Reinvention and Resoluteness: A Brief History of Detroit

Lisa Ubelaker Andrade

For a casual observer, one who blithely follows the news, the mere mention of the city of Detroit evokes images of a post-industrial landscape. Detroit, the familiar story goes, was the backbone of the U.S. industrial age, the home to the nascent automobile industry, and the celebrated ‘arsenal of democracy’ during World War II. Fifty years later, the city was the graveyard of a declining industrial era, a symbol of urban crisis. Indeed, over the last several years, the national and international press has taken interest in the tragic fate of the Motor City. While some detail the deteriorated landscape and illustrate its fall from grace with photographs of a seemingly deserted city, others have suggested it to be a space uniquely poised for reinvention and open to new investments.

Yet, as historians like Thomas Sugrue and Beth Tompkins Bates[1] have shown, the experience of crisis in Detroit has been, and continues to be, more complex than the simplistic narratives of industrial decline and burgeoning investment often allow us to believe. Terms like ‘revitalization’ and ‘urban renewal’ have complex and controversial pasts. Certainly, Detroit is a city that has lived many lives, that has been reformulated and recreated by the people and the industries that it has housed. It is, likewise, a city that has endured considerable strife, tensions, and dire inequalities, among its residents and at the hand of problematic policies. These experiences color the city’s past as much as its future, provoking ongoing questions about the moral, economic, cultural, and racial ramifications of present-day decisions. At the same time, they also underline that the singular constant in Detroit’s history has been a powerful, and sometimes painful, state of reinvention.

Even before Detroit was Detroit, it was an area of land that seemed to perpetually change hands. The frontier town, once home to a number of indigenous tribes, became a French settlement in 1701, was taken over by the British after the French and Indian War, won to the United States in the American Revolution, and briefly retrieved by the British in 1812, only to be re-incorporated into U.S. territory shortly thereafter. By the beginning of the 19th century, it was a city that would be defined by both its diversity and its spirit of resilience. When the city caught fire in June 1805, it was nearly completely destroyed. As residents worked to rebuild and develop a new, more modern urban plan, the idea of renewal became emblazoned on the city flag: “Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus,” reads the city’s prophetic motto: “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.”

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[1] Thomas Sugrue. “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.” Updated Edition. Princeton University Press, 2014; Beth Tompkins Bates. “The Making of Black Detroit in the Ages of Henry Ford.” Chapel Hill: Unversity of North Carolina Press, 2012.