Rebirth of a City: Detroit Tries Again
And this time it just may succeed--really
DETROIT--When 87-year-old Tiger Stadium--which saw the likes of Ty Cobb make baseball history--closed last month, it was almost business as usual. Just another landmark among the many that have crumbled in Detroit over the past 30 years. But this time, the end of an era may signal the start of a better one: When baseball season resumes next spring, the Tigers will play in a new stadium and, to some extent, a new city.
For years, Detroit has been virtually synonymous with urban distress. Racial strife, municipal waste, joblessness, crime. Name an urban ill, and Detroit had it. But all of a sudden that's changing. After years of one failed urban-renewal plan after another, experts are saying this city that couldn't has its best shot yet of rebounding since being battered by race riots in 1967. Crime's down. Employment's up. The auto plants--the city's biggest employers--are humming. And Detroit's long-dead downtown is alive again: Once vacant buildings now house lofts and artists' studios. Chic eateries are opening, music joints are hopping, and the entertainment district is in full swing. "If Detroit is coming back, it shows American cities at large are coming back," says Mayor Dennis Archer.
In the summer, MGM Grand opened a $225 million casino downtown--the first of several, which are expected to hire 11,000 permanent employees and attract 20 million visitors annually. The city is guaranteed 9.9 percent of the casinos' annual net revenues, which gaming officials estimate could eventually top $1.5 billion.
Moving back. General Motors Corp. has transferred hundreds of workers from other offices to its downtown headquarters, and Compuware Corp., a $1.7 billion software company, plans to move its headquarters--and 6,000 jobs--from the suburbs to a mammoth $1.2 billion housing and office complex dubbed Campus Martius being built near Comerica Park, the Tigers' new home. What's going on? "Detroit is the next city of the new millennium," says booster La-Van Hawkins, 39. Last year, he moved his restaurant firm, which owns seven Burger Kings and 89 Pizza Huts locally, to Detroit from Baltimore. The business mogul says the billions being pumped into new development persuaded him to relocate.
He's not alone. Downtown office space is now at a premium. Real-estate specialist Joel Feldman says the city is filling office vacancies faster than its suburbs. And businesses aren't the only ones coming back. Scott Bania is among many suburbanites contemplating a return. The 26-year-old Detroit public school teacher says he's so encouraged by the turnaround that he's considering buying a house in the city. But he had better hurry. The real-estate market is getting tighter and pricier: Since 1995, residential property values have jumped 60 percent. The city has issued more than 2,400 commercial and residential building permits since 1994; developers are planning to fix or build 1,400 houses and condos in the downtown alone.
What's more, there'll soon be hot new shopping spots, no small feat considering Detroit has seen the departure of virtually all its major retail stores since the riots. A new Kmart opened here last year, and in 2000 Kroger's will open its first food store here since leaving the city more than a decade ago.
Many credit Archer, Detroit's mayor since 1994, with helping to spark the rebirth. "I gave myself until 2001 for the city to regain its world-class status," he says. Unlike his pugnacious predecessor, Coleman Young, Archer, who is also black, maintains cordial relations with the once wary, mostly white suburbs. He also enjoys support from most of the city's blacks, although he takes hits for his perceived coziness with white business interests. But no one disputes his success, which was buoyed by the federal Empowerment Zone project, a 1994 White House initiative offering tax breaks for Detroit businesses, and similar state programs.
Kathy and Levaughn Dial are so certain Detroit's on its way back they bought a house in the heart of the city last year. Both sing the city's praises. But Levaughn, a Detroit police officer, says he'll know the job's done when the school system--which was such a mess the city took it over in March--gets high grades. If other cities' experience is a guide, that will be a lot tougher than building a baseball stadium.
This story appears in the October 25, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.