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A Detroit Surprise

Curtis Johnson / Apr 15 2012

For Release Sunday, April 15, 2012

Curtis Johnson“America’s Surprise Comeback City” read the headline tucked into a tight corner of a magazine cover. I was connecting at the Los Angeles airport after a long flight, ready to board a red-eye flight back to the Midwest, and thought I’d do a quick browse of the newsstand. It was the current edition of the National Geographic Traveler that caught my eye.

It had a Cuba story emblazoned on its cover. That was enough to make me reach for my wallet, thinking back to the people and places I visited in Havana a decade ago. But when I picked up the magazine, curious about the comeback story, I was — well, the tag line was “surprise comeback” — at least mildly amazed that a mainstream travel magazine would be among the first to pick up the changing narrative about Detroit.

What’s not surprising is discovering this article came from someone with Detroit roots, Andrew Nelson. Nelson grew up in Detroit and remembers how, in the mid-1960s, the city was fifth on the charts of the largest American cities and at the “top of its game.”

Nelson’s lived in New Orleans for the past three years, and finds it easy to point out that both cities have French beginnings. Most people from elsewhere don’t know that Detroit’s founder, going back all the way to 1701, is — get ready for longer names than we see today — Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac.

No airbrushing here from Nelson about Detroit’s troubles. Acknowledging the iconic symbol that the ruined Michigan Central Station (a favorite for photographers) poses for the city, he cheerfully migrates to what’s starting to work in the city. He notes that “.. Detroit has been down so long, any change would be up.” He finds Phil Cooley and samples Slows BarBQ. He finds architectural historian Dan Austin and indulges in gawking at the over-the-top atrium of the Guardian Building, with its two million tangerine-colored imbedded bricks. He bikes Belle Isle, to witness the wonders of its Olmstead design and the challenges of its upkeep. He goes to Dearborn and sees the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the U.S. He even ventures just northeast of Detroit into Grosse Pointe, where stereotypical suburban life can be found right on Detroit’s shoulders.

He notes how Corktown seems sturdier now, with its appealing stock of Victorian housing and plentiful vacant lots for vegetable gardens attracting young people. And he salutes what’s happening in Midtown, as it attracts more educated professionals and artists, resulting in what’s now becoming a housing shortage. A real Detroit surprise.

Nelson doesn’t get into the differences between New Orleans and Detroit — the former hit by a calamitous hurricane, the latter dragged down over decades by delusion and decline in its economic advantage. Instead, he concludes his visit by joining a “crowd of hipsters, artists, and night crawlers” at the Cafe D’Mongo.

What’s most surprising about Detroit now, even in the fevered atmosphere of determining the fiscal governance of the city, are the emerging stories that go beyond the stereotypes everyone knows too well. That’s what National Geographic Traveler captures in this article, which makes sense since the magazine prides itself on chronicling authentic travel. And Detroit today — in both its old problems and its newfound successes — is about as authentic as you can get.

Curtis Johnson, president of the Citistates Group, participated in developing the Oregon education strategy with the Public Strategies Group for the Oregon Business Council. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Very uplifting article. Ironically, this article references the three cities that are featured in the Council on Foundations opening plenary session, titled, Realization, Rethinking, and Reinvention in the Wake of Crisis,
    Sunday, April 29 – 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
    On the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, we will explore three examples of how crisis events can become turning points: the civic and philanthropic response in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s revelations of social inequality; the experiments underway in Detroit amidst crisis and social despair; and, of course, how Los Angeles changed in the wake of the civil unrest two decades ago. What can we learn from the creative responses that have emerged in each instance? And what are the implications for today’s society?

    Moderator: Manuel Pastor, professor, Geography and American Studies and Ethnicity, USC
    Presenters: Flozell Daniels, president, Foundation for Louisiana; Carol Goss, president and CEO, Skillman Foundation; Marqueece Harris-Dawson, President and CEO, Community Coalition; Antonia Hernandez, President and CEO, California Community Foundation; Stewart Kwoh, President and Executive Director, Asian Pacific American Legal Center; Kurt Metzger, director, Data Driven Detroit; Allison Plyer, executive director, Greater New Orleans Community Data Center; Angela Reyes, executive director, Hispanic Development Corporation; Saket Soni, executive director, New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice

    You can learn more by visiting:

  2. Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Lipstick on a pig. Give me a break. A few shiny objects does not a turnaround make. Until Detroit breaks free of its crime-ridden reputation (read end drug prohibition), it will continue in its downward spiral.