Detroit is working again

Despite big problems, the city that sums up American success and failure is looking pretty positive

The seal of Detroit, created after it burned to the ground in 1805, anticipated the way despair and determination would vie ever after for the city’s future. One woman weeps beside burning buildings while another next to her, smiling, is flanked by a grand, flame-free Detroit. “We hope for better things,” sighs one motto, in Latin. “It will arise from the ashes,” insists the other.

The arising-from-the-ashes moment has been heralded at intervals for a long time. “There is little doubt that Detroit has turned the corner on some of its most obvious problems,” reported the Washington Post back in 1980. “Middle-class whites are moving back into the city, and a visitor senses a new vitality downtown.” Yet in the decades ahead lay the exodus of hundreds of thousands more residents, more declarations of renaissance and, in 2013, America’s biggest municipal bankruptcy.

That history is chastening. Let it be said that Detroit has not turned the corner on all its obvious problems, including a high crime rate and beleaguered schools. But determination has clearly gained the upper hand. Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (whose biggest shareholder, Exor, also part-owns The Economist’s parent company) are making big bets on Detroit, as are Amazon, Google and the developer Stephen Ross. Under Mayor Mike Duggan, in his tenth year, the government has courted investment by offering itself not just as provider of tax incentives and expediter of permits but as real-estate agent and hr department.

Stellantis built the first new auto-assembly plant in Detroit in more than 30 years—a $1.6bn investment, constructed as the pandemic raged—after the city traded 200 acres for a promise to give residents first crack at the jobs. Then the city screened candidates, testing them in maths and reasoning, as well as for drugs, offering tutoring to those who needed it. Of 30,000 Detroiters referred by the city, Stellantis has hired some 8,600, at the plant and elsewhere. “It didn’t do me any good to land a plant in Detroit and hire a bunch of suburbanites,” says Mr Duggan, a practical, old-school liberal in the mould of Joe Biden, to whom he is close. “My job was to get Detroiters to work.”

By the beginning of the year, Detroit’s unemployment rate had dropped below 7% for the first time since 2000. Mr Duggan boasts that “at this point, anybody in this city who wants to work has a job available.” With tax receipts running well ahead of forecasts, the city is applying its federal covid-relief money—more than $800m—to improving its public spaces and its workforce. It is offering full-time jobs, with benefits, at tasks like cutting grass, but letting workers spend two out of five paid days in apprentice programmes for higher-skilled work.

No American city is more haunted than Detroit by America’s successes and failures—by American capitalism’s power to create and destroy, and by American democracy’s capacity to promise opportunity to all yet deny it by race. The city’s conflicting legacies burden it but also sustain it, giving it a grip on Americans’ imagination no other city can match. “I think across the country folks believe the people of Detroit didn’t deserve what happened,” Mr Duggan says. “There’s been no shortage of people willing to help.”

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