Zero city

Detroit grew fast and died young. But there's hope yet

One of the two edifices that best tell the tale of Detroit's rise and fall is the long-abandoned Michigan Theatre. It's perhaps the world's only parking lot with Italian Renaissance architecture. Built on the site of Henry Ford's first automobile workshop, by re-accommodating cars, the theatre had, ironically, returned to its origins. When Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy last week, it became the largest US city ever to do so and the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history. But it didn't come as a surprise to anybody, since Motor City, once the symbol of America's industrial prowess, had been on that road for decades.

The cradle of the American automobile industry, Detroit's saga of mismanagement, corruption and steady ruination is an epic story of urban decline. The Michigan Theatre was closed in the 1970s, and the other landmark testament to Detroit's fall Michigan Central Station has not been in use since 1988. Once the city's emergency manager Kevyn Orr's proposal, that creditors accept 10 cents for every dollar of the near-$20 billion owed, was rejected by two pension funds, the inevitable end came last Thursday. Statistics tell the tale: about 78,000 properties abandoned, 40 per cent street lights not working, the murder rate at a 40-year high, public services near collapse.

If some Detroiters were reassured when Chrysler and GM reemerged from their recent post-Lehman bankruptcies, their city has finally stepped into the unknown. Unlike a corporate bankruptcy, a municipal bankruptcy can't countenance liquidation. Yet, as some say, Detroit is finally "executing a fix", no matter how painful. Detroit's fall may have come just when the private sector had begun to pick up, but therein lies redemption for a city that lived fast and died young. As French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre portray in their seminal photo essay on Detroit in Time magazine, there is beauty and hope amid the horror of urban decline.

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