Detroit, the birthplace of the mass-production auto industry and the Motown sound, has long had an image problem. The city boasts a billion-dollar downtown development, ultramodern motor-manufacturing plants, some excellent museums, and one of the nation's biggest art galleries – but since the 1960s, media attention has dwelt instead on its huge tracts of urban wasteland, where for block after block there's nothing but the occasional heavily fortified loan shop or grocery store. This characterization incurs the wrath of many Detroiters, and, though their city has unarguably suffered and continues to face tremendous challenges their claims of exaggeration or exploitation by the media do carry weight.
Founded in 1701 by Antoine de Mothe Cadillac, as a trading post for the French to do business with the Chippewa, Detroit was no more than a medium-sized port two hundred years later. Then Henry Ford, Ransom Eli Olds, the Chevrolets, and the Dodge brothers began to build their automobile empires. Thanks to the introduction of the mass assembly line, Detroit boomed in the 1920s, but the auto barons sponsored the construction of segregated neighbourhoods and unceremoniously dispensed with workers during times of low demand. Such policies created huge ghettos, resulting, in July 1967, in the bloodiest riot in the US in fifty years. More than forty people died and thirteen hundred buildings were destroyed. The inner city was left to fend for itself, while the all-important motor industry was rocked by the oil crises and Japanese competition. Today, though scarred and bruised, Detroit is not the mess some would have it, and suburban residents have started to return to the city's festivals, theatres, clubs, and restaurants.
As for orientation, it makes sense to think of Detroit as a region rather than a concentrated city – and, with some planning and wheels, it holds plenty to see and do. For the moment, downtown is not so much the heart of the giant as just another segment. Other interesting areas include the huge Cultural Center, freewheeling Royal Oak, posh Birmingham, the Ford-town of Dearborn, nearby Windsor, Ontario, and the college town of Ann Arbor, a short drive west.