DETROIT — It is hardly the tidiest paperweight. At the center of Paul Childs’s coffee table in a downtown building rests a long, rusty chunk of 19th-century rail.
This is one of the last remnants of a streetcar system that was the envy of cities throughout the country. Childs can still remember riding the trams as a boy, dreaming of the soda fountain at the end of the line that served as a treat after his doctor’s appointments. It was six decades until he could salvage this section of track from the miles of rail that still lie below the ground, hastily buried underneath new roads.
Now Childs has identified an unlikely savior for the Motor City — a return to rail.
He is at the helm of a $180 million project to run streetcars along a 3.3-mile stretch of Woodward Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, which is already illuminated by the flashing amber lights of contractors’ vans. His chunk of rail was unearthed during the first week of construction, decades after the trams stopped running in 1956.
Childs views this activity as progress, albeit modest, for a city that filed for bankruptcy protection just two years ago, epitomizing the nadir of the Great Recession, and is still losing hundreds of residents each month to more thriving cities.
“I don’t want to say it’s back to the future, but when you see all this excitement, you can imagine what this place was like in the ’50s,” Childs, chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization behind the streetcar, M-1 Rail, said in an interview. “This by itself isn’t going to turn the city around, but it is one big part of the puzzle.”
The last line to run was on Woodward. More than half a century later, the avenue is the epicenter of attempts to revive downtown Detroit.
Venture a few blocks east or west and abandoned houses and offices with broken windows are a more common sight. A pawnbroker at the foot of nearby Gratiot Avenue was shuttered during a recent lunch hour. “Ca$h City,” its sign hollered.
More than half of the rail project is funded by private or philanthropic backers, including the billionaires Dan Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans and owns 75 properties on or close to Woodward Avenue, and Roger Penske, whose car dealerships and racing team reflect the city’s love affair with the motorcar. Gilbert is plowing in $11.4 million, and Penske is adding “several million,” joining funders that include the federal government and the city’s development authority.
Some here are skeptical about private donors’ motives. Chris McCarus, a public radio reporter who also restores houses in the city, supports M-1 but also calls it “a real estate project.”
“For them, it is not about how to get old ladies to the hospital in an emergency,” he said. “It is real simple: It improves their business. Everything Dan Gilbert does turns to gold.”
Penske dismisses such talk, pointing out that he does not own any buildings in the city.
“I don’t look at what’s good for Gilbert or what’s good for someone else,” he said in a phone interview. “It is my company, my family, giving back to the city and the place that I live — trying to help people who might not be as fortunate as I am.”
The speed with which Gilbert has snapped up property since he moved his business downtown five years ago has made some Detroiters suspicious of his intentions. But even his detractors acknowledge that any benefactor is better than none, and Gilbert’s empire, from mortgage lending to casinos, has kept thousands of Detroiters in a job.
Gilbert declined, via an M-1 representative, to be interviewed for this article, but Matthew Cullen, president of Gilbert’s company, Rock Ventures, as well as CEO of M-1, said his boss supported the venture before the company owned a single building in Detroit.
But he described the company’s philosophy as: “We can do good and do well. . . . I won’t do the famous GM quote about ‘what’s good for us is good for the country.’ ”
Cullen says the permanence of a streetcar will send a stronger signal of confidence in the city’s future than merely buying a few more buses, and he expects the project to generate $3.5 billion of economic activity with thousands more apartments being built.
Some revitalization is already evident on parts of the avenue, where pricey restaurants and bars are opening. There is even that obligatory emblem of gentrification: a branch of Whole Foods Market.
Cullen says young people favor living downtown over commuting from the suburbs. The M-1 will give them the public transport to suit this lifestyle, counteracting a brain drain.
“The joke that we used when we did talks was that people would get out of the University of Michigan with two pieces of paper: a diploma and a ticket to Chicago,” he said. “Really, this thing was a moonshot to say we are going to create an environment here that is going to be really attractive to millennials.”
This vision of a latte-slurping future has failed to win over some Detroiters. At the Rosa Parks Transit Center, a short walk from Woodward, Kenneth Davis was waiting for yet another bus. “Sometimes they be on time, sometimes they don’t,” said the 62-year-old African American from the city’s west side, with the wisdom of one who rides Detroit’s buses every day.
He earns the Michigan minimum wage of $8.15 an hour on a night shift packing vegetables and thinks the money being spent on M-1 is “crazy.”
“Downtown is changing,” he said. “More suburbanites are coming here: white folks. It’s just stimulating one part of the city.”
Kurt Metzger, a demographer who worked for the Detroit census bureau for 15 years and is now mayor of the suburb of Pleasant Ridge, supports M-1 but said the project has been criticized as a “toy for the well-to-do”.
“You go to the new restaurants, and you would never think you were in the city of Detroit,” he said. “It’s even whiter than the suburbs sometimes.”
Stalwart businesses on Woodward are already noticing this change. Garden Bowl opened in 1913 and claims to be the country’s oldest continuously operated bowling alley. One of its general managers, Erin Mitchell, is “on the fence” about M-1: She will use it to get downtown but says the new development risks “pricing out” people who have stuck it out here for decades.
“The clientele has shifted,” she said. “We still get native Detroiters, but one of our biggest clients is Quicken,” whose employees come for pizza and bowling.
Further along Woodward, Dan Tatarian fears he will have to move his rock-and-roll outfits business — Showtime Clothing, which has been based here for 26 years — as rents rise.
“A lot of artists who lived here for a long time now can’t afford the rent,” he said, adding that he had heard the development described as “bleaching the hair of Detroit.”
Others worry M-1 will encounter a similar fate to the People Mover, a 1980s-vintage, 2.9-mile monorail that loops through downtown. It was intended as the first stage of a regional transit system that never materialized. These days, it is pretty empty.
During one recent lunchtime journey around the full loop, no passengers at all boarded one of its two cars at 10 of the 13 stations. Metzger said M-1 must connect to a regional system to avoid that fate. A referendum to fund such a system is planned for next fall.
But some see more immediate gains. The Detroit Hardware Company has been serving Detroiters on Woodward Avenue for 91 years, and it has been in Anna Sparkman’s family since the ’50s. She is still giving out handwritten receipts and doing a healthy trade in fruit-fly traps. She remembers when the street had “empty buildings everywhere. . . . Things were closing up, and there was nothing new.”
M-1 would bring new customers from downtown, she said, glad that the area is finally on the up. “People are moving all the time,” she said. “We are cutting a lot of keys.”
Outside her shop, more track is being laid every day, just a few feet above the line Paul Childs once rode. A short walk away, 53-year-old Detroiter Melvin Keys stood in a high-visibility jacket, wearing a yellow hard hat over his baseball cap. Every day, he spends eight hours on the M-1 construction site, directing traffic away from the rail.
He is eager to ride the streetcar for the first time. “I’m going to say, ‘We’ve finally done it. We’ve got something completed,’ ” he said. “Building this, I feel like the city is coming back.”