Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright

How a grassroots movement of young entrepreneurs and faith-based leaders are kickstarting the Motor City’s urban renewal.

GHOST TOWN: The abandoned ruins of Detroit's once-bustling Packard Auto Plant.

Over the last month in Detroit, the blighted Motor City has recaptured a bit of its civic pride with the success of two of its pro sports franchises. The winning ways of the Tigers (who went deep into the American League baseball playoffs) and the Lions (who started the NFL season 5-0) are exhilarating.

Sports teams can serve as symbols of hope for big cities, and at least for a moment their accomplishments helped take the focus off of Detroit’s primary narrative these days — its anguished economy and decaying manufacturing sector.

The excitement over homeruns and touchdowns is a welcome distraction, but the ubiquitous ruins of what used to be a vital and bustling industrial hub is still a more accurate measure of the city’s current fortunes.

Take, for example, the sprawling remains of the Packard auto plant. It can be seen spilling over East Grand Boulevard — east of Mt. Elliot and south of I-94 — its missing windows like a large gaping grin. On any given day, the Packard Plant is host to filmmakers, urban explorers, and photographers alike, trying to capture the beauty in decay. Unfortunately, it’s also a backdrop for car theft, prostitution, and dogfighting. Today, the abandoned plant showcases crumbling staircases and discarded property. But it wasn’t always this way.

The now lifeless automobile factory was once the pinnacle of extravagance, producing luxury cars for wealthy purchasers, both in the United States and abroad. The Packard Motor Car Company opened its doors in Detroit in 1903, the same year that Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. The company pioneered a number of design innovations, including the modern steering wheel and, years later, the first production 12-cylinder engine. At the height of its success, the plant provided more than 40,000 workers with employment.

But in 1956, only one year after auto production in Detroit soared to an all-time high, the Packard Plant halted production. When compared to other larger automobile companies, including the Big Three, this plant was pulling in less than 1 percent of the market share during the 1950s. Unable to compete with a slew of foreign and domestic rivals, many companies merged, disbanded, or changed location to be closer to the competition. Automation soon swept through assembly lines, replacing employees in these plants. By the 1958 recession, 20 percent of Detroit’s workforce was unemployed.

“Detroit’s economic decline began much earlier than most people think that it did,” said Daniel Clark, an associate professor of history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. “There were many contributing factors — decentralization of the auto industry, increased automation in the factories leading to fewer available jobs, even rules surrounding federal government housing loans. In actuality, the decline began right after World War II.”

Clark stressed the impact that racism and segregation played in Detroit’s economic decline. Exclusionary zoning practices reinforced economic and racial tensions in the city, and hindered many non-white Americans from moving into the suburbs. Additionally, bank redlining established standards for evaluating risks of mortgage loans. According to the standards of the Federal Homeowners Loan Corporation, black, integrated, and radically changing neighborhoods were defined as credit risks and therefore prevented occupants from obtaining federal government housing loans. Consequently, many nonwhite Americans in Detroit at this time struggled to build a life for themselves outside of poverty.

The story of Detroit’s economy is a complicated one; a story laden with corruption and racism, greed and even some technological advances that set the city back rather than propelling it forward. It’s a story of a city that failed to diversify its business portfolio, leaning too heavily on one industry.

But there’s also a secondary narrative of optimism and hope emanating from a grassroots movement of entrepreneurs. These tenacious women and men, many of them inspired by their religious faith, have refused to give up on the city.

DETROIT INNOVATOR: Margarita Barry is the founder of 71 Pop, a social entrepreneurship venture that helps creative entrepreneurs obtain their own retail spaces. Photo by Karpov The Wrecked Train (Kenny Corbin).

Young Detroiters Leading the Way

The culture of entrepreneurship in Detroit is a multifaceted and diverse. From clothing designers and fledging venture capitalists to foodies and shop owners, the Motor City is abounding with people who are striving to create their own sense of the American Dream. They’re the Grassroots Entrepreneurs — people who are organizing their businesses on the community level rather than flocking to a single industry. They’re not afraid to work from the ground up — to hang up posters, hand out business cards, and employ fundraising campaigns (like Kickstarter) to get their company going. They’re the networkers. The social media mavens. The people voted most likely to quit their day jobs.

One such example is Margarita Barry. She embarked on her first venture at the age of 18, launching a multicultural web-based and print magazine for women called Tint. Ever since then, she’s been hard at work. As a seasoned Detroit entrepreneur, Barry grasps the importance of working to create something that will positively influence the region, while also potentially generating a profit.

At the end of July, Barry opened Detroit’s first-ever collaborative pop-up retail store, 71 POP. From the beginning, Barry wanted to use this outlet to supply new designers with an affordable and hassle-free retail space to sell their products. Many of these creatives would not have otherwise had the opportunity to sell their products, had it not been for Barry’s latest undertaking.

She’s also the founder of I AM YOUNG DETROIT. More of a movement than a blog, this website offers news, profile pieces, and video media about Detroiters under the age of 40 who are shaking things up in the Motor City. It’s served as a mouthpiece and a platform for Detroit’s younger generation.

Like Barry, Ben and Dan Newman are part of Detroit’s next generation of entrepreneurs. Both brothers graduated from the University of Michigan, Ben with a master’s degree in urban planning and Dan with his bachelor’s in business. Opening a bakery was never on their agenda.

But all that changed last November when they made their first batch of bagels. “Bagels are like pizza. Everyone has an opinion on them,” said Ben. “Up until this point, no one has really experimented with bagels. We want to make bagels that you can’t get anywhere else.”

So, that’s what they set about to do. Currently, they’re baking out of their Corktown flat and selling bagels every Tuesday at the Eastern Market through their business, the Detroit Institute of Bagels. On average, they pack up about 200 bagels to bring to the market, selling out within two to three hours. Their offerings run from the traditional to the unique, from plain and poppy seed to more experimental flavors like cherry chocolate and, most recently, blueberry lime. Soon, they hope to be moving into a permanent establishment.

“It may be a small thing to offer Detroit a bagel shop, but we’re providing conveniences that weren’t available before,” said Dan. “It’s the unique spots that are going to drive visitors and residents to stay in the city.”

BAKERS' VISION: Ben Newman (left) and Dan Newman are the brothers behind the Detroit Institute of Bagels.

Similar to Barry’s vision, Ben and Dan Newman hope to use Detroit Institute of Bagels to positively influence the Detroit region. As their business grows, they plan to offer residents jobs in the company and use it as a platform for teaching and training business practices so that employees will have the skill sets needed to start their own ventures some day.

“When you open your own business, you expect the hurdles, but realize its part of getting to the goal,” said Ben. “Here in Detroit, we’re building on the businesses that are already established. The community support is unbelievable.”

TechTown, Detroit’s research and technology business park, is one such support for those looking to start their own businesses. They describe themselves as “a community of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, service providers and corporate partners,” and actively work to provide resources to fledging businesspeople and administrators through programs such as SmartStart (their business accelerator program) and NextEnergy (an alternative energy incubator). As the most prominent business incubator in the Detroit area, TechTown hopes to be one of the main driving forces of stimulating economic growth in Detroit and Michigan as a whole.

Churches in the Mix

The churches of Detroit are rising up as well to help stimulate economic growth in their community and devise ways to care for the neighborhoods around them. Rev. Kevin Turman of Second Baptist Church of Detroit spoke recently of how they’ve made a conscious decision to “adopt” the Lafayette corridor to the east of the downtown area as their geographic area of mission.

COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Detroit's Second Baptist Church, led by Rev. Kevin Turman, seeks to make vital connections with both the residents and businesses of its downtown neighborhood.

“We’re working on connecting the resources of the surrounding business community with the needs of the residents,” Pastor Turman said. “There’s been some hesitance on both sides of the equation… but we intend to [have even more community involvement] and to do better.”

Second Baptist Church of Detroit has championed for the city for more than 150 years. Prior to the Civil War, the church served as a station of the Underground Railroad, providing about 5,000 slaves with clothing, food and shelter before passing them onward to freedom in Canada. They also established Detroit’s first school for African American children; one of its members — Fanny Richards — went on to become the first African American career public school teacher in Detroit.

Second Baptist Church is located in the heart of downtown Detroit. They’re four blocks away from the landmark Renaissance Center and only five blocks away from the Detroit River. The congregation is comprised of a mixture of professional and labor workers, many who have been members for 50 years or more.

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it,” said Pastor Turman. “We are looking at our worship services, ministries, and outreach efforts to ensure that we will remain a vibrant part of Detroit’s present and future rather than a beautiful relic of its past.”

Coming Back (Like the Lions)

But the question still remains: Can post-industrial cities like Detroit pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Maybe not completely. No city can replace an entire economic infrastructure and replace tens of thousands of jobs on its own. But you have to start somewhere.

“Cities can start [repairing] roads, the water system, schools — all things that are essential to communities. It may also just be that all Americans have to learn to live with less and buy locally,” said Clark. “Detroit needs to do these things in order to strengthen its economy.”

From the era of Henry Ford and the Model T until today, Detroit has possessed a legacy of tenacity and creativity. By continuing to provide a business climate that is conducive to startups, Detroit can stimulate its business community, while providing resources to the neighborhoods within it.

At the risk of wearing out the sports analogies, perhaps the journey of the Detroit Lions can serve as inspiration. In 2008 the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16 in one season, and then a year later they could only manage a 2-14 record. Now, just two years later, they’ve gone from being the worst to one of the best teams in the league.

Now is a time in Detroit’s history for big dreams and small steps. And sometimes, all it takes is just one step to begin bringing about transformation. As the Peruvian proverb says, “Little by little, one walks far.”

About the author, Stefanie A. Bohde

Stefanie A. Bohde is a Detroit-based freelance writer, editor and blogger. She's the owner of Luminarium Studios, a full-service writing and editing company that caters to the marketing needs of small business owners. When she's not working, she enjoys listening to records, reading contemporary literature, crocheting, discovering new blends of tea, and exploring Detroit on her bike. Learn more about her writing at luminariumstudios.com.
  1. I loved your article. It was not only informative but inspirational because it captured the resilience that people have in the face of challenges. Looked forward to reading more of your articles.

  2. Enjoyed your article from blight to bright. I was looking for an article on google news about a new engine plant in Detroit when I stumbled on your site. Also have you heard of Supino pizza in downtown Detroit?
    I live in California and was born in Dearborn, MI.
    Thanks, Joe S.

  3. Hi, Darrell & Joe! Thanks for your comments. I have heard of Supino’s Pizza – my roommate just ordered pizza from them earlier this week, and let me tell you, it’s delicious!