Paul Harris visits Detroit which, only five years ago, went bankrupt and sees how abandoned properties are now part of the city’s success
THEY call Detroit the ‘comeback city’ — and for good reason. Just five years ago, this Michigan metropolis went bankrupt to the tune of $20 million.
Companies abandoned their premises and there were boarded-up, decaying buildings everywhere.
Entire areas resembled ghost towns as vast numbers lost their jobs and people were forced to leave their homes they could no longer afford, or on which they could not pay the mortgage.
But city officials were in denial and residents refused to concede that Detroit was down and out.
And today they have fought back and made a virtue of the empty buildings and the vast, abandoned industrial sites.
Many were snapped up cheaply and they now represent the new face of Detroit, with restaurants, bars, clubs and hotels springing up all over the place.
Detroit is back and it’s not so much a case of in with the new as making practical use of the traditional and the old.
Greektown is thriving. Originally the area where immigrant Germans settled, today it throngs with Greek restaurants.
The Atheneum Suite Hotel, itself in Greek style, opened in 1992 in what is a converted warehouse, very close to the Comerica Park and Ford Field stadiums.
The former is home to the Lions football team and the latter, the Tigers baseball team.
The Atheneum offers huge-sized bedrooms, all different and utilising to full advantage the vast pillars running the full depth of the building and its quirky nature as a former warehouse.
The hotel owners also run two Greek restaurants, Pegasus Taverna and Santorini, both minutes walk away.
The latter offers a modern take on Greek cuisine, while the former is very traditional.
The area, like much of Detroit has evolved from his roots. Originally where German immigrants settled, they were replaced by newly -Greeks.
There are some superb examples of art deco design throughout the city, but contrast that with the ultra-modern General Motors building on the waterfront where cruise ships dock.
There’s a tunnel under the Detroit River which leads directly to Windsor, in Canada, on the opposite side.
It is, apparently, the only such crossing from one country to another anywhere in the world.
There’s a historical marker, reminding visitors of Detroit’s European beginnings.
Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac left Montreal with a convoy of 25 canoes on June 5, 1701, landing on what is now Gross Ile, 16 miles from Detroit, on July 23, planting the French flag to claim the territory, then pronounced ‘deytwoi’.
Detroit was central to a financial crisis far worse than that it suffered in 2013.
The cathedral-like Union Trust Company building, erected in 1896, is said to have played its part in the stock market crash of 1929 because the Trust was paying shareholders overly high dividends.
Another nod to the traditions of the city is The Belt, an alleyway so named because it was the former garment district and now festooned with murals and a variety of bars and restaurants.
The Downtown Synagogue, established in 1921, is the last remaining shul building in Detroit.
Its multicoloured stained glass frontage is an easily recognisable landmark on a fairly drab street.
It achieved fame in 2002 when it featured in the film 8 Mile, based loosely on upbringing of Eminem in Detroit, and in which he stars alongside Kim Bassinger
Today, about 116,000 Jews live in Metro Detroit.
The first recorded Jewish resident was Chapman Abraham, a fur trader who arrived from Montreal in 1762.
In the 1980s many Russian Jews arrived in Metro Detroit community helped thousands of these Soviet Jews travel to Michigan.
The Bonstelle Theatre was originally the Temple Beth El Synagogue.
The domed building, in Woodward Avenue, owes its origins to the Beth El Society which formed its own congregation in 1850.
Its growth led to the opening of the Woodward Avenue synagogue in January, 1903.
The boards of the Bonstelle Theatre have been trodden by actors like George Seaton, the eventual voice of the Lone Ranger and Sidney Blackmer who starred in Rosemary’s Baby.
A neat way to get around downtown Detroit is via the People Mover, a near-three mile driverless monorail train that operates in a loop.
Motorheads continue to make a bee-line for the Henry Ford Museum and other sites associated with the automobile industry while the former Motown studios, where the label began, is a must for fans.
The old argument about whether Henry Ford was antisemitic and racist persists. No-one will ever truly knows.
He employed Jews in the early days, when many wouldn’t.
Ford would surely be turning in his grave if he could see the so-called ‘Rosa Parks bus’ in the museum he built in 1929 on the site of his automobile plant.
Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress, boarded that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955 and her “singular act of disobedience” that day is credited, among others, by President Barak Obama, with launching the civil rights movement.
Rosa was returning from work when she boarded the segregated city bus and took a seat near the middle, just behind the front ‘white’ section.
At the next stop, more passengers got on. With every seat in the ‘white’ section occupied, the bus driver, in accordance with the segregation law, ordered the black passengers in the middle row to stand so a white man could sit. Rosa refused.
Her subsequent arrest sparked mass protests and black residents of Montgomery boycotted public buses for 381 days, America’s first major demonstration against segregation.
This led the US Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation on public buses in Alabama and encouraged more non-violent protests in other cities, bringing to the public’s notice a young Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr as a leader of the civil rights movement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed — the greatest social revolutions in modern American history.
Ford died in 1947 and the museum acquired the bus in September, 2001.
He may have been a racist, but Ford wanted to make history available to the masses, but not conventional history.
He believed it was important that his museum reflected the history of everyday life.
He felt that history did not teach about the lives of everyday people.
He thought that real history was about ordinary people and how they needed to be resourceful to make ends meet,
Ford collected trains, planes and cars — in fact anything that had an impact on daily life.
One of the first sights at the Henry Ford Museum, on the site of the Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Michigan, is the Hall of Innovation, opened in 1929 by Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light and the phonograph, one of Ford’s friends.
The original spade, used for the ceremony the previous year, is set in concrete, as is Edison’s signature.
The interior deliberately resembles Independence Hall in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
A copy is displayed at the Henry Ford. The museum is a unique cornucopia.
Inside can be found everything from American presidential limousines, including that in which John F Kennedy was travelling when he was assassinated in Dallas, in 1963, and those belonging to Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, to planes, steam engines and the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was sitting when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, in 1865.
On the latter can still be seen blood and hair oil. The world’s oldest existing steam engine, built in Britain in the 1740s, is also there in all its glory.
It was used originally to extract water from a Cornish tin mine.
An elevated walkway allows a bird’s eye view of the present day car assembly plant in full operation.
Workers carry on their tasks as visitors watch current Ford models taking shape, very much in the way Henry Ford innovated, but using modern techniques.
In 1915, a Model-T could be assembled in 93 minutes, no mean achievement at the time.
Between 1908 and 1927. up to 17 million were produced.Today, 1,000 workers make 60 trucks an hour.
Each day, in the car park, a Model-T is assembled and then taken apart, using some of the tools originally used to build it.
There’s a picture of Henry Ford with Thomas Edison with the first Model-A to come off the production line.
Edison, apparently, asked Ford if it could be made into a convertible. His old friend sent it back and it became a soft top.
The Legacy Gallery features historic vehicles manufactured at the Rouge, including the V-8, the classic Thunderbird and the Mustang.
The Rouge takes its name from the river which runs through Detroit, a city founded by the French.
In all, there are 26 million artefacts in the museum, only about 60 per cent of which are displayed
Outside is as fascinating as the interior.
Ford purchased the 80-acre Greenfield Village and filled it with an assortment of buildings, uprooted from throughout America and beyond, all of which have historic associations.
There’s the courthouse where the young Abraham Lincoln practised law; the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop and home, which was bought and moved by Henry Ford in 1937 from Dayton, Ohio; Ford’s own childhood home, which he had furnished exactly as it was in 1863, and the prototype garage where he built the Ford Quadricycle.
There’s a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory complex from New Jersey, laid out according to the exact measurements of the original site and furnished with genuine or faithful duplicates, all placed as they were originally. Ford apparently surprised Edison when it was completed, taking him inside and asking if he remembered it.
There’s a cottage, moved in its entirety from the Cotswolds in the 1930s, because Ford’s wife Claire fell in love with it during a visit to Britain. London is recalled with Sir John Bennett’s jewellery shop.
Visitors can see, too, the Scottish Settlement School, attended by Ford a mile and a half away in the Dearborn Township.
Even the ever-popular Heinz Foods is remembered.
The original building where Henry Heinz produced horseradish is sited at the Greenfield Village.
I was driven round the site in a 1914 Model T Ford, the car which put the company firmly on the map.
Visitors can also enjoy this unique experience in any one of numerous, original vehicles.
They are the only ones allowed on site during opening hours.
One word of warning... tradition dies hard at the Ford plant.
If you’re arriving by car, Fords park to the left of the green line in the car park, other marques to the right.
The reason? It means that non-Ford drivers have further to walk.
Allow a full day for the Rouge plant and museum tour.
To do full justice to the Greenfield Village requires another day, although it is feasible to manage the two in one visit, but it means being fairly speedy.
There is a solution though... naturally, thanks to Henry Ford.
In 1930, he was awaiting visitors at Ford Airport in Dearborn and realised the nearest place to stay was in Detroit.
Thus, the Dearborn Inn was born and incorporated everything Ford believed a modern hotel should feature.
That included Georgian architecture, his second love next to transportation.
The 230-room hotel remains a five-star property and includes 10 Colonial-style homes, painstakingly built replicas of the homes of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and other celebrities.