For years the news media have revealed Detroit as nothing more than a dumping ground of endless ruin and “war-torn” neighborhoods abandoned by both businesses and residents.
In 2008, when the economic meltdown seemed to have delivered all the agony it could muster to a metropolis already stricken by decades of exploitation, there arose a heartbeat that could be heard, but not quite interpreted, by those of us who are intimately tied to the soul of Detroit urban life. A new energy, in the form of entrepreneurial flurry and grass-roots activism, was starting to reclaim the city from its troubled past.
In spite of a coast-to-coast recession and ensuing uncertainty regarding this country’s economic prospects, the core of the city center, as well as many of the city’s historic neighborhoods, have been experiencing an economic revitalization driven by private investment, philanthropy, and perseverance on the part of communities that are reshaping their existence through hard work, hope, and an ample supply of faith and effort.
The New York Times referred to this phenomenon as “a private boom amid Detroit’s public blight,” and CNN Money called Detroit “the nation’s hottest downtown.” Even as city services disappear further into the abyss, urban gentrification is full steam ahead and occupancy rates have skyrocketed to as high as 99 percent in Midtown, a place that was once designated as one of the seediest districts in the city.
Private Investment Outstripping Government Ineptness
The real story that tends to get lost in the shuffle of media melodrama is that Detroit has been able to move forward and thrive in spite of decades of government corruption, largesse, and regulatory barriers to success. Detroit is being transformed via a groundswell of entrepreneurial and grassroots efforts. Its revival has been able to advance at breakneck speed due to an inept and powerless local government that cannot possibly keep up with regulating the renaissance of entrepreneurial and community ventures that are taking root so rapidly.
The auto industry is no longer the sole savior and economic nucleus of an entire region. The Detroit economy has attracted numerous startups and venture capitalists, entire creative communities, and entrepreneurs who are competing against government in formerly public domains such as transportation and security.
Many areas of the city have become a Mecca for pop-up businesses that require under-used or empty space, low-cost real estate, and dense neighborhoods with a demand for unique retailers and services. These pop-ups help to bring innovation, stability, and, eventually, more permanent businesses to the city’s dense areas. The pop-up model allows for entrepreneurs to test the business waters with low risk and up front investment costs so that local markets can be evaluated for consumer interest and long-term viability. A January 2012 Forbes article aptly noted that Detroit is one of the best cities in the U.S. to be an enterpreneur.