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View from the USA: The Detroit comeback

Having gone from boom town to ghost town, Detroit — Motor City — is staging an astonishing comeback, testament to its never-say-die spirit

View from the USA: The Detroit comeback
Aaron Millar. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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America loves a comeback. I’m thinking: Rocky IV (should’ve toughed it out in the cold, Ivan Drago, instead of your high-tech Russian gym), The Karate Kid (the original, obviously) and, my most embarrassing public cry ever, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Yes, that’s right — I was on a plane, I’d been awake for a very long time, but gosh darn it, did that little bunch of misfits only go and win the whole dang thing).

But perhaps the greatest American comeback of all time is happening right now — and Hollywood’s got nothing to do with it. For years, Detroit was the butt of many a joke: Why do ducks fly over Detroit upside down? There’s nothing worth crapping on. What do you call an arsonist in Detroit? An urban renewal specialist. And so on. Detroit was Skegness and a Skoda rolled into one. It was the Irishman walking into the bar.

Not any more. They have a saying here: ‘Nothing stops Detroit’. Bankrupt, beaten down, crime on every corner, The D — as they call it — is now on its way up. This is America’s comeback city; the urban equivalent of Muhammad Ali playing rope-a-dope in the Rumble in the Jungle. You think he’s out, you think his spirit’s broken, but he’s just biding his time. Butterflies and bees are on their way. Detroit is back and there’s nothing stopping it now.

It had a long way to fall. At the dawn of the 20th century, Detroit was the poster child of the American dream. Home to the largest car manufacturers on the planet, people came from across the country on the promise of good wages, a home and a steady job. “We had more money than God,” my guide, die-hard local Jeanette Pierce, tells me as we stroll through downtown. It’s obvious to see. Detroit is a masterpiece of art deco design: The Guardian Building — huge vaulted ceilings adorned in gold leaf; The Fisher Building — wrapped head to toe in 325,000sq ft of marble, like a birthday present to capitalism. The barons of industry pressed their opulence upon the city like diamonds on a mistress.

But it wasn’t to last. As the car manufacturers automated or moved out of town, those former bastions of prosperity turned to rot. We pass Michigan Central Station, the once great hub of civic pride and grandeur, now stained in graffiti and riddled with barbed wire; the Fisher Body Plant 21, where shiny new Cadillacs were made, now a ruin with broken windows and crumbling walls. Skyscrapers hollowed from within; derelict warehouses; empty homes. A boom town and a ghost town, simultaneously.

But in catastrophe, there’s opportunity, and no one hustles harder than Detroit. I browse shops that turn wood from abandoned buildings into guitars, a jeweller that transforms demolished graffiti walls into art, and a florist that set up shop in a deserted residential house — 4,000-odd flowers surrounded by leaking pipes and caved-in walls. There’s perhaps no better metaphor for the city than the latter.

It’s buzzing too. A new restaurant, bar or cafe has opened here, on average, every week for the past three years. I eat one of the best meals of my life gazing out at ruined buildings, and sip craft cocktails in a dark alleyway bar straight out of a murder scene. A combination of low rent and big opportunity has seen an influx of creators of all kinds, from hip new fashion brands to arts magazines and up-and-coming musicians. And because it’s home-grown, the city feels authentic and unique — a menagerie of mixed treasures rather than a homogenised mass of chains. I came expecting despair but I discovered a determination to prove the world wrong. It was inspiring.

Perhaps that’s the point. Comebacks matter because they’re catchy. When Ali pulled himself off the ropes, he pulled us with him. When Daniel-san crane kicked Johnny from the Cobra Kai, we kicked too. They give us hope. They give us strength. They remind us that you have to get hit by a few dodgeballs before you can make a grown man cry. Detroit is coming back and its people are taking us with them. Nothing can stop them now.

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)