The ruins of the Packard automotive plant.
I am in Detroit this week to explore a city in the midst of transformation. Detroit was the epicenter of the American technology industry in the early 1900s — the Silicon Valley of its day, where mechanical tinkerers came together to start the automobile industry. It has been a bumpy ride since then. In a sense, Detroit was a victim of its own success. Cheap mass-produced cars and an extensive freeway system built in the 1950s and 60s led to a massive outflow of population from the city of Detroit to its suburbs. Today the population is less than 40% of its 1950 peak and the city is littered with vast swaths of abandoned houses and commercial buildings, such as the Packard automotive plant pictured at the top of this post.
Population of Detroit. Data from WolframAlpha.com.
But amidst the apocalyptic landscape, there is a growing movement to revitalize the city. Artists are combating the blight of abandoned buildings and storefronts by covering them with colorful installations while high tech companies such as Quicken loans are opening offices downtown and funding organizations to nurture the next generation of tech startups. It is, of course, uncertain whether these revitalization efforts will succeed, but they are buoyed by economic forces that are spurring the growth of cities across the country: in 2011 America’s large cities grew faster than their suburbs for the first time in 100 years.
An abandoned storefront in downtown Detroit is decorated with post-it notes.