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Trends that defined Detroit in the 2010s

Emergency management, downtown’s revival, and scooters—here are eight trends during a period of great change for Detroit

As the end of the 2010s draws near, we’ll be recapping the decade through articles on some of the biggest topics and trends that shaped Detroit during that time.

The 2010s were a time of great change in Detroit. In 2013, the city went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Soon after, a period of “revitalization” began that saw numerous vacant buildings get redeveloped, property values rapidly rise, and interest renew in a city that had been a national punching bag for years.

But it wasn’t all positive over the last decade. Despite some important historic redevelopments, other buildings were demolished. The foreclosure crisis hit Detroit harder than any other city in America. And gentrification continues to be a controversial subject.

Let’s recap some of the trends that defined Detroit during this decade of change.

Emergency management

The lowest point in the decade was, in hindsight, the start of Detroit’s upward trajectory. But it might not have seemed like it at the time.

Michigan’s Emergency Manager law has been incredibly controversial since its adoption in 1988 and its strengthening in 2011. Detroit is one of the municipalities where the law was used this past decade, and there were profound consequences for both the city and its public school system.

There’s not nearly enough space here to evaluate the efficacy of the law, but here are the details. Soon after Kevin Orr was appointed as Detroit’s emergency manager in 2013, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. A “Grand Bargain” was negotiated between Detroit and its debtors—with many millions of dollars in contributions by foundations and the DIA, as well as cuts to pensions of former city employees—that allowed the city to emerge once again in control of its finances after just 17 months.

While Detroit may not be flush with money today, it’s at least stable enough to invest it itself again.

Detroit Public Schools did not emerge from bankruptcy so quickly or as healthy. During the time it was under emergency management from 2009 to 2016, numerous schools were closed as a cost-cutting measure, but the system only get worse. Towards the end of the decade, the board was given back control, a new superintendent hired, and a new school district founded—perhaps now it can begin an upward path similar to the city as a whole.

A tall crane sits next to a large dig site in the middle of a downtown.
Site of the Hudson’s development.
Photo by Michelle Gerard

Downtown’s revival

Nothing demonstrates how far Detroit has come than seeing how far downtown has come. At the beginning of the decade, downtown was in decline, with dozens of vacant buildings and little nightlife. What a difference 10 years makes.

Billions of dollars have been poured into downtown to redevelop historic structures, a veritable hotel district has emerged with no less than five new hotels, new retail draws visitors every day. There’s a revived Campus Martius, a new Beacon Park, a permanent Spirit Plaza. And some of the biggest developments are still underway.

If there’s anything driving Detroit’s revitalization narrative, it’s been the resurgence of downtown.

A busy restaurant with a low-black wall separating diners from the bar area.
Dinner service at Selden Standard.
Michelle Gerard | michellegerardphoto.com

Growth of the food scene

Known mostly for coney dogs and square pizza, Detroit has somehow become a foodie town over the last decade. Whether it’s restaurants, bakeries, breweries, or cafes, Detroit has seen an astounding number of quality food and beverage establishments open.

And it’s not just downtown. Sure, you can find award-winning, fine-dining restaurants in the urban core. But plenty of excellent places have opened up all over the city, from Grandmont-Rosedale all the way to Jefferson-Chalmers.

Rising property values

With more investment comes higher property values. Much higher.

A home that sold at the beginning of the decade, soon after the housing crisis, might sell for five or even 10 times that amount now. New luxury condos sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A downtown penthouse that hit the market this year was the most expensive listing in Detroit’s history.

Also, banks have finally started lending—at least a little bit. The city had over 1,000 mortgages issued in a year for the first time since 2007.

A multi-story brick apartment building at the end of a circular driveway.
Developers of The Hamilton allowed older residents to stay in renovated units at the same rental rates.

Equitable development

But as property values rise, so do rents. In a city where 35 percent of its population is below the poverty line, that can result in displacement and parts of the city being unaffordable to people in lower income brackets.

The city, advocacy groups, and responsible developers have tried to devise tools to lessen the impact of these effects, often known as gentrification. The Inclusionary Housing Ordinance requires a certain percentage of new housing units be set aside as “affordable.” The Community Benefits Ordinance requires developers to meet with residents to negotiate a benefits package. Some nonprofit lenders tie loans to affordable housing or a percentage of local businesses as tenants. There’s also tiny homes.

Some say these mechanisms don’t go far enough to ensure Detroit’s poorest can access the new growth and prosperity generated in the city. Only time will tell.

Foreclosure

It’s hard to truly process how much Detroit was hit by the foreclosure crisis.

In Michigan, if a homeowner is behind on their taxes by as little as $1 from three years ago, their home can be seized by the county and sold at auction. This rule was used to devastating effect by Wayne County—since 2002 it has foreclosed on over 150,000 homes, around one-third of which were occupied. The vast majority of those homes were in Detroit and seized this decade.

In 2018, the ACLU of Michigan and the city of Detroit reached a settlement over how the city administers property tax breaks for the poor. Outreach and assistance to homeowners at risk of foreclosure has improved. As a result, tax foreclosure hit a 14-year low in 2018.

But tax delinquency has only declined slightly and many of the underlying problems remain. Another recession could once again be devastating for homeowners with less savings.

Demolition

Mayor Mike Duggan recently had his $250 million blight remediation plan rejected by Detroit City Council. But that would have merely sped up a process that began years ago.

In large part due to the mortgage and tax foreclosure crises, Detroit has tens of thousands of abandoned properties, sometimes stripped, often exposed to the elements, and decaying fast. The solution the city adopted was do demolish them en mass. It’s gotten to about 20,000 so far.

But the demolition program has been plagued with problems, from cost overruns to corruption and everything in between. Many argue that demolition doesn’t address the root problems of blight and is like “pouring money into a bucket with a hole in the bottom.”

It will be interesting to follow the city’s strategy for dealing with blight in the 2020s.

A group of bikers ride through an alley downtown.
Slow Roll through a developed alley downtown.

Multi-modal transit

Detroit is and probably always will be the Motor City. But the 2010s saw the rise of many alternative forms of transit.

Though it had a long way to go, bus service has been steadily improving. Bike lanes are popping up all over the city—there’s now around 240 miles of them. The MoGo bike share system launched in 2017 and has been steadily expanding. Non-motorized trails, including the 31.5-mile Joe Louis Greenway, have and are being built. The east and west riverfronts are being remade. And don’t forget the controversial QLine and scooters.

It’s exciting to see what a multi-modal Detroit will look like in the 2020s.

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