Connect to share and comment
Buck up, Motown. From Juarez to Mogadishu to London, anything's possible.
BOSTON — Once the Paris of the Midwest, Detroit brought the world soul music, Henry Ford and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s down now, but surely not out.
Detroit last week became the largest American city to file for bankruptcy. (See Governing magazine’s article and interactive map for others.)
A great many people have given up on Detroit. Its population has shrunk about 250 percent since 1950. And its jobless and murder rates consistently soar well above the national average.
But Detroiters shouldn’t give up. They can turn it around and they wouldn’t be the first.
GlobalPost correspondents around the planet found plenty of examples of cities that have suffered worse than Detroit, only to pick themselves up again.
1) Juarez, Mexico
Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Ciudad Juarez, the star-crossed city that shares the Rio Grande with El Paso, Texas, might well have something to teach Detroit about the darkness before a dawn.
A rambunctious border town seemingly tacked to the middle of nowhere, Juarez boomed over the past four decades by stealing factories from places like Detroit and Dayton, Ohio, and — of course — smuggling marijuana, cocaine and other drugs to those same cities.
Employment boomed and Juarez was rich by Mexican standards.
The city's population exploded to 1.3 million with mostly poor migrants from the south — mirroring Detroit's growth in the years leading to World War II — who gladly filled $100-per-week production line jobs. Juarez was touted as a model for the globalized economy.
But shanty neighborhoods spread like wildfire, sprawling into desert. Too many of the migrants' children rejected their parents' life on the factory floors, flocking instead to gangs that in turn went to work for the powerful drug-smuggling conglomerates. Jobs evaporated, first to China and then into the void left by the Great Recession.
Politicians at every level shrugged off the collapse. Then Juarez, five years ago, exploded into a gangland war that claimed 10,000 victims, most of them young men. Juarez gained infamy as one of the most violent cities in the world, a harbinger for many of the impending collapse of Mexico.
The carnage forced Mexico's government to respond at last, pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars in social spending. Juarez purged its corrupt and ineffective police. The gangs wore themselves out, one side winning and bringing a relative peace.
Boosters went to work. “Ciudad Juarez of Mexico: The Land of Opportunities,” crowed the pitch at an investment dinner this spring in China, which has started to bleed jobs back to Mexico.
Investment started ticking up again and some of the 30,000 local Juarenses who had fled to El Paso came home, reopening shuttered businesses.
Conditions remain far from perfect but Juarez seems on the rebound, its trial by fire a lesson for citizens and their leaders alike.
“No hay mal que por bien no venga,” holds a traditional Mexican folk saying that Detroit folks might now want to embrace. “There is no bad that doesn't bring good.”
— Dudley Althaus, @dqalthaus
2) Tokyo, Japan
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images.
Think Detroit has it bad? On March 9, 1945, the Japanese capital of Tokyo was nearly incinerated. World War II was coming to an end, and American forces had commenced the deadliest air raid in history, Operation Meetinghouse.
Flying straight into the city's industrial heart, some 330 B-29 planes dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs loaded with white phosphorus and napalm. Those are deadly concoctions, and the resulting firestorm killed 100,000 people in a single night. Over the next few months, the city was hit by 100 more air raids.
Tokyo neighborhoods consisted of traditional wooden houses, making them vulnerable to a fast-moving blaze. Temperatures in some areas reached 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Some residents found hideaways, but pretty much all of them suffocated when the bombs sucked the oxygen out of their rooms.
Other victims, who jumped in rivers to escape the scorching heat, were boiled alive. As the smoke plumes rose, American bomber crews could smell the stench of burning flesh.
It is one of the most tragic chapters in the history of Japan. Yet the