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Don’t forget the Motor City

Detroit has been reinventing itself from the beginning. From its founding as a French colonial fur-trading outpost, the city morphed to a British military strongpoint on the Great Lakes, then an American farming town. It burned to the ground in 1805, came back strong as a shipping center and banking hub for the timber industry, pivoted again around 1900 to grow into the world’s car capital. Then came the long, dire, postwar decline created by industrial flight, suburban sprawl, and toxic race conflicts.

Today, Detroit bleeds from a thousand wounds, its woes chronicled daily in news reports, documentary films, and books. Yet determined residents and forward-looking urbanists are working to craft a new beginning for this iconic American city. Three recent books help us capture Detroit’s buoyant past, its distressed present, and its possible future.

Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies focuses on one of the brighter spots from Detroit’s recent history, the story of Lafayette Park, a 1950s-era urban renewal project that escaped the dreary fate of most such projects through excellent design. With Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designing low-rise townhomes and high-rise apartment towers, and planners and landscape artists Ludwig Hilberseimer and Alfred Caldwell crafting a lovely tree-shaded “super block,” Lafayette Park instantly became an oasis of gracious middle-class living in the midst of the city. It remains so today, an integrated community of public-spirited residents with good educations and the desire to live in a walkable city offering urban amenities in a serene, tranquil setting.

This book itself is less a unified history than a smorgasbord of essays, snapshots, newsletter clippings, interviews with residents, and other ephemera. But it helps to recall the day, not so long ago, when Detroit thrived not only as the world’s car capital but also as one of America’s architectural hubs, with Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki, Gunnar Birkerts, and others working there, turning out designs that softened and humanized the too-often-chilly International style. Lafayette Park remains a potent reminder that urban success is possible even in a city as distressed as Detroit.

That other Detroit comes into full view in Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be. A native Detroiter now living in New York, Binelli returned to Motown a few years ago to survey the city. He found what residents experience every day: a place where metal scrappers pick apart abandoned buildings in broad daylight with no fear of anyone stopping them; a place where at least one-third of the city’s streetlights don’t work; where a thriving downtown lies surrounded by neighborhoods where so many structures have been razed that streetscapes more often resemble rural Alabama than a northern industrial capital. Is this America’s first Third World city? A postapocalyptic vision where the likes of RoboCop would feel at home? Or is it a creative hub where techno-music raves flourish in abandoned buildings and where a thriving entrepreneurial base is repurposing vacant factories in new and creative ways? Detroit is all these things and more, an everyday blend of the hopeful and the tragic, which is why, prostrate though it may be before history, it remains one of America’s most fascinating places.

And of the future? Urbanists Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley offer a hopeful glimpse in The Metropolitan Revolution. Detroit is just one city in which a new generation of leadership has stepped forward to promote an innovative model of partnerships to create jobs and revitalize downtowns. The days are long gone when big-city mayors (Richard Daley in Chicago, James Michael Curley in Boston) wielded power through efficient, if often corrupt, machine organizations. Today, business leaders, university presidents, foundation executives, and neighborhood activists partner with Detroit’s much-weakened political class to create hybrid strategies to deliver services.

The way Detroit is paying for its planned M-1 Rail streetcar line downtown, set to begin construction this year, is a good example. Instead of a city’s transit department carrying out the project, a nonprofit entity funded by foundations, corporations, and private philanthropists — plus some government dollars — will build and operate the line. It’s a jury-rigged system for sure, and perhaps hardly ideal, but it’s the sort of new partnership that Katz and Bradley celebrate as the antidote to the collapse of traditional metropolitan political power.

Detroit’s 313-year history and its current landscape remain far too complex for any one book, or even collection of books, to capture. But those who say Detroit is at the end of the line, that its final chapter has been written, fail to grasp the nature of history. History is what Breaking Bad’s Walter White said of chemistry: It’s change, a process of birth, growth, decay, transformation.

Like clockwork, Detroit has reinvented itself every hundred years or so. Its car century ground to a symbolic end in 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, and though both companies have recovered, Detroit is evolving a new identity for a new age. That identity is part urban agriculture, part digital entrepreneurialism, and part music and food and sports and new political forms. Visitors come to the city expecting to find despair and are often astonished at the level of optimism residents show. Detroit may have suffered as much as any American city ever has, but the events that will shape its next chapter lie in the future, not the past.  ■