Five years ago, Lisa Gibson, who lives in suburban Grosse Pointe, wasn't allowed to go to downtown Detroit at night. Today, Gibson, now 23, spends evenings downtown fairly frequently-and safely. "It's an entirely different city," she says.
Four years ago, Father Malcolm Carron, president of the University of Detroit, had decided to abandon the school's downtown law and business school campus. Father Carron changed his mind, and today the downtown campus, after a $7 million renovation, has 1,900 students, two-thirds of them attending at night.
Three years ago, the National Funeral Directors Association rejected Detroit as a convention site. They changed their mind, too, and will be meeting in Detroit in 1982.
Suddenly Detroit is no longer "Murder City," the derisive name it gained in the wake of the urban unrest of the late 1960s. It's America's Renaissance City, with a new vigor and a new confidence in itself.
In the past few months, that new lease on life has persuaded:
The Republican Party to choose Detroit for its 1980 national convention over cities like Miami, New York, Dallas, Kansas City, and New Orleans.
The National Football League to choose the home of the Detroit Lions as the site for the 1982 Super Bowl, the first time the game has ever gone north.
The Rockefeller interests to put money into a $70-million expansion of Renaissance Center, the huge downtown development that set off Detroit's rebound.
This dramatic turnaround is happy news for the city, for Detroit has lived too long with a reputation it didn't fully deserve. America's sixth biggest city today may not have the glamor and tourist attractions of a New York, San Francisco or New Orleans, but it certainly bears little resemblance to the image many hold of it as a grimy factory city with a mugger lurking around every corner.
"Our crime rate in the past three years has shown the biggest drop of any large city," reports Robert Mccabe, president of Detroit Renaissance, the nonprofit group behind the drive to revitalize the city.
Credit for achieving the 30 percent reduction in crime is usually given to two community leaders -- Police Chief William Hart, for broadening the representation of minorities on the force and making it a more professional organization, and Mayor Coleman Young, for instituting a strong affirmative action program.
This is not to say that Detroit has turned overnight into a garden of Eden, or that the city is not prone to the same ills and dangers that plague all large metropolitan area. But Detroit is a much different place than it was even just two or three years ago.
What has wrought this remarkable change in Detroit's fortunes?
Everyone agrees that the catalyst was the construction of the huge $353 million Renaissance Center, the largest privately financed urban redevelopment project in the world. The soaring, glass-skinned cylinders designed by architect John Portman breathed new life into downtown Detroit, pumping an estimated $1 billion into the economy and bringing new businesses and new people downtown.
Under the aegis of Detroit Renaissance, whose board of directors is composed of the chief executive officers of Detroit's top 28 corporations, a group headed by Henry Ford II set to work to get the center built on the old river front railroad yards.
It took just 2 1/2 years to construct -- and when Renaissance Center opened in 1977, it was an immediate success.
Not only did it provide a large deluxe hotel (the 73-story Detroit Plaza, tallest hotel in the world) and prestigious office space (four 39-story office towers) in the heart of downtown, but it also spurred activity all around it.
"Older restaurants in this area will tell you their business is up 25 to 40 percent," said Mccabe, "Six new restaurants have opened up in the last eight months alone. Events that formerly were held in the suburbs now are being held downtown."
Many of the new restaurants, popular with both residents and tourists, are locating in old structures in the warehouse district just north of the RenCen, as Detroiters call the Renaissance Center.
On the other side of the RenCen, the city is putting the finishing landscape touches on Hart Plaza, a broad esplanade between the Ford Auditorium and Cobo Hall Convention Center that boasts a many splendored, computerized fountain and an outdoor amphitheater.
Also on the riverfront, the new 21,503-seat Joe Louis Arena is to be completed by late fall. The 99-year-old paddlewheeler Landsdowne is being renovated and converted into a floating restaurant to be docked permanently in the Hart Plaza area, and Detroit's old-time trolley, a 25-cent ride through the downtown core, is being extended from Cobo Hall past Hart Plaza to the RenCen.
A couple of blocks away, the 90-room Radisson Cadillac Hotel has just undergone a $6 million renovation, and there is talk of a major chain negotiating to build a 1,000 room hotel downtown.
There's a proposal to build an aerial tramway over the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada, already a popular destination for both Detroiters and their visitors. The Detroit Windsor Tunnel, adjacent to the RenCen, is the busiest crossing point anywhere between the two countries.
By next year, construction is to start on several other large riverfront projects. Work has just begun on two new 21-story towers for the RenCen, their $70-million cost to be in part financed by the Rockefeller interests. Also scheduled for fall construction starts downtown are a new parking garage and a 385-unit apartment building.
An enclosed-mall shopping center that eventually will be joined to the J. L. Hudson Co., biggest Detroit department store, is on the planning boards, and in 1980, the first earth will be turned for the 2,000 unit Riverfront West condominium project that Mccabe and other civic leaders hope will bring residents back into the central core.
By next year, too, work finally may be finished on two lagging pedestrian malls in the downtown area. One is on Washington Boulevard, a development that civic leaders hope will help the street regain some of the glamor which in year's past had given it the sobriquet of the Midwest's Fifth Avenue." The other mall will run on Woodward Avenue, part of which is already closed to traffic.
Another major news area structure is the Silverdome, home of the football Detroit Lions, in the city of Pontiac about 30 miles away. The 1082 Super Bowl will be played in this 80,000-seat domed stadium.
Perhaps the most striking result of Detroit's renaissance has been its effect on Detroit's image of itself.
Time and again, Detroiters talk with pride of the recent achievements.
After years of being laughed at and dumped on, they now look on Detroit as the Renaissance City," Mccabe said. "People feel good about what's happened to their city."