10 Things About Detroit That May Surprise You


Once one of the largest, richest and most prosperous cities in the US, Detroit has fallen on hard times.  But reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.  It remains a city with a talented workforce (it has more engineers per capita than any other city), huge manufacturing capacity, rich history, amazing culture and a downtown that is striving for rejuvenation.  Don't believe me?  Here are ten things you might not know about The Motor City.

1. The Greening of Detroit. Detroit had a peak population of around 1.8 million people. Now, however, the population is just a little over 800,000. The mortgage and automotive crises, coupled with huge rates of unemployment, caused a massive exodus that's left the city with large swathes of unused land. One group, The Greening Of Detroit, is using that land to create inspiration, beautification, teaching opportunities and sustainable sources of food.

In 2002, The Greening created an Empowerment Zone, an intense clean-up and restoration project that restored 1,370 vacant lots in Detroit. They also run an Urban Farm at Romanowski Park, a 26-acre park located in southwest Detroit with a two-acre farm plot, teaching pavilion, playgrounds, orchards and athletic fields. They are one of several organizations with some fantastic ideas on how to revitalize Detroit.

2. Hollywood of the Midwest. Another interesting plan to simulate the downtrodden economy is to entice movie producers to the state. Michigan is currently offering huge tax incentives to bring in the movie business and Detroit's landscape and architecture provide a wide array backdrops, as well as a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce. Movies filmed in Detroit include Transformers, The Island, Dreamgirls, Semi-Pro, Road To Perdition, 8 Mile, Gran Torino and Up In The Air, which was party filmed at the Detroit Metro Airport. In fact, despite the 2008 opening of a brand new, state-of-the-art facility at the airport, Detroit plans to keep the older Berry Terminal for movies and commercials.

3. Roads? Where We're Going, We Need Roads. In 1909, Detroit built the first mile of paved concrete road, just outside of Henry Ford's Model T plant, on Woodward Avenue. Detroit was also the first city to create an urban freeway, the Davison, which opened in 1942. The Davison was slated to take to more than a decade to finish, but the looming threat of WWII sped up its creation, as it was a vital artery to several local plants manufacturing parts for the war. Speaking of WWII...

4. 10. That was the number of automobiles produced by Ford in 1944. The manufacturing capacity of Detroit was almost entirely converted to help create the "Arsenal of Democracy". By 1944, Ford was producing close to 80% of all B-24 Liberator bombers, each of which contained over one million parts held together by hundreds of thousands of rivets. At the end of the war, Ford was producing 540 planes a month. Many pilots would sleep on cots outside Ford's Willow Run facility, waiting for planes to roll off the line.

5. Candy Is Dandy, But Liquor Is Quicker. Prohibition may have been the law of the US from 1920-1933, but our neighbors to the north suffered no such restrictions. In the wake of the 18th amendment, hundreds of distilleries opened in Canada and Detroit became a huge corridor for illegal booze heading into the states. It's estimated that at the height of prohibition, 75% of all illegal alcohol in the US came through Detroit, which was controlled by the infamous and bloody Purple Gang. Their power and influence was so great, notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone brought the Gang into his empire as suppliers for Canadian Whiskey rather than fight a war with them.

6. Can You Breathe Underwater? The Detroit Free Press Marathon holds the distinction of being the only international marathon that begins in the United States. Marathoners cross the Ambassador Bridge into Canada, then return via the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which runs under the Detroit River, meaning the race is also the only marathon with an official underwater mile.

7. Famous Faces. You would recognize a ton of famous celebrities and music groups that call Detroit their home, including Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Allen, David Alan Grier, Christie Brinkley, Elizabeth Berkely, James Lipton, Tim Meadows, Tom Selleck, Insane Clown Posse, Eminem, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Ted Nugent, Marth Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Bob Seger, Sufjan Stevens, The White Stripes, John Sinclair and of course Casey Kasem. Now on with the countdown…

8. Native American Idol. The first recorded mention of Detroit comes from the diary of a French priest. In 1670, while traveling to Sault St. Marie, a pair of missionaries came across a stone idol being worshiped by the natives of the area. One of these priests grabbed an axe, destroyed the idol, dropped the pieces into the Detroit River, then wrote about it in his journal.

9. Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Belgian. The Cadieux Cafe in Detroit is the only place in North America where you can play Feather Bowling, a game created in Flanders, Belgium, in the 13th century. Teams roll wooden balls shaped like wheels of cheese down an alley, attempting to stop them close to a feather at the other end. It can be described as a combination of bocce and curling.

10. Lions and Tigers and Red Wings, Oh My. Despite the historic ineptitude of the Lions, Detroit is still one of the more successful sports cities. In fact, it is one of the only cities to have its baseball, basketball and hockey teams all win titles in the past 30 years. If you include the nearby universities of Michigan in football (although they have had a few rough years) and Tom Izzo's basketball team in E. Lansing, the non-Lions sport success becomes even more impressive.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.