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The reinvention of Detroit is gathering momentum

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

For way too long, the Detroit narrative arced only one way – and it was down.

It’s the nation’s poorest major city. It’s home to “ruin porn,” an American affliction so fascinating to condescending Europeans. Nearly half of the city’s adults are functionally illiterate, we’re told. And economic revival of this moribund municipality is about as likely as achieving peace in the Middle East.

Except conventional wisdom can be wrong. And when it comes to Detroit, the city much of America gave up for dead, such wisdom is not only conventional. It’s badly wrong. And this year started to show just how much.

We’re a long way from the dark days of 2008, when automotive collapse bled into the Great Recession. Property values plunged. Unemployment soared. Redevelopment stalled. And the city that put America on wheels looked like its defining industry could be reaching the end of the road.

I repeat this not to open old wounds or dampen the holiday spirit. Just the opposite. It’s to remind – how far Detroit and its corner of Michigan have come, how much stronger its auto industry is, how vibrant its downtown and Midtown are, thanks to billions in private-sector investment that is changing the reality behind the narrative.

That’s not a Chamber of Commerce sales pitch. It’s true. And the pace is more likely to accelerate in the new year.

It’s true the Ilitch family’s billion-dollar District Detroit is open and just getting started. It’s true Dan Gilbert’s makeover of downtown real estate is creating a buzz of enthusiasm this town hasn’t seen in decades. It’s true construction has begun on the old J.L. Hudson’s site – nearly 20 years after the city demolished the iconic building.

Look, Detroit is legendary for two things: confrontation, and its unique brand of self-loathing. But as this year turns into next, it’s important to acknowledge how far this town has come in such a comparatively short time.

Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy just three years ago this month, and it keeps delivering balanced budgets, as it should. Wayne County was next in line, but a new county executive did what smart CEOs should: he chose competence over partisanship to assemble a crack workout team and it delivered. For way too long, that just didn’t happen around here.

Automakers rescued from collapse are profitable, tightly run and powering the region toward a tech-driven future that could recast an Old Economy industry in New Economy terms. Silicon Valley companies are beating paths to the proverbial doors of General Motors and Ford Motor because this town’s products can carry their technology.

None of this, folks, is an accident. Detroit didn’t get this far in its reinvention because taxpayers rescued GM and Chrysler or because the state Legislature agreed to fund a portion of the bankruptcy’s “Grand Bargain.”

The reason for so much success after so much failure is in people. They’re leaders at many levels who summoned the courage to break from the past, to forge a new direction, to finally say, “Enough.” It was about time.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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