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Detroit At A Glance

By Elizabeth R. Elstien

Growing from its early days as a French trading port to a 1900s automobile-industrial metropolis, by 1950 Detroit, Michigan was in a steady decline. Population has decreased over 50% (now about 702,000) since its heyday. But things are looking up for the Motor City. Find out what makes the city run, and why it's making a comeback today.

Hasty History

Founded in 1701 by a French explorer, the city started as a fur-trading center of Quebec, Canada. Given a French name ("detroit" is French for strait) based on the river (Detroit River) that connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The British took control during the 1760 French and Indian War, but a few decades later the Jay Treaty made Detroit a U.S. city. By the early 1800s, the city was a major trading and shipbuilding port leading from the Great Lake system to the St. Lawrence Seaway heading east. Later, Detroit functioned as an entryway into Canada for slaves traveling through the underground railway in the early 1800s, as well as an entryway into the U.S. for forbidden spirits during prohibition in the early 1900s.

Being the heart of the U.S. automotive industry in the early 1900s (e.g., Ford, Packard, Chrysler, Dodge) made the Motor City one of the largest cities in the U.S. Auto industry mergers in the 1950s along with the building of the freeway system and various race riots all factored in to the economic and corresponding population declines. With only a portion of the population left, tax money collected to pay for such items as maintaining infrastructure and fighting crime had drastically declined. Filing for bankruptcy in July 2013, the shell that was Detroit is on a fast track to recovery.

Motown Music

Detroit is where Motown Records was founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr. Giving birth to the classic "Motown Sound," Motown artists had over 100 hits over the years the label existed. Breaking racial barriers of the time, its artists included the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and many others. Learn more by visiting the Motown Museum.

Buildings Galore

The city has a large number of historic buildings from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places. Reflecting a combination of building materials respective of the city's 300-year history, a wide range of architectural styles are visible in residences, churches and skyscrapers, including Art Deco and more modern styles.

Sailboats and Hockey

Known as "Hockeytown," Detroit plays host to the National Hockey League's Red Wings. Several other pro teams play in or just outside of the city itself: the Pistons (basketball) call nearby Auburn Hills home, while the Lions (football) and Tigers (baseball) are set up in midtown. All four national sports have their own stadiums. Sailboat racing has been a Detroit sport since 1916 and hydroplane racing is also a popular sport.

Revitalized Neighborhoods

With the decades-long exodus out of Detroit to the suburbs, several neighborhoods consist of abandoned and burned-out homes drawing squatters, many with drug habits. Scattered homeowners in the northeast or on the outskirts are trying to maintain their areas. Detroit's urban neighborhoods are springing back to life. Downtown, Midtown and New Center are particularly popular now with nearly full residency rates and many national companies are building new or purchasing existing buildings. Downtown is especially popular with the younger crowd, but it was also named a best city neighborhood to retire by CNN Money Magazine.

New Economy

Lured by the City of Detroit's business incentives, new jobs are being created and money brought into the city by national companies, such as Quicken Loans, CompuWare, OnStar and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Medical service providers, such as hospitals, and Wayne State University employ a significant number of people. Residential and retail is growing and thriving in many areas, with a new mall (Gateway Mall) being built. Of course, the big three U.S. automobile manufacturers -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler -- call Detroit home and contribute to its economic base.

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