Smart City

The way to revive a city like Detroit, which 150 years ago established the world’s first and largest manufacturing economy, is to rebuild from the roots of its success.
R.J. King Illustration
R.J. King

The way to revive a city like Detroit, which 150 years ago established the world’s first and largest manufacturing economy, is to rebuild from the roots of its success.

Like other older cities, Detroit was set along a major waterway to ease the movement of people and goods. What followed, in succession, were railroads, highways, runways, and now the digital highway.

While other cities expanded by mostly balancing the development of homes, stores, offices, and industrial plants, Detroit is unique. Following the Civil War, the city saw its manufacturing sector, which got its start in the 1750s when the Detroit River shoreline was dominated by shipbuilders, expand almost exponentially as the country evolved into the world’s first superpower.

To meet the demand for steel, processed metals, equipment, and engines, manufacturing plants were built on the city’s outskirts. Since there were no readily affordable cars (or paved roads) until Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, homes were built around the factories so people could walk to work.

As Detroit became the automotive capital of the world and led the nation in providing machines and armaments during a string of global conflicts, more “neighborhood” factories were built on the city’s edge. By 1925, Detroit, after annexing nearly everything in sight save for Highland Park and Hamtramck, grew to its current size of 139 square miles.

In 1940, when the federal government and Chrysler Corp. worked together to build tanks for use during what would become World War II, the plant was set along Van Dyke Avenue (M-53), north of 11 Mile Road, in Warren. The military wanted to develop the factory in Detroit, to be closer to the manufacturing supply base, but the city had no room.

In the early 1950s, as the economy transitioned to consumer demand, living near a factory became largely undesirable. Soon, a wave of people would move to the suburbs, a trend propelled by safety and a better quality of life as well as racial tensions and a city government that was so mismanaged it eventually led, in 2013, to the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the country.

When the city emerged from Chapter 9 bankruptcy in late 2014, its books were balanced, but the landscape was in dire need of repair and rejuvenation. Slowly but surely, private and public organizations began to build off denser and popular enclaves like Midtown, Corktown, and more than 20 historic neighborhoods.

And while industrial redevelopment would seem counterproductive, given the city’s history, Mayor Mike Duggan and his team, along with private developers, have been steadfast in clearing older factories and converting the land into modern logistics, light manufacturing, and production facilities. In addition, investments were made to improve the surrounding neighborhoods with new and repaired homes, storefronts, parks, and more.

Apart from drawing new tax revenue, the transformation allows people, especially those left behind by the suburban exodus, to walk to work. If the pattern continues, in the next decade or two Detroit will be built out again, only this time the landscape will be inclusive and welcoming.

The final piece of the renaissance, however, remains elusive. If businesses and organizations worked more closely with educators, our schools — and our future workforce — would be the envy of the world for decades to come.

R.J. King