Detroit: then and now

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson

I’ve found the story of Detroit to be fascinating. It’s like the rise and fall of the ancient empires we studied as schoolchildren. It’s hard to imagine that places can ‘fail’ on such a huge scale. Now, it seems to have turned a corner, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and it’s the kind of story that restores your faith in people.

The city of Detroit, in the USA, was once compared to Paris. It had a broad river, grand boulevards and historically significant architecture. Then, in the 20th century, it became ‘Motor City’. For a time, most of the world’s cars were made here. There was steady work and a good salary in the motor industry. An autoworker could own a home, plus a boat, maybe even a holiday cottage. Some say America’s middle class was born in Detroit – new highways certainly made it easy for workers to move from the city centre to the suburbs in the 1950s. But in the early years of the 21st century, Detroit became America’s poorest big city.

In less than five decades, the once vibrant Motor City lost more than half its population. It gained a reputation as a failed city, full of abandoned buildings, widespread poverty and crime. Newspapers and magazines told stories of derelict homes and deserted streets. Photographers even went especially to Detroit to record the strange beauty of buildings and city blocks where nature was taking over again. What went wrong in Detroit?

The city is now 69th in population density (people per square mile) among US cities. Detroit’s population fell for several reasons. Partly it was because people moved to the suburbs in the 1950s. Then there were devastating race riots in 1967, which scared even more people away from the city. Then there was the dramatic decline in car manufacture as companies like General Motors and Chrysler struggled to survive. And finally, in 2008, came the global financial crisis. The problem of Detroit was basic but hard to solve. Many of Detroit’s people are poor: half of the city’s households live on less than 25,000 dollars a year. They are spread across different neighbourhoods of this huge city (it’s big enough to fit in Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco).

In 2013, the city did something unusual: it declared itself bankrupt. It was the largest city bankruptcy in US history, estimated at 18-20 billion dollars. Now that the city is free of debt, it has money to do some of what needs to be done. It has replaced about 40,000 streetlights so that places feel safer. Police response time has shrunk from almost an hour to less than 20 minutes. And roughly a hundred empty houses are demolished each week to make space for new buildings. With the nation’s biggest urban bankruptcy behind it, Detroit is also attracting investors, innovators and young adventurers. New businesses have been encouraged with the New Economy Initiative. This gave grants of 10,000 dollars to each of 30 winners with ideas for small businesses. It seems that every week a new business opens in Detroit – grocery stores, juice bars, coffee shops, even bicycle makers. Finally, the city is working again.

boulevard (n) a wide street, usually with trees along the sides
derelict (adj) completely in ruins
race riot (n) violent public actions between groups of people with different racial identities
bankrupt (adj) unable to stay in business because of debts


abandoned (adj) left empty
basic (adj) not difficult to understand and with no special features
demolish (v) to destroy something completely, especially a building, in order to use the land for another purpose
deserted (adj) used to describe a place that has no people in it
devastating (adj) causing a lot of damage or hardship
failed (adj) completely unsuccessful
grand (adj) large and impressive
household (n) all the people living together in a house
shrink (v) to become less or smaller
widespread (adj) existing or happening in many places

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. Detroit is a city ...
that has had several identities.
where the population grew very rapidly.
with a massive crime problem.

2. Detroit ...
is not able to recover from its past problems.
is richer now than it has ever been.
seems to have a better future ahead.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

3. Why was Detroit known as 'Motor City'?
because of all the roads that were built
because of its connections to Paris
because of the type of industry there

4. According to the first paragraph, factory workers ...
had a high standard of living
had to travel a long way to work
took regular holidays

5. What defined Detroit at the start of the 21st century?
the suburbs

6. Which statement is true, according to the second paragraph?
The change in Detroit happened relatively quickly.
The environment was important for Detroit’s population.
The media showed a false picture of Detroit and its people.

7. Why did people leave Detroit?
Because too many people lived in the suburbs.
The motor industry moved to a new area.
There was a combination of causes.

8. The main problems facing Detroit were ...

9. How did bankruptcy affect the city?
It allowed it to make a new start.
It gave it an important place in history.
It meant Detroit could spend billions of dollars.

10. Which statement is true?
Bankruptcy makes it hard for new businesses in Detroit.
Detroit today is attractive to small businesses.
Old industries want to return to Detroit.