Multifaceted Detroit: Contrasting Myth with Reality

by Carine Martinez-Gouhier:

They say the first impression is the one that counts.

This may come as a surprise, but my first impression of Detroit was good. It was not thanks to the government but to free enterprise and the hard work and aspirations to a better life of individual Detroiters. My first experience, and a few others after that, let me see glimpses of hope for Detroit.

Opportunity Detroit (2)

I was scheduled to arrive at 12 am at the airport. A while ago in France, there were stories of false cab drivers who took their clients nowhere near where they wanted to go in Paris, despite operating in what looked like a perfectly legit taxi car. I’ll be honest: with Detroit’s reputation, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of taking a cab around 1am, in a city I did not know, and in which I was unarmed.

I opted for Uber, which offered the option of reliability, a ride that was tracked down thanks to their app, and the customer service that has to come with a young, innovative, and paradigm-breaking company. Detroit Uber drivers did not disappoint. They welcomed the work in the middle of the night with a smile and positive attitude, and the opportunity to make extra money (one of my two drivers was still a student, working two jobs, including being an Uber driver, during the night).

The image of Detroit I had in mind was the one the media is spreading: a zombie city, where the remaining inhabitants, those who didn’t flee to the suburbs or further away, were left with abandoned and burned-down houses everywhere, where crime and drugs are rampant; the image of the fall of a formerly great American city.

Media reports ventured: Detroit was once the epitome of American success; will it represent America’s future?

Truth is Detroit is a city of many contrasts. Yes, the vision of a ghost town is everywhere, but downtown, the empty streets and the blight also stand alongside buildings filled with bubbly tech start-ups; some abandoned houses are taken over to make room for gardens. The heavy hand of government regulation and intervention is sometimes mind-bogglingly absent, for better or worse for Detroiters.

Just like nature reclaiming abandoned houses though, free enterprise is slowly trying to find its way back through the hurdles of regulation.

Thanks to The Belltowers, I was recently part of a group of bloggers from around the United States, brought together to Detroit by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity to observe and report on a facet of the city that is rarely, if ever, covered: the possible revival of Motown. This is what I will try to share with you through a series of posts in the coming days.

During the three days I spent in Detroit, I had the opportunity to talk with a variety of people, from venture capitalists, to tech startup founders, to social enterprise business women, to residents. The two main ideas that always came up is a love for the city of Detroit, and a strong will to do something to help the city and its residents rise again. I also seized the opportunity to see part of the unsafe areas, which was necessary to be able to try and assess any possible renaissance.

The fight is engaged and the victory is not there yet, but the first positive signs, such as my Uber drivers, are visible. Detroit is fighting for its life. At the heart of the revival, is something quintessentially American: individuals taking responsibility for their lives, fighting the wilderness when necessary, convinced that they can make it on their own. If some insist in seeing Detroit as the future of America, that vision should be about this, not about the ruins of failed government policies.

Carine is a French national who immigrated to the United States to pursue her own happiness. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s degree in American Studies (specialized in corporate social responsibility). She is currently a research associate at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.


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