How the city can teach us to reinvest the rest of the U.S. economy
In August, a year after I wrote a TIME cover story on Detroit’s bankruptcy, I visited Motown again. This time I found myself reporting on a remarkable economic resurgence that could become a model for other beleaguered American communities. Even as Detroit continues to struggle with blight and decline–more than 70,500 properties were foreclosed on in the past four years, and basic public services like streetlights and running water are still spotty in some areas–its downtown is booming, full of bustling restaurants, luxury lofts, edgy boutiques and newly renovated office buildings.
The city struck me as a template for much of the postcrisis U.S. economy–thriftier, more entrepreneurial and nimble. Many emerging-market cities, from Istanbul to Lagos to Mumbai, share similar characteristics, good and bad. The water might be off on Detroit’s perimeter, but migrants are flooding into its center, drawn by lower-cost housing and a creative-hive effect that’s spawned a host of new businesses.
Much of the resurgence has been led by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who a few years back decided to relocate his company’s headquarters downtown, moving from the suburbs to take advantage of the city’s postcrisis “skyscraper sales,” as well as the growing desire of young workers to live in urban hubs. “If I wanted to attract kids from Harvard or Georgetown, there was no way it was going to happen in a suburb of Detroit, where you’re going to walk on asphalt 200 yards to your car in the middle of February and have no interaction with anyone in the world except who’s in your building,” says Gilbert, 52.
Since 2010, Gilbert has created 6,500 new jobs downtown, bought up tens of thousands of square feet of cheap real estate and brought in 100 new business and retail tenants, including hot firms like Twitter, as well as a bevy of professional-services firms. Lowe Campbell Ewald, one of General Motors’ advertising agencies, recently moved back downtown after years in the suburbs, citing better client-recruitment possibilities there. Companies of all types are catering to a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are making the most of cheap real estate (Quicken subsidizes rents and mortgages) and local talent (southern Michigan still has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of industrial-product designers) to create new businesses. For instance, there’s Chalkfly, a dotcom that sells office and school supplies online, and Shinola, the cult-hit watch company that advertises $600 timepieces as “made in Detroit.” Their success is already raising rents–per-square-foot rates have doubled in the past four years–and bringing in tony retail brands like Whole Foods.
The question now is how to spread the prosperity. The answer starts with better public transportation. Motown has always been a disaster in this respect. It used to be that nobody wanted to go downtown; now nobody wants to leave. The M-1 Rail, a new public-private streetcar due to be completed in 2016, aims to link neighborhoods. GM, Penske, Quicken and other firms are contributing the majority of its $140 million cost, and the rail will be donated back to the city within a few years. Studies show that a similar project in Portland, Ore., has generated six times its cost in economic development. In the past few months, officials from New Orleans and Miami have visited Detroit to study the project.
Reinventing Detroit’s manufacturing sector is the next step. That means connecting the dots between the public and private sectors, businesses and universities, and large and small firms. Detroit’s old industrial model was top-down: the Big Three dictated terms to thousands of suppliers, who did what they were told. The new model will be more collaborative. Many of the innovations in high-tech materials, telematics and sensors are happening on campuses or at startups, with the aid of groups like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The University of Michigan has become a test bed for driverless cars. A new federally funded $148 million high-tech manufacturing institute just opened in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
One could imagine the automakers playing a key role in this resurgence by investing more broadly in local innovation, via their own venture-capital arms. Ford, which acquired a local digital-radio technology startup last fall, is beginning to do just that. It would provide a much needed injection of cash into the city’s innovation economy and offer the automakers a new line of business.
Ultimately, it will take all that and more to ensure that Detroit’s downtown rebirth grows into a boom that is more broadly shared.
This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.