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The Motor City Revs Up

It's happened in Cleveland, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas. New sports stadiums and loft conversions have revived declining downtowns. But can such strategies work in the poorest and saddest big city in America?A city that has lost nearly half its population, about one million people, since the 1950s?A city whose oldest neighborhoods are actually reverting to nature?

Detroit has a cruel history of revivals gone bust. These days, though, the city may finally be showing signs of waking up from its 40-year sleep. The half-abandoned downtown is starting to come to life again, with two sports stadiums, three gambling casinos, an evolving theater district and new corporate headquarters. In tall-windowed factories that once turned out parts for the auto industry, investors are building lofts for what they hope will be a new generation of urban pioneers.

Detroit is, in fact, well worth a visit these days, especially for a native son. If you ride around downtown on the elevated mini-train they call the People Mover (slogan: Detroit in Motion), you can witness the citys stunning dereliction and its budding resurrection all in one 15-minute loop. You see the light towers and 10-story-tall scoreboard of Comerica Park, which became the Detroit Tigers new home in April. You see a tableau of elemental destruction as decrepit warehouses make way for Ford Field, the football stadium scheduled to open in 2002. A minute later youre gliding past the deserted, dusty-faced skyscrapers of Grand Circus Park: the 35-story David Broderick Tower with its Jazz Age motifs, the David Whitney Building with its grand marble lobby, the Kales Building, designed by Albert Kahn, whose industrial architecture inspired the Bauhaus. Rounding a corner, you can look right into the third-floor guest rooms at the old Statler Hilton, now littered with fallen plaster and ductwork.

Detroit has big plans (if not all the financing yet) to turn these vacant landmarks into smart hotels and apartment buildings. In the meantime, though, they constitute something thats just as interesting—an unrivaled collection of early-20th-century architectural museum pieces from Detroits heyday as the worlds Motor City, before anyone ever heard of Toyota or Volkswagen. In his book American Ruins, Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara argues that downtown Detroit should be turned into an urban theme park. Vergara puts it this way: "As a tonic for our imaginations, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers should be left standing in ruins: an American Acropolis."

The idea doesnt amuse Detroits leaders, who prefer to think more positively. Still, the Disneyfied People Mover seems tailor-made for a theme park. One day, riders might be able to lean out and shoot photos of vines crawling picturesquely over crumbling walls. In fact, as we approach the Fort Cass Street station, I can see a maverick forest sprouting 10 feet tall from the roof of the onetime Hotel Fort Shelby.

The train moves along the Detroit River, a long-neglected asset that is being transformed into a recreation area. We come to the shimmering, 73-story tower of the Renaissance Center, a comically misconceived white elephant built in 1977 as the centerpiece of an earlier comeback attempt. Now General Motors has turned the Renaissance Centers four smaller buildings into its headquarters. The next stop is Bricktown, a much-heralded entertainment zone that never materialized; then Greektown, which has the citys liveliest block of cafés; then Harmonie Park, an up-and-coming district where half a dozen restaurants have sprung up around the opulent four-year-old opera house.

Here is a city with a vibrant past and a potentially dynamic future. At the moment, though, the People Mover goes around and around with hardly anybody on it. "WE DONT HAVE A DOWNTOWN," MAYOR DENNIS ARCHER tells me flat-out. "So were building a new one."

He ticks off the indicators of progress. Compuware Corp. is moving its headquarters, with 3,600 employees, from the suburbs to Campus Martius, the site of the citys original town square, on Woodward Avenue. Bars and bistros are popping up around the new stadiums and theaters. Major department stores are being courted to replace the signature J. L. Hudsons, empty since 1983 and demolished in 1998. Archer repeats the boast Ive heard from others, that Detroit has more theater seats than any U.S. city except New York (although no one makes the claim that theres anyone sitting in those seats).

Ray Parker, a veteran real estate broker, says that downtown wont take off until there are significant numbers of people living here. "Id rather have ten thousand residents than ten thousand employees. Residential is the key to all of it. People who come to the ballparks and casinos arent going to buy a TV or a refrigerator while theyre down here. You wont get the retailers until you get a buying population." Yet he sees the city government focusing on mega-projects while the promised housing on Grand Circus Park remains just that—a promise.

City officials admit that it will be two or three years before retailers venture downtown. But they say theyre working on tax incentives and cheaper financing for housing initiatives throughout the city. The basic problem is, Detroit has so far to go.

FROM THE MAYORS OFFICE NEAR THE RIVERFRONT I stroll up Woodward Avenue, which I knew in the 1950s as the dazzling, pell-mell commercial heart of Americas fourth-largest city. Now whole downtown blocks are boarded up, save for the random wig shop or Coney Island—style counter. Walking past shuttered buildings I can feel cold air streaming out as if from tombs. On the lonely sidewalks panhandlers want to shake my hand, get to know me. The entrance to the once-elegant Book Cadillac Hotel is covered with posters for a Jackie Chan movie and unsettling graffiti: WITH OPEN EYES, I WENT INTO DEATH. ALL DAY KILLING BITCHES AND HOEZ.

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