From decay and poverty to new industry and jobs, times are changing in Detroit. Dateline meets those determined the city will bounce back from bankruptcy.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - 21:32
Channel: 
SBS

The US city of Detroit has become a symbol of the global financial crisis - a once prosperous city, now in crisis with decaying buildings and rising poverty.

But there's a group of committed micro-industrialists and artists with a do it yourself attitude, who are determined the old Motor City will bounce back from bankruptcy.

From their kerbside economics to big investors looking to cash in on Detroit's rugged cool, manufacture and jobs are returning to the city, creating everything from high-end watches to urban fashion and refurbished bikes.

Aaron Lewis looks at the driving force behind Detroit's changing fortunes and asks if Motown is about to undergo a new industrial revolution.

WATCH - Click to see Aaron's story.

EXTRA - Find out more about the people and projects in Aaron's story by following the links under 'resources' on the right-hand side of the page.

URBAN EXPLORERS - Detroit is a popular city for urban explorers, each capturing the changing face of the city's buildings and landscapes in their photos. See more of their work.


Urban Explorers

Detroit is a popular city for urban explorers like Nick Sortzi in Aaron's story, each capturing the changing face of the city's buildings and landscapes in their photos.


Follow the links below to see more on their websites...

Nick Sortzi

Chris Luckhardt

dETROITfUNK

DetroitUrbex

Curbed


Pete_Detroit


Memories by Mike


Place Hacking


Resources

Transcript

When Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July, it looked like the end for one of America's most fabled cities. We all knew the old Detroit with big cars rolling off the production line with acres of chrome and of cause the catchy unforgettable Motown sound of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and many more besides. Those days are long gone but from the depths of its currents crisis, Detroit is fighting back. Here's Aaron Lewis

REPORTER: Aaron Lewis

Detroit is not an easy city to love. It has always been burning itself down. Detroit's 200-year-old Latin motto is amazingly more like a prophecy. It translates to, "We hope for better things. It shall rise from the ashes."

STEVE NEAVLING, JOURNALIST: From 7 pm to 7 am we had about 36 fires, there was about three fires on an average in an hour. There were two firefighters killed. There were two people killed in a firebombing, so it was a busy night.

REPORTER: It's amazing that in Detroit that's a busy night, not a tragic night.

STEVE NEAVLING: Yeah, I don't know if we even measure things in tragedy any more, we have lost so much. The city has been through so much.

Steve Neavling is a reporter who chronicles Detroit's many, many fires.

STEVE NEAVLING: Some people just burn their houses down other people do it for insurance cause they could never sell their home even if they wanted to, other just do it for fun and they do it for fun because they know they can get away with it.

The city is now officially bankrupt and its population is now down to half of what it was back in 1950.

STEVE NEAVLING: It's a tough city. It's a gritty city. It's a city where people love each other. It's a hard city.

Even Detroit's holy places have been reduced to rubble. People here tell me they grew up going to Saint Agnes's church. It was less than 10 years ago that the congregation shuttered its doors and already Saint Agnes is a ghost. Today urban explorers like Nick Sortzi and his friends travel from all across America to adventure by climbing inside Detroit's decaying landmarks.

NICK SORTZI: I just think it's interesting to go places not everyone goes to and see stuff not everyone sees. I like history and stuff too, so it's just like - people see this stuff but they don't know it's there and what's on the inside.

The husk of the Fisher Automotive Plant is their favourite. This industrial tightened manufactured air planes and tanks during World War I and 2. And then millions upon millions of Buicks and Cadillac's, Fords and Studebakers. Everywhere you look there's a shadow of Detroit's glory days at the centre of the world's car industry.

NICK SORTZI: It looks like an early 1900's car and it's probably a GM.

WOMAN: A different part would be put on each car and made all the way down here and then they would ship it out.

Most of the world seems to view today's Detroit as one giant scrapyard but for people like Tim Alexander, that scrap is just the beginning. I meet Tim when he pedals by on an industrial tricycle that he has just refurbished. Soon this will be the platform for a micro coffee shop on wheels. There just aren't that many jobs in Detroit, so Tim is learning to make gainful work out of what's at hand, taking pieces of Detroit's wreckage and refashioning them into something new.

TIM ALEXANDER: I started it up in the summertime and we fixed this bike before it had all this great stuff on it;it's great.

Tim is learning his trade from the Brightmoor Youth Entrepreneurship Project. A youth trade skills training program conceived and supervised by Bart Eddy.

BART EDDY: Many people would say, oh there's no work in Detroit. Detroit, on the contrary, there is an endless amount of possibilities in this city. For the restoration and reclaiming of the city.

Bart calls this curb-side economics. No task too small to galvanise industrious thinking. The first products Bart's trainees made were simple wooden signs like these.

BART EDDY: The great thing about this is he's learned the basic woodworking skills and so he is getting paid for this job he's working on. He can make approximately $10 a letter. So he's got himself $60 right here he can work on.

Beyond the woodworking and the bike repair, there's also a community gardens project. And even a fashion micro brand called DCH Apparel and produced just down the hall.

YOUNG MAN: Just trying to do something right for the city, pretty much.

REPORTER: And how is making T-shirts doing something good for the city?

YOUNG MAN: Keeping the kids out of trouble.

BART EDDY: We have to awaken young people to a larger dream. That's the dream of the transformation of their community and what their city might become, could become. I love these kids, they're the only reason I walk through this door every morning. In the midst of the old institutions crumbling and falling apart, there's only one reason that I come through here - it's when I see the kids every morning and you know, yes I do - I love them deeply.

Love is not a word that I expected to hear constantly in a place with as many rough edges as Detroit. But I heard the words 'love' and 'Detroit' together a lot. Even here where Tim lives in one of the poorest postcodes in America.

TIM ALEXANDER: I love this place. It ain't all bad.

What it takes me a while to realise is where I see a burned out building, Tim sees opportunity. He believes that the people that love Detroit can restore it.

TIM ALEXANDER: I really think they can if they actually put their effort into it and put their everything into it. The money into it. The heart into it. Because, I mean, it's worth it. Back in the day, everybody used to love Detroit.

And it's not just locals that feel this way. Amy Kaherl is not from here but she's made it her business to bank on that spirit.

AMY KAHERL, DETROIT SOUP: I've never felt love like I felt when I walked into this city. I love going to the doctor's office and the guy who is taking your blood is talking to you about baseball on a really human level. I thought if I would have driven eight miles north this conversation and warmth never would have happened.

Amy runs Detroit Soup, it's a monthly dinner where strangers who love Detroit give other strangers who lovw Detroit money from their own pocket to help make the city a little better.

WOMAN: You get great people, you get great food, you get great community, it's an amazing opportunity.

For a $5 entry fee, you get a bowl of soup, a crust of bread and one vote. The vote is for which community improvement project should take on the door money?

AMY KAHERL: These presenters get four minutes to share their idea, afterwards we eat, we share, connect, share resources, talk to strangers, and then we vote. Whoever has the votes at the end of the night wins the money from the door.

MAN: We have a master lock that is 50% harder than any lock that was ever created.

One idea is to develop a better lock for houses in unsafe neighbourhoods. Another is to buy the most disadvantaged schoolchildren clean new uniforms.

WOMAN: I have a child, he is eight. I'm a single mum and I know how much it casts to buy uniforms and a lot of parents can't do that.

And two young men get up to present a plan to build bus stop benches with books stacked inside, to make better use of the time spent waiting on Detroit's bankrupt public transport system.

YOUNG MEN: We make benches out of recycled wood and it is like the adaptable reuse that is trending here in the city where you take something that comes from abandoned houses, and then creating something out of it.

And it's this idea of a do it yourself replacement for the city failing infrastructure that resonates with the crowd. So, Karl and Charles are handed the paper bag stuffed with bills.

CHARLES: We have $1200. That's like 40 benches we can build.

Detroit Soup has helped launch a number of good ideas. One with The Empowerment Plan, a social start-up that's employing women from shelters to sell winter coats for the homeless. Coats designed to double as a sleeping bag for cold nights spent out on the streets.

SHARONDA BROWN: A lot of people are sleeping on the streets and it's so cold. And this is a brilliant idea. This is a brilliant idea. It's a simple idea. And why didn't I think about it a long time ago, that's what I keep thinking, why didn't someone think about this a long time ago?

Sharonda Brown had not had a job for five years until she was hired here two weeks ago, straight out of a Detroit shelter. She thinks of this job as a gift.

SHARONDA BROWN: It really is the best time of my life and I have a birthday coming up - I'll be 50 soon.

It's clear that small changes are happening everywhere in Detroit. But big changes, those take big money. But even that has started to come to town. Inside this old GM building is a company that's been putting a very specific question to focus groups across the country.

BRIDGET RUSSO, SHINOLA: I asked the question if all other factors were the same except for price - one was made in America and one was made in China and the other made in Detroit - what would you pay more for? In the end Detroit won out. If it was just between made in China and made in the USA, they went with Made in China. I think what has been happening with the whole Made in America stamp, is that people are a little unsure exactly what that means. When you say Made in Detroit, that's making it specific and that makes it real.

The company is Shinola, they make rustic goods like leather bound books and they're producing the first watches manufactured in America in almost half a century. Shinola's watch factory is no small investment. The company is gambling heavily on the hope of successfully marketing the indefinable Detroit field.

BRIDGET RUSSO: I guess the best thing I could say is Detroit has swagger and it has many things that cities like New York have lost. New York has turned into something very different than the grittiness that it had before and if you're used to that, you miss that.

With these first faint signs of a resurgence, developers are now circling Detroit's prime properties, like this one, the lot of the old packer plant. Steve Neavling is cautiously calling it a comeback. He sees this city's future as being one of both great opportunity and great need.

STEVE NEAVLING: There's two Detroits right now, you have a Detroit where you have a lot of underserved people who have been living here their entire lives and then you have a younger class moving in, a creative class moving in and they have more money. It's going to take a long time. If we want to measure Detroit's success, we have to look at both successes - not just of the creative class but also the people who have been here for so long and have stayed here for so long and been through the riots and have been through the fires and the murders and the deaths and stuck around.

There are big bets being made right now on whether Detroit is going down or coming up. If you glanced at any one of Detroit's streets you'd have good reason to bet against it but then you might miss the one vital thing Detroit is relying on to rebuild, something it always had plenty of - Detroit's got soul.

ANJALI RAO: The spirit of Detroit - something so inspiring rising from the ashes. Go to our website to find out more about the people in that story, including the urban explorers combing the ruins.

Reporter/Camera/Editor
AARON LEWIS

Producers
AARON THOMAS
ASHLEY SMITH

Original Music Composed by

VICKI HANSEN

19th November 2013