Detroit comeback: A familiar story, but with higher highs and lower lows

Living fairly near Detroit, I've known that this is a place where big things -- yes, good things -- can happen. Now other people are finding that, in a documentary that airs Sunday (July 1) on the History Channel. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In many ways,
historian Steven Gillon says, Detroit's story is familiar.

“It happens in
waves,” he said. Cities slump, prices drop; there are new people,
new ideas, new construction. “You go into most cities in America
and the first things you see are cranes.”

He's seen that in
Newark and Philadelphia and now Detroit, which he visited for a
History Channel film Sunday. But Detroit is different, because:

-- The extremes are
more pronounced, with the city soaring -- “Detroit, more than any
other city, helped America win World War II” -- and crashing.

-- There's a
convenient symbol -- Michigan Central Station, which opened in 1914
and closed in 1988.

“You see what
(Detroit) once was,” Gillon said. “You see the pillars; you see
the grandeur .... You see what it has become. The walls are covered
with graffiti; everything that can be stolen has been.”

Now Ford has bought
the building, with plans for an innovation hub.

Certainly, that only
touches part of the problem, Gillon said. Like other cities, Detroit
suffers from a “stratification,” with middle-class people (black
or white) improving and others left behind.

Still, he found
things upbeat. “There is a sense of optimism .... People feel
Detroit is coming back.”

Gillon brings an
overall perspective. He has a doctorate at Brown, is a history
professor at Oklahoma University, but lives in New York and has
written books ranging from baby-boomers to Pearl Harbor.

“We won the war,”
he said, “because Detroit could turn out more planes and tanks and

Even then, one of
the flaws was obvious: “Detroit has been a profoundly segregated
city, with massive riots in 1943 and 1967.”

It recovered quickly
from the first and is returning gradually from the second, with
Central Station as its symbol.

-- “Detroit:
Comeback City,” 9-10:03 p.m. Sunday, History Channel; reruns at
1:03 a.m.

-- Produced by Big
Sean, a Detroit rapper, and others; narrated by J.K. Simmons, the
Oscar-winner who grew up in Grosse Pointe

-- Interviewees
include people who grew up in Detroit – astronaut Jerry Linenger,
Pulitzer Prize-winner Heather Ann Thompson, musician Alice Cooper –
and others, including historian Henry Louis Gates