Reinventing Detroit

In Detroit, many see the city's decline as an opportunity to reinvent America's long-struggling industrial towns for the future.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN // The highways to and from this sprawling, once-great city are named after Ford and Chrysler, the car giants that put it on the map. Now, signs reading "Project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" dot the corridors into Motor City. The story of Detroit's collapse is written over its many dying neighbourhoods - factories shut, buildings abandoned and homes foreclosed. Detroit's unemployment rate is the highest in the country at just below 30 per cent and as many as 80,000 of the city's houses and lots stand vacant.

For many Americans, and indeed across the world, Detroit has become synonymous with urban degeneration and a nation's diminished industrial might. But in Detroit, many prefer to see the city's decline as an opportunity to reinvent America's long-struggling industrial towns for the future. "The first thing that the outside world has to understand is that we're coming off a two-year tailspin," said Kwame Kenyatta, a city council member, noting the devastating effects of the foreclosure crisis and the American car manufacturing collapse.

The city faces massive problems, he said, including underemployment approaching 50 per cent, astounding crime and illiteracy rates (as high as 48 per cent) and a US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) deficit. "We're trying to put the pieces back together," he said. To that end, a widespread collection of urban projects - supported by both the public and private sector - has provided some hope. From sustainable urban farming to clean energy technologies and offbeat art installations, the people of Detroit are exploring innovative ways to save their dying city, and set an example in America's rust belt manufacturing towns, many atrophying after decades of decline.

John Hantz, a millionaire businessman and native Detroiter, is trying to help the city - and profit - by building the world's largest urban farm. The idea came to him after passing neighbourhoods full of derelict properties surrounded by brown, waist high grass and weeds. According to the president of the nascent Hantz Farms, Mike Score, Mr Hantz stepped in when he realised the city was not going to do anything about it.

Planting, which will eventually include seasonal produce, pumpkins and trees, is to begin as early as this spring on nearly 30 hectares of land on Detroit's lower east side. "We're optimists. I wouldn't even say [the city is] down on its luck. We're simply going through a transition. The expansion of available land and the restructuring of wage rates make urban agriculture more achievable," Mr Score said.

"The farm will beautify the city, will be creating jobs and supply local produce," as well as greening blighted communities, he said. Any revitalisation, however, will have to account for the decline of the so-called "big three" - Ford, Chrysler and General Motors - that battered Detroit and all of south-east Michigan. Ford has remained on its feet but both Chrysler and GM filed for bankruptcy last year.

According to Brian Holdwick, head of business development at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, manufacturers have already begun to diversify, moving from the car industry to green technologies and defence contracts. "Detroit has a wealth of assets - a lot of old industrial facilities, the workforce and the infrastructure - to support these new industries. We have to expand and diversify our industry," Mr Holdwick said.

"It's all manufacturing whether it be cars or turbines. It's putting things together. We are the best at it," he said. "And it won't take long for us to be the best at that as well." Mr Holdwick cited one manufacturer, W Industries, which had already transitioned profitably from car parts to defence and aeronautical contracts. Others are moving towards green technologies, focusing on solar and wind power. General Electric is investing $100m in a new wind turbine facility just outside the city, that will provide jobs for more than 1,000 people.

There is also a great deal of state and federal money coming in as part of the Recovery Act and the 2010 budget's investment in clean energy technologies and infrastructure. In addition to agriculture and industry, various art projects are playing a part in the revitalisation effort. The Heidelberg Project, a street-long art installation of decorated houses and postmodern statues made from recycled goods, has survived for more than two decades and is expanding, bringing colour and life to one of the city's ghettos.

"[Heidelberg] is resisting the downturn," said Lisa Rodriguez, one of the project's artists, as she repaired a vandalised sculpture. "The big three is gone but Heidelberg is still taking punches." Other artists recently developed a more political project called Ice House Detroit, which they describe as an "architectural installation and social change programme". The installation involves one of Detroit's many abandoned homes entirely covered in a thick layer of ice.

Michigan has also made an effort to lure more lucrative contracts with the arts and entertainment industry. A two-year-old law granting up to a 42 per cent tax credit for production costs inside Michigan has brought in some big Hollywood studios. The 2010 remake of Red Dawn, expected to be a blockbuster, was shot in the city last fall. Mr Kenyatta, the councilman, believes that a strong entertainment sector is one of the keys to turning the city around. "We have to redefine ourselves away from the car industry. One of the things we have to look at is the entertainment industry as a whole," he said, noting the importance of film, art projects, digital media and music.

A number of philanthropic foundations and private donors are also doing their best to rebuild and beautify the city. Around $125m has been raised for a light rail system down one of the city's chief arteries. And tens of millions more have been invested in cleaning up and developing the city's riverfront. Whether these new programmes and projects will be enough to resuscitate Detroit's dying economy remains to be seen. The city's population has been cut in half - from nearly two million to under 900,000 - since its heyday and few expect a full-scale recovery of population or prosperity.

Past efforts to rebound from race riots, the oil crises of the 1970s, the introduction of Honda and Toyota into the US car market and the SUV bubble never succeeded in finding a sustainable way forward. Moreover, the federal government through bailouts, buyouts and stimulus cheques has poured billions of dollars into the city since 2008, and the situation has not improved. According to preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment jumped four per cent in Detroit last year. And despite rock bottom house prices and more than $100m in neighbourhood stabilisation and rehousing money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2009, the housing market and foreclosure numbers have yet to turn around.

Mr Holdwick acknowledged that there is no "silver bullet" to fix Detroit, but he offered a positive forecast for the city. "Twenty years from now I think you'll see Detroit with numerous, strong neighbourhoods with diverse people living in them, a diverse industrial base - downtown as a thriving centre [and] a riverfront with significant development." But the city, which remains one of the nation's most dysfunctional, clearly has a long way to go before it matches that picture.

Mr Kenyatta said that tough decisions had to be made, adding that he felt compelled to remain positive about that future. "I have to be optimistic or I'll go under," he said. "If you're not optimistic you throw your hands up and you drown." * The National