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Behind the scenes of Detroit's urban resurgence


Here's something I didn't see coming even a few years ago about my hometown. Detroit, a symbol of urban and industrial decline, is getting positive press - lots of it - upbeat stories about its future. It's enough to make you want to crank up some Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) Can't forget the Motor City. Dancing in the street.

GONYEA: And the positive buzz has really taken off as the summertime rolls in. There's a beautiful new river walk. Downtown development is changing the skyline. And did you see the hundreds of thousands who turned up for a wildly successful NFL draft? I'll confess, it takes some getting used to.


EMINEM: (Singing) Welcome to Detroit city. I said welcome to Detroit city. Every place, everywhere we go...

GONYEA: It has taken years of work from lots of people in and out of government, corporate investors, nonprofits, foundations and individuals. In this story we'll give you a snapshot - a look at three very recent developments - each just a piece of Detroit's story today.


10CC: (Singing) Workin' on it.

GONYEA: We start at the Michigan Central Station. This is the city's classic old train station. It was a landmark to be proud of until it became a frightening ruin in recent decades, a towering edifice, a gateway for many thousands of new residents, coming from the south as part of the great migration, and just people from all over, hoping for work on Detroit assembly lines. And when train travel declined, such a building was no longer needed. Closed and padlocked, a long and depressing decline began - until this month, when it reopened to the public, newly restored, looking like new. Last week, I stepped inside. It was a return for me.

I was here the day the last train pulled away in January of 1988, January 5. And I am getting emotional standing here in this space. It didn't look this great even then, even though it was still a functioning station.

It's been rescued thanks mostly to a billion-dollar investment by the Ford Motor Company. The automaker will fill it with engineers and others working to develop cars of the future, including next-generation electric vehicles. There'll be start businesses as well, and restaurants, shops, even events like weddings. Standing inside the now-gleaming grand concourse in the midst of several thousand other visitors who were walking around awestruck, we spoke to Michigan Central's CEO Josh Sirefman, who will oversee the revived facility.

JOSH SIREFMAN: You know, originally, this was the waiting area. And for us now - and we see we're already starting to tell stories in here.

GONYEA: That day when the last train pulled away, I talked to a woman on one of those benches and seated there all by herself, kind of alone with her thoughts. And I went up to her and asked her if I could talk to her. And she told me she hadn't been in the station since 1944 - World War II. She sent her fiance off. He went off to war.


GONYEA: He did not come home.

SIREFMAN: And didn't come home. It's much more than a train station. I mean, literally, it's where - everybody has some important life moment that has connected them to this building. And the emotion and the stories are just so moving.

GONYEA: Now to the next piece of big news Detroit has been talking about. Its population has grown. It's the first such increase for the city since the 1950s. It's a morale booster, certainly, even though the increase seems tiny, just 1,852 people. But it's also a very big deal, according to Kurt Metzger, a former Detroit-based analyst for the U.S. Census Bureau.

KURT METZGER: This region hasn't grown in 70 years. It's not just Detroit. It's the entire region.

GONYEA: Detroit's population peaked at 1.8 million, every census report since has shown that number shrinking, plummeting to less than 700,000. White flight was a major part of it. People headed to suburbs, businesses, too. Factories closed as new ones opened far outside the city. But now a population increase. Kurt Metzger couldn't wait to tell the mayor's office.

METZGER: When I saw that number, I was ecstatic.

GONYEA: Even growing by such a small amount, he says, is significant. It marks the end of a long, long losing streak.

METZGER: It's that perception, right? And perception, as we have found in politics, is reality.

GONYEA: Anika Goss is CEO of Detroit Future City, a think tank steeped in these issues. She says the exact nature of the population bump is very much worth noting in a majority-African American city.

ANIKA GOSS: Those 1,800 people tend to be upper-middle-class white households that have moved to the most stable parts of Detroit.

GONYEA: As the white population grows, she says, it's not good that the Black population continues to decline, especially in neighborhoods.

GOSS: It can't just be the city. It also has to be quality schools that are accessible in those neighborhoods. It has to be a thriving commercial corridor where people can shop and work in their own neighborhoods. You know, if there's more trees and green space, all of those things are factors that contribute to whether or not you feel like this is a place you would want to live to raise a family, or live as an individual.


GONYEA: For our last stop, we switch to sports.


GONYEA: In Detroit, that's always meant the Tigers, Lions, Pistons or Red Wings. This has always been a place deeply into its sports teams.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What a crowd. Let's go.

GONYEA: But now let's add soccer to that list. The Detroit City Football Club has been around for a dozen years and plays in the United States soccer league. That's a notch below Major League Soccer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) Gonna be a party in Detroit.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) No one's sleeping tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Two, three, four.

GONYEA: The team has a growing and intense fan base. Our producer Eleana Tworek checked it out on a recent Saturday. She caught up with Kate Fasko on the way to the match.

KATE FASKO: We're seeing people come that we've never seen before - ages, you know, ethnicities, gender, sexuality. Our goal is to be as welcoming of a place as we can be for everybody.

GONYEA: Outside the stadium, food trucks are everywhere. This one sells every kind of pierogi imaginable.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Potato farmers cheese, plain potato, sweet farmers cheese, potato cheddar cheese.

GONYEA: Currently, the club plays at Keyworth Stadium. With a capacity under 8,000, it's in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck. But last month came the announcement that it'll move to a brand-new larger stadium to be built in Detroit's historic Corktown neighborhood. Mark Navarro is a member of the team's leading fan club.

MARK NAVARRO: As far as the club goes and the crowd goes, obviously, it's gotten a lot bigger. I'm thinking about the days when we would sell out tiny little Cass Tech stadium, and now we're here, you know, selling out Keyworth Stadium, which is much larger, and moving to a larger stadium in a couple of years that will hopefully continue selling out as well.

GONYEA: The new facility will be built on the side of a long-abandoned old hospital, and it'll be close to the renovated Michigan Central Station. Brian Perrone owns Slows Bar BQ, which set up shop in Corktown more than 20 years ago. He recalls what it was like back then.

BRIAN PERRONE: There wasn't a lot - tumbleweeds, really.

GONYEA: Today, the Slows Bar BQ block is busy and about to get a lot busier. Down the street, Jennyfer Crawford-Williams is showing off her Corktown neighborhood business.

JENNYFER CRAWFORD-WILLIAMS: Everything comes from a different brand - so Ink Detroit, Detroit Made.

GONYEA: It's called All Things Marketplace. She sells Michigan-made products, with room to host events in back. But as Detroit sees growth, Crawford Williams cautions that it needs to keep its identity, that gentrification is not the answer; across-the-board growth is. She's working to be part of that.

CRAWFORD-WILLIAMS: I know Corktown talks a lot about being diverse. But to me, I want to see it more. I want to see more Black-owned businesses or minority-owned businesses popping up here because it's something that's needed. It's Detroit, right?

GONYEA: We'll close our mini tour of Detroit acknowledging again that this is obviously just a piece of the city's full story. Big, big challenges remain. But the summer arrives on a high note, and Detroiters hope it's not just a blip, but maybe a real sign of more things to come for the entire city.


GONYEA: This piece was produced by Eleana Tworek and Samantha Balaban and edited by Shannon Rhoades. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Eleana Tworek
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
Shannon Rhoades is NPR's senior editor for interviews.
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