Once called “the Paris of the Midwest”, the shining and magnificent empire of Detroit has been setting a record as one of the fastest declining cities in the nation. Detroit has experienced so many natural and man-made disasters – from fires to severe economic downturns – that the most important moment shaping the city’s identity have been defined by crisis.

When urban planners were still planning this city in 1805, a huge fire broke out which burned the most parts of the city [1]. In 1950 during post-war time, the city lost thousands of jobs mostly due to increased automatization in the car industry [2]. Amidst all this, the factories of the automobile industry — the driving sector of Detroit’s economy — left the city one by one, in search of competitive labor costs, eventually causing a process of urban decay that took hold of the city in the 1960s [2].  Debt accumulated to the point where the city had to file bankruptcy in 2013, then labeled as among the cities with the most debt in U.S. history [3].


Fig. 1: A building corroding in downtown Detroit- These scenes makes people think dowtown Detroit is now a shadow of its former self, Rex Features (2013) [1].
Due to the shrinking that these major events caused, many residents had to leave Detroit. Dating back to the time when the Great Fire broke out, there were only 600 “villagers” [1]. Beginning in the 1930s, as the city prospered with the emergence of automobile industry, more people flowed into the city to find jobs  resulting in the city recording its largest population in the 1950s. Yet, when industry began to leave the city from 1960s on, so did the Detroiters who lost their jobs. Today, Detroit has less than half of its 1950s population.

Fig. 2: Detroit’s Population from 1840 to 2012 [2]

Revival from the Ashes

Yet, amidst these destructive events – from the Great Fire to the city’s abandonment by the automotive industry — Detroiters always have developed new perspectives of looking at their shrinkage. An architect from Detroit, Mark Nickita states that the city is not necessarily shrinking, but rather “transforming” itself within its history as all cities do [6]. Detroit is now in the spotlight for its potential to be used by young generation of college graduates eager to contribute to remaking the city [7]. Also, increasing numbers of artists are gathering in downtown Detroit to practice their work. Shrinking does not always mean failure, and can actually open opportunities to a new era of city-making and city-life.  Even though some reformation of infrastructure may be necessary, “Detroit is not barren” [8].

Recent statistics show that many young people are moving into downtown Detroit, which is apt to accept more population. Currently, this area is occupied by only 700,000 residents whereas it was originally designed for two million: it has plenty of infrastructure that can be still used [8].  Some speculate that the downtown can be a great growing home for those starting work in start-up ventures or small businesses, in particular local college graduates [8].


Ohio Went Bankrupt, Too

One of Detroit’s neighboring cities, Cleveland, Ohio also faced an economic bankruptcy in 1978 under mayor Dennis Kucinich [9]. It had $15.5 million of debt from banks and ranked as the first city to go into bankruptcy after the Great Depression [9]. Cleveland was under its debt for 9 years, at which point, the city was in more than $30 million debt and remained in the default state until 1987 [9]. Cleveland’s main reason for the economic crisis is thought to have been the mismanagement of public finances. Among the strategies that Cleveland took to recover from its economic downturn were mega-projects, tourist attractions and sports facilities: the city government facilitated the private construction of high-budget landmarks such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a new football stadium [4].

Detroit can learn a lot from Ohio’s case since the two cities have a lot in common. Both are located in the Midwest and have big universities nearby: University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Wayne State University near Detroit and Case Western University in Ohio. If the cities can meet the needs and benefits of recent college graduates and offer them a favorable environment to start jobs and businesses, those young people can contribute to a revival of the local economy. Even though this is not a cure-for-all, having construction projects sometimes helps to revitalize the economy since it creates massive jobs: Cleveland, for example, was able to boost its economy by building two iconic buildings [9]. If Detroit’s government succeeds in targeting young people’s needs and wisely deciding on its city projects, it will soon exit its downturn.


Works Cited

  1. “Great Fire of 1805”. (n.d.). Retrieved March 05, 2016, from
  2. Anatomy of Detroit’s Decline. (2013, December 8). Retrieved March 09, 2016, from
  3. Bomey, N., Priddle, A., & Snavely, B. (2013, December 03). Detroit Becomes Largest U.S. City to Enter Bankruptcy. Retrieved March 09, 2016, from
  4. Benedictus, L. (2013, July 19). Detroit has gone bankrupt, but it’s not the first place to do so. The Guardians. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from
  5. Detroit’s Population from 1840 to 2012 [Photograph found in Community Regeneration in Detroit, Michigan, Museum of the City]. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  6. Benfield, K. (2011, June 10). Detroit: The ‘Shrinking City’ That Isn’t Actually Shrinking. The Atlantic. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from
  7. Daskalakis, G., Waldheim, C., & Young, J. (2001). Stalking Detroit. Barcelona: Actar.
  8. Detroit Future City 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan. (2013). Detroit, MI: Inland Press.
  9. Neff, M. M. (2013, July 19). Cleveland and other cities have felt Detroit’s bankruptcy pain. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from

List of Figures:

  1. Benedictus, L. (2013, July 19). Detroit has gone bankrupt, but it’s not the first place to do so. The Guardians. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from
  2. Detroit’s Population from 1840 to 2012 [Photograph found in Community Regeneration in Detroit, Michigan, Museum of the City]. (n.d.). Retrieved from