The Year Detroit Was Taken Off Death Watch

Despite Detroit’s battered reputation, Matthew Newton sees the city coming out of the recession stronger than it started.


Nobody cares about Detroit. At least, that’s the current story, and has been for several years. As far as America knows, it’s a city rotten to the girders with decay and plagued by political corruption. The streets are awash in the bodies of the homeless and the desperation of the unemployed. It’s a place so far gone that even its automobile overlords turned to panhandling when the bottom dropped out of the economy. The recurrent theme here is that nothing good ever happens to Detroit, and that fascinates people.

Mostly it attracts the attention of those who have never been there. It must have something to do with memory. Perhaps people envision the city as it looked in Robocop, a dystopian metropolis so corrupted by cocaine-worshipping criminals and corporate dictatorship that only a cyborg — a man beyond human — could restore order. With such a picture in mind, it would be easy to mistake fiction for reality and never look back.

Or perhaps the fascination is just the result of repetition. So often images become gospel when viewed over and over. For example, see enough photographs of a city’s bombed-out buildings, crumbling neighborhoods, and abandoned train station and it’s bound to inform your opinion; hear the tale of a dead body found frozen in ice and it imbues a certain sense of lawlessness and despair.

Last year, in an article for The New Republic, Bruce Katz encapsulated the national fascination: “For much of the United States, Detroit has become shorthand for failure — not just because of the dilapidation of the town’s iconic industry, but because the entire metropolis seems like a dystopian disaster.”

And not only has the disaster narrative been widely embraced, it’s been propagated in the pages of publications such as Time, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, to name a few. But gawking at Detroit’s hardships begins to lose its appeal when the problems look eerily familiar. Detroit is not unlike Cleveland in the challenges it faces — high unemployment, a din of home foreclosures, and an embattled manufacturing industry. And before it reinvented itself as a hub for medical centers and higher education, Pittsburgh looked much like Detroit does now.

But according to a new report from the Brookings Institution, Detroit’s descent into the abyss may soon come to an end. “Few American metros achieved strong turnarounds, moving from the bottom 50 to the top 50 in the rankings between the recession and recovery periods, including Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis,” the report states. The same report projects that Las Vegas and Phoenix, currently in the throes of economic turmoil, are set to battle for Detroit’s pre-recession ranking at the bottom.

None of this projected data, of course, foreshadows Detroit’s metamorphosis into a city of gold. Such an ending would border on fantasy. But perhaps it will no longer be cast as the go-to example of all that went wrong in American industry over the past 25 years. After all, General Motors eked out a profit last quarter, and is closer to schlubbing its way out from under the greasy thumb of government control. Chrysler is, well, Chrysler, but it hasn’t gone bankrupt again. And Ford proved it was too proud to grovel when it refused government money, and was the first automaker to emerge from the whole mess relatively unscathed.

It’s tragic to think that as a city like Detroit begins to rehabilitate itself, other metropolitan centers must collapse. But that’s not entirely true. The fates of these cities in distress are not necessarily intertwined. Talk of trouble in the Sun Belt has been ongoing since Wall Street fell to pieces. It’s another case of too many people building too many homes at the same time, and everyone looking to cash in all at once, among other factors. And to invoke the cliché that history repeats would be unfair, because sometimes shit just goes from bad to terrible. That’s a slide the people of Detroit know well. Hopefully they’ll soon know the feeling of ascension from a troubled past.

Photo by naslrogues

Matthew Newton lives in the woods of Pennsylvania with his wife and young son. He is a contributing editor at Thought Catalog and senior editor at His writing has been published in Esquire, Spin, Good, Swindle, and XLR8R. He blogs at Annals of Americus.