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Detroit: Dancing in the streets again

The first big US city to go bankrupt, once-depressed Detroit is now motoring sweetly again. Norman Wright tours the birthplace of the modern motor industry – and Motown music

Plank floors, peeling paint ceilings and an ancient lift big enough to take a car – this building is preserved just the way it was when it changed the world and brought liberation to succeeding generations of ordinary men and women.

The fabric of the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant may have been modest, especially by today’s standards, but the creativity, engineering genius and vision it spawned exploded spectacularly into a social revolution and economic goldmine that is still a major part of our lives more than 100 years later.

Among the old timbers, walking the solid planking, you can feel the presence of history and greatness in the place where the Model T, the world’s first mass-produced affordable motor car, was conceived, designed and manufactured. Henry Ford’s first factory isn’t the only modest but authentic building in Detroit, Michigan, that bears the mark of history and stirs the hairs on the back of your neck.

The second special moment came as I stood in the converted garage recording studio, as a guide with a voice that could have graced the Supremes led our tour group in a chorus of My Guy, one of the most famous of the hundreds of hit records produced at Hitsville USA, home of Motown Records.

The Temptations performed and recorded My Guy in that cramped studio, still completely unaltered, guided by the engineer and producer in the control room that was formerly the kitchen of the timber house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Detroit was dubbed Motor City after the early 20th century as car makers like Ford, Walter Chrysler, the Dodge brothers and Ransom Olds made it the centre of the US (and world) car industry. Some 125 car makers were at one time based in and around Detroit.

Berry Gordy turned it into Motown when he created the record label in 1959. As much a business genius as songwriter and musical innovator, Gordy really put Detroit on the world stage.

Music and cars made Sixties Detroit a centre of glamour and prosperity but it was short-lived. Gordy moved his operation to Los Angeles in 1972 for business reasons. The car industry faced huge challenges in the last quarter of the century from Japanese and European competition, environmental pressures and oil prices.

The industry contracted and modernised, costing jobs, and the effect on the local economy was huge. Unemployment led to poverty, crime and personal debt that couldn’t be honoured. The financial bubble all over the world burst in 2008 and Detroit suffered as much as anywhere, more than most. The population had reduced by something like 60 per cent from a peak in 1980. The government had to rescue Chrysler and by 2013 it had become the first major city in the USA to go bankrupt.

Although it came out of bankruptcy in 2014, I wondered just what to expect. Well, it was a city bouncing back.

With the car industry more stable but susceptible to global economy and environmental trends, Detroit is diversifying, attracting investment in newer industries.

Earlier the world was shown images of abandoned factories and housing estates like one of those western films with tumbleweeds blowing through an old frontier town. Now, there’s a programme of renewal. One 10,000-home empty estate is being bulldozed for redevelopment.

Some areas still look shabby but others are prospering.

Downtown Detroit is stunning, lit by the soft autumn sunshine against a cloudless, intense blue sky. The mixture of art deco skyscrapers, the sort that King Kong would love to climb, and modern versions in glass and curves makes it look up to the minute without hiding the history.

The Guardian Building and Penobscot Building, dating from 1928, contrast with the Ally Detroit Centre (1993) and the group of Seventies and Eighties structures in the Renaissance Centre on the riverfront. You can take a walking tour of the downtown architecture. The tourist information centre at 800 Woodward Avenue has self-guided leaflets or you can take a guided tour. Check with them for times. Take a stroll along the newly developed riverfront walk and you get a different perspective of the skyline as you walk in the shadow of the mighty Renaissance towers.

The Detroit River forms part of the US/Canadian border. Look across the water and you see the skyline of Windsor, Ontario, directly opposite.

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