Detroit, USA: Motor City makeover

Artists and innovators are breathing new life into the ruinous landscape of Detroit, writes Julie Miller.

Michigan Central Railway Station looms over Detroit's Corktown like an alien mothership, a desolate, decrepit behemoth long-abandoned behind a barbed wire fence. Once one of the most celebrated buildings in a city of architectural grandeur, this 18-storey Beaux Artes ruin is a symbol of Motor City USA's spectacular fall from grace, a Colosseum in a modern-day simulation of Ancient Rome.

This hulking carcass is just one of over 70,000 buildings abandoned and left to rot in Detroit over the past few decades. Yes, you read right - 70,000. The blight is impossible to ignore: on every city block there's a crumbling mansion, boarded-up homes or empty lots where factories once stood. The landscape is bleak, desolate, like a set from The Walking Dead; yet there's a strange, foreboding beauty in the urban decay, an aestheticism that has come to be celebrated as "ruin porn".

Approaching yet another derelict skyscraper, my friend Louis - a local journalist, Detroit born and bred - stops his car, unable to resist a closer look beyond the cyclone fencing.

"This used to be a theatre," he tells me as we peer into the exposed interior, a tip of crumbled concrete, broken floorboards and strewn rubbish. "You can see the archways and podiums. So sad. Now it's a parking lot. At least it's being used."

There's an argument that, like Rome, Detroit's implosion was inevitable, the result of being a one-trick motorised pony with a largely uneducated workforce.

Its woes date back to the devastating race riots of 1967 and the ensuing mass exodus. During the '70s, it lost the iconic Motown Records to the glittering West Coast music scene; while the decline of the car industry since the 1980s signed the death warrant for a city that once boasted the highest per capita income in the United States.

From a peak of 1,850,000 citizens in 1950, only 700,000 now call Detroit home. In the past 10 years, the black middle class - previously its mainstay - has simply packed up and left, driven away by high taxes, rampant crime and diminishing job opportunities. In March 2013, the city was officially declared bankrupt, with an estimated debt of $20 billion.

But when you've hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up: at least, that's what the ever-hopeful, determined folk of Detroit are banking on. And indeed, there are remarkable signs of recovery, particularly in Downtown and its fringes. Along the icy riverfront bordering Canada, abandoned warehouses have been slated for new condominium developments; while Corktown, once the Irish skid row of the city, is now a trendy bastion of cafes, funky restaurants, brew houses and art galleries.


From adversity comes creativity; the world-famous Heidelberg Project - a community art installation brightening the streets of one of the city's most depressed neighbourhoods - continues its artistic legacy, despite a spate of recent arson attacks; while a new program called Write-A-House will give away houses to writers in an attempt to lure new literary blood.

There is also an encouraging push towards sustainability, with an organic food movement sparked by urban farms and community gardens established on vacant lots. There are pop-up restaurants galore, including one located in an abandoned apartment block (concept: "food porn meets ruin porn"), with proceeds from sales funnelled back into the community.

"Behold the future," Louis declares as we walk from the secure parking lot (the key to the success of any new Detroit business) into Two James, a boutique distillery recently opened in a converted garage in the shadow of Michigan Central Railway Station. "This is what the world will be like after the apocalypse. We just did it first!"

Still (deliberately) somewhat of a dump on the outside, Two James is indeed representative of the "new Detroit". In the cavernous, concrete-floored tasting room, a buzzing Friday-night crowd lingers around a circular bar, sipping exotic cocktails made from house-crafted vodka, gin and bourbon.

Meanwhile, the adjoining production area - pungent with the aroma of fermenting grains - is hosting a private party celebrating the talents of a visiting master distiller and attended by young arty types with a penchant for black jeans, beanies and facial hair.

Yes, Detroit is slowly, but surely, creeping back to life . . . thanks largely to hipsters.

From a tourism perspective, this influx of lively new businesses heralds a fresh start for what is touted as "America's Great Comeback City". Every day, a new restaurant, brew house or bar opens; while ambitious upcoming projects include a new $450 million hockey arena, a $279 million expansion of the convention centre and the construction of several new hotels.

Also in the works is a $140 million light rail project, the city's first ever public transport system.

Yet it's a dark day when a city considers pawning its art treasures to help pay its debts. Valued at over $US2.5 billion, the threatened sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts' top 40 masterpieces by Van Gogh, Bruegel, Picasso, Matisse and Rembrandt may be an easy fix, but at what cost?

Creditors claim that art is not an essential city service; others argue the move is "akin to flogging the family silver" and short-sighted.

One masterpiece that would be impossible to offload, however, is Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals. Painted onto the very fabric of the DIA gallery walls in a central courtyard, this monumental fresco depicts the inner workings of the Ford Motor Company's Rouge plant during the Depression era.

Epic in scale and detail, the 27-panel masterpiece is Rivera's tribute to technology, the American working class and to the vision of his mentor, patron and unlikely friend, Henry Ford.

It took Rivera just 11 months to complete the mural, with the outspoken Mexican given no restriction other than that it depict Detroit and its industry.

It was unveiled in 1933 to howls of derision: it was accused of being "vulgar", for promoting class warfare and Marxism, and for being sacrilegious. The Detroit News ran a front-page editorial saying "the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work completely".

Fortunately, the murals soon gained acceptance and now are considered an integral part of Detroit's industrial identity.

In April 2014, the Detroit Industry Murals was honoured with National Historic Landmark status, a not-so-subtle statement that, in the eyes of the federal government at least, the work is a priceless treasure. And the DIA plans to hold a special exhibition on the works of Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo in 2015.

But while Detroit slowly reinvents itself, its classic attractions continue to be the major drawcard for visitors.

The dinky Motown Museum, located in the little house where the biggest hits of the '60s were recorded, is a time capsule of Detroit's golden age; while the expansive Henry Ford Museum, a multi-faceted complex that salutes not only the pioneers of the motor industry, but also American innovation.

Unfortunately, being located in suburban Dearborn, there is no way of getting to this museum without a car; I therefore had no choice but to bypass it in favour of more accessible attractions.

And therein lies the biggest challenge for tourists visiting Detroit: dealing with the lack of infrastructure. With no current bus or rail system (apart from a monorail that links several landmarks near the waterfront), it is near impossible to get around without a car.

There are very few taxis (I waited 20 minutes in the rain for one, and was eventually picked up by a cab who already had passengers but felt sorry for me!) and no one walks.

My hotel - the beautifully restored Inn on Ferry Street - conveniently offers a free shuttle service anywhere within an 8-kilometre radius; but my greatest asset really was having a local friend with wheels, particularly for getting around at night.

While it's certainly not a mainstream destination, Detroit will surprise, fascinate and stimulate the senses of any traveller intrepid or curious enough to take it on. It represents the worst of urbanisation and the best; the failure of the American dream, and a reawakening after the nightmare. It's infuriating, yet inspiring; heartbreaking but full of hope; flawed but unforgettable.

Rest assured, like an old Model T coming out of the workshop, Detroit is slowly but surely slipping back into gear, thanks to the passion of its restorers. Gentlemen, start your engines.

This is the Motor City, after all - and old habits die hard.

The writer travelled with assistance from United Airlines, Visit Detroit and the Inn on Ferry Street.


United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles or San Francisco, with domestic transfers to Detroit. See


Hiring a car is recommended as there is no public transport system. See


The Inn on Ferry Street offers boutique heritage-style accommodation in four restored mansions and two carriage houses. Rates start from $169 for a queen deluxe room or $239 for a suite. See