Detroit has become an icon of the failed American city, but vast swaths of it don't look like city at all. Turn your Chevy away from downtown and the postcard skyline gives way first to seedy dollar stores and then to desolation. The collapse of the Big Three automakers has accelerated Detroit's decline, but residents have been steadily fleeing since the 1950s. In that time, the population has dwindled from about 2 million to less than half that. Bustling neighborhoods have vanished, leaving behind lonely houses with crumbling porches and jack-o'-lantern windows. On these sprawling urban prairies, feral dogs and pheasants stalk streets with debris strewn like driftwood: an empty mail crate, a discarded winter jacket, a bunny-eared TV in tall grass. Asked recently about a dip in the city's murder rate, a mayoral candidate deadpanned, "I don't mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn't anyone left to kill."
Detroit's motto, coined in 1827 to memorialize a devastating fire, translates from Latin as "We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes." But hope is in short supply. At 13%, Detroit's unemployment rate is the worst in the country among major metropolitan areas. City hall, long racked by corruption and cronyism, became a punch line last fall amid former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's imprisonment. To make matters worse, the city is struggling to bankroll potential remedies. Its projected $300 million budget deficit recently spurred ratings agencies to downgrade its municipal bonds to junk status. (See pictures of Detroit's decline.)
And yet if Detroit is the nexus of the Rust Belt's decay, it's also a signpost for where other ailing cities may be headed--and a laboratory for the sort of radical reconstruction needed to fend off urban decline. "People know that times are bad. But we're not going to roll over and die," says George Jackson, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. "To me, this is war. And I think we're going to win."
In a bid to resuscitate the economy and create jobs, developers have opened gleaming new hotels, touted investment opportunities and rolled out the welcome mat for Hollywood studios. But most residents say Detroit needs to prepare for a future that bears little resemblance to its storied past. Factories that once drove a mighty manufacturing empire are home to hordes of scavengers, who flip valuable metals for a quick buck. "We are probably not going to have 2 million people ever again," Jackson says. To "right-size" the city, as he puts it, "we're going to have to really rethink land-use policies and do some pretty bold, innovative things." (See pictures of General Motors employees.)
What would a new Detroit look like? Many say it will have to be smaller, greener and denser. The city can start with the chunks of town that have withered into wasteland. The exodus from Detroit--triggered by suburbanization and the 1967 race riots--dovetailed with the national foreclosure crisis, which has battered few cities as badly as this one. According to a regional listings service, the median home-sale price has plunged to a paltry $5,737--yet tens of thousands of dwellings stand vacant. But the "long-term perspective," says Heidi Mucherie, director of the organization leading the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign, "is that these are opportunities." It's the hopeful note sounded by Detroit's optimists: The approximately one-third of the city lying empty or unused--an area about the size of San Francisco--is not just an emblem of its corrosion but also the blank slate on which to chart a path to renewal.
The Russell Industrial Center, an Albert Kahn--designed former auto-body manufacturing plant converted into more than 1 million sq. ft. (93,000 sq m) of studio space, is one example of how to find new uses for Detroit's vacant structures. "It took us about a year before we realized we weren't going to get big manufacturers in here," says Chris Mihailovich, whose development company took over the complex in 2003. Mihailovich started leasing cavernous parcels at bargain-basement prices, and a community flourished. "This is the future: small business. The auto industry is all people knew, but it's not coming back." In the Russell's warren of dingy hallways, more than 150 artists hone their craft. Some salvage supplies and inspiration from the city's wreckage. Artist Albert Young, 57, sifts through scrap yards for metal he can assemble into sculptures--a process he calls "resurrecting refuse from another time."