000. Only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia were bigger. With a slew of jobs available in the car industry and feeder companies, rural blacks and southern whites migrated north for work, changing the culture of the area. Always expanding, Ford built the massive River Rouge plant in nearby Dearborn. Finished in 1928, the complex employed over 100,000 people at any given time. The Rouge was the largest factory in the world, 1.5 miles by one mile with 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had 93 buildings on the property, its own docks, electricity plant and steel mill, and 100 miles of interior rail track.

About this same time, Detroit became a “port of call” for the sinister Ku Klux Klan, whose hatred for Catholics, Jews, and blacks was legendary. Racial tensions began to build. Also, during Prohibition, the year from 1920-1933, the nearby waterways of the Detroit River and Lake St Clair were used for smuggling elicit Canadian liquor from Canada, in particular our highly prized rye whiskey.

Between 1941-1943, over 400,000 people migrated to Detroit for jobs, including 50,000 Southern blacks. More racial strife emerged, climaxing with the 1943 Detroit Race Riot in June brought on by competition for jobs, a shortage of housing, and alleged police brutality towards the blacks.  Following three days of violence, 34 people were killed and 600 were injured, of which most were black. In addition, nearly $2 million worth of property was destroyed.

 The Renaissance Center, Detroit
The Renaissance Center, Detroit, with the 73-story Marriott Hotel in the middle (US Public Domain)

World War II brought a major shift in manufacturing to Detroit factories. Cars were put on hold for the sake of Allied military production. Prime examples were Packard and Ford. Packard cashed-in on the V-1650 Packard-Merlin aircraft engine, built to British Rolls-Royce specs after successful use in Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Over 55,000 Packard-Merlin engines were manufactured for the North American P-51 Mustangs and Curtiss P-40 fighters, as well as the Canadian-built Avro Lancaster bombers and de Havilland Mosquitos over the border in Ontario. Packard also built 20,000 V-12 marine engines for American PT boats, and British patrol and rescue boats. In 1943, at the height of Packard’s dominance, the company had 36,000 employees, almost all at the East Grand Boulevard plant.

The Willow Run Ford plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 20 miles west of Detroit, was constructed to build the four-engine B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. Inside what was reported to be the largest factory under one roof in the world where there was 3.5 million square feet of factory space, five different B-24 models were assembled along a line that stretched one mile inside the plant. By war’s end, almost 6,800 Liberators were assembled there.

In post-war Detroit, with auto production back on track, the city’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950. But by the mid-1950s, Detroiters began moving to new housing developments in the suburbs, and various businesses and manufacturing plants followed. This population shift cut deeply into Detroit’s tax base.

Then, to make matters worse, the Detroit Riot of 1967 occurred. Far scarier and longer than the riot two decades prior, this uprising saw 43 dead, almost 1,200 injured, over 7,000 arrests and 2,000 buildings destroyed. Once the smoke cleared, thousands of people left Detroit for good, many taking businesses with them. The affected areas lay in ruins for years afterwards.

Things didn’t get any better for Detroit and its car industry during the gasoline crisis of 1973 when the Arab countries placed an oil embargo on the US for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and another crisis in 1979 when oil production was cut severely as a result of the Iran-Iraq War. The outcome of these conflicts led many Metro Detroiters purchasing smaller foreign makes than the big Detroit-built gas suckers. Thousands of local auto employees, many of those still living in Detroit Proper, were laid off and could only look on sadly as plants closed, causing more havoc for city tax collecting.

Detroit abandoned house
One of the thousands of abandoned buildings in Detroit (US Public Domain)

While the once-proud city of Detroit was falling to ruin, Mayor Coleman Young--the city’s first black mayor elected in 1973--went full-speed with revitalization plans for downtown. His first major project was the interconnected skyscraper complex called the Renaissance Center along the Detroit River. Opened in 1977, it became the world headquarters for General Motors and had the tallest hotel--73 stories containing 1300 rooms--in the Western Hemisphere, along with retail shops, banks, financial offices, and restaurants. This and other large-scale projects spearheaded by Mayor Young were expected to entice businesses and the people back downtown. But, the opposite happened: more area hotels, office buildings and shops closed.

Over the next few decades, the city worked hard to bring Downtown Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods back to life by investing billions in several historic buildings that were once vacant, such as the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Fort Shelby Hotel, the David Whitney Building, and the glitzy Fox Theatre, the latter compliments of Mike Ilitch, who owned Little Caesers Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Detroit Tigers. Still, despite all these great efforts, overall problems remained.

Thousands of business and residential properties failed to pay their taxes in 2011 alone, amounting to $246 million in taxes and fees not collected. Mid-summer 2013, the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy--making it the largest American city filing for bankruptcy--when they were $18.5 billion in debt and unable to pay its creditors. By the end of the year, $7 billion of that debt was erased with creditors receiving between 14-75 cents on the dollar, which lightened the load for the city’s books.

Detroit hasn’t given up. Over the course of two years from 2014-2016, every downtown street light was replaced with LED lights--65,000 in total. Also, roads improved, gardens were planted along boulevards. The 18-story Michigan Central Station--the world’s tallest rail station when dedicated in 1914--unused since 1988 when Amtrak pulled out, has been renovated recently with new windows, updated electrical wires and lights, a new roof and elevators, as well as a general cleanup. The investors are now waiting for a buyer or at least renters.

Also, on December 12, 2013, Fernando Palazuelo, a 58-year-old real estate investor from Lima, Peru purchased the old Packard plant for $405,000 cash. Palazuelo’s large-scale plans to renovate the site over the next 10 years to lure various businesses to occupy the buildings have already started. If only there were more such people as Fernando Palazuelo stepping forward. There’s still another 75,000-plus abandoned buildings in the once-great Motor City to renovate and occupy.

Although it still has a long way to go, Detroit is doing its best to crawl back to life. 


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