No city better epitomises the decline of the American Rust Belt better than Detroit. The heart of America’s once-thriving auto industry was once amongst the country’s most prosperous and vibrant cities. Yet in the present day, the city is a shadow of its former self, having survived devastating obstacles few American cities could even grasp. The home to all of the ‘Big Three’ automobile companies: General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, Detroit’s fate is very much intertwined with the industry, its decline having a significant ripple effect on the city.
The aftermath of the Second World War saw the city’s decline slowly begin. The city’s overwhelming reliance on the auto industry proved to be a fatal flaw, which played a major role in its downfall. While the thriving industry played a critical role in the city’s rise to prosperity, it proved instrumental in its decline. The companies, in an effort to compete with international rivals and a changing industry, began the process of decentralisation from the city, with the overwhelming majority of the city’s wealthy residents fleeing for the suburbs. This process was termed the ‘white flight,’ as it mainly saw the city’s white, upper-class residents abandon the city.
The changing face of the American auto industry had devastating effects on the city’s employment rates, with many manufacturing jobs either being outsourced or made redundant due to technological innovation. The population depleted considerably, causing huge spikes in crime and urban decay. Its population has fallen to under 700,000, a massive decrease from its peak 60 years earlier. It is estimated that there are over 70,000 abandoned buildings, 30,000 of which are homes. Detroit is also considered to have the highest crime rate out of any American city. Indeed, the city is very much a shadow of its former glories.
There are a number of factors for this. The city’s dependence on the ever-declining auto industry and persistent racial tensions are certainly the main reasons but it is still difficult to grasp how a city of such cultural and economic importance to the country has fallen so low. In 2008, the city declared bankruptcy, the largest case of its kind in American history. Although it emerged from this critical low point, it is a stark reminder of the city’s vulnerability.
Despite this, the city has shown recent signs of renewal. Although the social problems of crime and urban decay remain pressing issues, there is a more concerted effort at treating the ills than before. Many young creatives are flocking to the city due to its cheapness and its rich cultural history, particularly in the field of music – Detroit was the birthplace of Motown and techno. Furthermore, there are clearer efforts at urban renewal throughout the city. Gentrification efforts and infrastructure development are underway, with significant improvements already being noticed.
Detroit remains a critically wounded city, and it is difficult to picture it reaching the heyday of its glories at the mid-point of the 20th Century. It continues to face considerable social problems sustained from its decline. However, as the renewal efforts show, there is a sense of hope that resonates throughout the city. The survivalist instincts of its residents, who have been through so much pain, have allowed them to persevere through brutal challenges over the last few decades. There is still far to go, but the city is slowly emerging from its lowest point and beginning to thrive once again in the economic and cultural spheres. Detroit is very much a city in the midst of a Renaissance and an important symbol of human resilience.