It is a story as America loves them. That of a comeback. A resurrection. Detroit, Motor city – “the city of the engine”, its nickname – iconic megalopolis of industrial America, cradle of the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, Chrysler) had above all become its martyr city in the era of the Net economy and GAFA (Google , Apple, Facebook, Amazon). The gods of capitalism seemed to have migrated to other skies. Those of Silicon Valley, on the west coast of the country.
In Detroit, the sparkling chrome of the beautiful Americans had given way to rust on production chains. The fault of a crisis, in 2007, which put the country on the axles … The sectoral figures let imagine the extent of the disaster: 16.5 million new cars sold in the USA in 2007, against 10.4 million in 2009! Detroit is taking the brunt of the collapse in sales. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler having closed their factories, the city sinks into the crisis, then into a form of apocalypse… the word is not too weak.
In a few years, the population sinks into poverty. The crime rate is skyrocketing, making Detroit one of the world’s top 10 homicides per capita. Motor City then becomes Murder City and quickly, hemoglobin on the sidewalks causes a hemorrhage of inhabitants. The economic capital of Michigan, which was around 2 million in the 1950s, has only 700,000 sixty years later… The city hit rock bottom when, on July 18, 2013, it declared bankruptcy with a debt of 18.5 billion dollars (16.5 billion euros), forcing the Obama administration to place it under guardianship.
Miles of bitumen for the car of the future
Yes, Detroit could have died! Today, however, smoke still escapes from Motor City. And every summer, the scalded pistons backfire again! Every third Saturday in August, the Woodward Dream Cruise, a gigantic parade of vintage cars, scrolls through old petrol glories on the asphalt. “This event, local at the start, now goes far beyond national borders,” said General Motors engineer Aaron. This success testifies to the renewal of our city. “
But the other good news is that Detroit isn’t just looking in the rear view mirror. The historic car and combustion engine industry has invented a new frontier: the electric and autonomous vehicle. Thanks to him, Motor City dreams of becoming the economic lung of America on four wheels. A Detroit man to whom you would have said that ten years ago would have laughed at you. But only one figure illustrates the ongoing revolution: Detroit, the 25% unemployment rate a few years ago, has dropped to … less than 3% today. “Even Silicon Valley – the birthplace of Tech – no longer disputes Detroit’s specialty in R&D (Editor’s note: research and development) on the autonomous vehicle ”, underlines Georges Ucko, expert of the American automobile market.
Unsurprisingly, the city of cars has never bet on public transport. Detroit is crossed by real urban freeways – Michigan Avenue has eight lanes! – long bleedings of exhaust gases in the heart of the city center. But the road is also business…
At the American Center for Mobility, old abandoned arteries, access ramps, tunnels, have been transformed into an open-air laboratory for the autonomous vehicle. The manufacturers rent these kilometers of bitumen to circulate, in real conditions, their cars of the future… “The gray area at the entrance of a tunnel can disturb the sensors, just like an old marking on the ground badly erased on the floor, details Angela Flood, the director of the center. They come to confront the truth of algorithms to the physical world. “
Eminem, Clint Eastwood and… the French CEO of Chrysler
Activity and employment are returning, as are the dollars. And the city is changing. Ford, for example, has announced the acquisition of Central Station, the old station, a decrepit art deco masterpiece, in order to transform it into a research center by 2022. The manufacturer plans to invest 740 million dollars (660 million euros) to set up its future center there on electric vehicles. “Detroit is rising from the ashes, marvels Xavier Ovize, CEO of AdduXi, a French equipment supplier from Michigan. To get to the performance halls, you had to sneak through the police cordon. Today, you can walk downtown without fear for your life. “
To take the measure of the novelty, it is necessary to remember… To remember these whole districts abandoned by the authorities: without garbage collection or public lighting, plagued by daily fires. Remember that less than five years ago, Detroit still had 90,000 abandoned buildings on an area three times the size of Paris…
The economic capital of Michigan, nestled in the heart of America’s Great Lakes, was founded by a Frenchman, Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac, in 1701. And it was another of our compatriots, Olivier François, who held it there the leading role 308 years later. In Detroit, the ex-CEO of Chrysler is a living legend! Erasing until the memory of Henry Ford – the father of the first automobile produced in the chain, the Ford T – yet very high in the pantheon of US capitalism. Mister François! Its worshipers credit it for having saved the group from bankruptcy (which is established) and, in so doing, the whole city (which is excessive).
When he takes command in 2009, Chrysler has just filed for bankruptcy. Getting in touch with the city is brutal; the Frenchie discovers “the epicenter of depression, Pompeii after Vesuvius …” He rolls up his sleeves – new models, re-mobilization of teams – and is illustrated above all by his marketing genius. Olivier François records a two-minute commercial with Eminem, the star rapper from Detroit. Broadcast only once, during the Super Bowl, the high mass of American football, it will then be viewed nearly 15 million times on the Internet. Olivier François did it again the following year. This time, it is Clint Eastwood – the Hollywood star, but especially the driver of the 1972 Ford Gran Torino from the film Gran Torino, filmed in the streets of Detroit – who stars. Meanwhile, the red light on the Chrysler dashboard goes out and the group returns to profits.
Very polluting pick-up and SUV still in vogue
“Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have understood that their fate is linked to the fate of the city,” said Justin Robinson, vice-president of the Detroit Partnership, the regional development organization. They understood that the image of Detroit was also the image of their companies. ”
Today Detroit is throbbing again, and it shows. The city, economic capital of a State long classified in the category of ” flyover states “ – those territories that planes fly over more than they land in – attracts more and more tourists. Whether American or foreign. Detroit has arguments: the Detroit Pistons – it can’t be invented! – the NBA basketball franchise; Motown , mythical American record company whose name is the contraction of Motor Town; or the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Not everything is rosy as the stigmas of the dark hours are still there. Detroit has auctioned tens of thousands of homes for non-payment of property taxes. Many families, mostly black, were evicted, fueling tensions in this city which, on July 23, 1967, was the scene of the bloodiest riots in the history of the United States.
And the electric and autonomous car will have to play bumpers to make room for the asphalt. President Donald Trump, in fact, removed incentives to drive in clean vehicles. At the last Detroit Motor Show, the manufacturers presented many pickup trucks and SUVs that are very polluting … and much appreciated.
Hope is no less back! “We had a long way to go. But whatever, the road is life ”- writes Jack Kerouac, the wandering writer of America. Yes, Detroit restarted the engine. On the road again!