For close to a century the Forest Arms apartments was one of the most prestigious addresses on Detroit’s Near Westside. But by the start of this decade, the city’s declining population, municipal mismanagement, and foundering economy had left the building reminiscent of postwar Berlin.
The city ordered the structure demolished, but 48-year-old local contractor Scott Lowell objected and eventually won the right to renovate the decimated 1905 Edwardian. He turned it into 70 eco-friendly apartments, many with stunning views of the city. The Forest Arms is the third blighted building Lowell has transformed, and like the previous two it will be fully occupied the day it opens.
“I regard myself as a steward of this city, and buildings like this are worth preserving,” Lowell says as he walks up a once-majestic staircase in the process of being repaired. “Young people without the baggage of the past are moving to Detroit, and they want to live in historic buildings close to where they work.”
In the 8 months since Detroit emerged from a 16-month Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the mood of the city has shifted from stoic despair to guarded optimism. Weekly openings of new restaurants, galleries, and designer shops are creating a buzz that’s impossible to deny. The streetlights are back on along Woodward Avenue, where track is being laid for a light-rail commuter train 90 percent financed by private investors. Ambulances and police cars now respond when summoned. Midtown Detroit recently acquired the sine qua non of gentility: a Whole Foods market.
Many factors contribute to the upbeat mood, but perhaps the biggest is the revival of the auto industry. Over 17 million vehicles will roll out of dealer showrooms this year, no doubt increasing the $7 billion in collective net profits the Big Three earned in 2014. This month the United Auto Workers and General Motors began negotiating a new contract that, after four years of belt tightening, likely will result in new hires and higher wages.
Despite impressive progress, Detroit still has plenty of problems. Downtown may have a 98 percent occupancy rate, but residential neighborhoods look as if they’ve been winnowed by a thousand tornadoes. There are so many vacant lots that the houses still standing almost seem like homesteads. Derelict but habitable houses can be bought for as little as $600, but there are few buyers among the 680,000 people (down from 1.85 million in 1960) who call the city home. Bargain hunters often are deterred by blight. Of Detroit’s 380,000 homes, some 114,000 have been razed, with an additional 80,000 scheduled for demolition. Detroit’s Blight Removal Task Force noted in a 2014 report, “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it, let alone those who are unfortunate enough to live with it all around them.”
Detroit hit its nadir under Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned in 2008 after pleading guilty to legal, sexual, and administrative malfeasance that included perjury, obstruction of justice, and the diverting of $10 million of city money to hide an extramarital affair with his chief of staff. Despite using a city credit card to buy $210,000 worth of restaurant meals, wine, and spa massages during his first term, Kilpatrick managed to remain in office more than six years by exploiting the prejudices separating suburban whites from inner-city African Americans. Ordered to repay the city $1 million, Kilpatrick was sent back to jail for attempting to hide assets from the court. In 2013 he was sentenced to an additional 28 years after being found guilty of mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering.
Heavily Democratic Detroit owes its resurgence in part to Republican governor Rick Snyder, who in March 2013 declared a financial emergency, appointed an experienced manager to take control of the city, and told him to file for bankruptcy so Detroit could get out from under liabilities in excess of $18 billion.