What was different about Detroit five years ago? The city certainly feels different, but it can be a struggle to point to the specific changes — unless, that is, you search way, way, way, way back in your email inbox and pull out some of the first Detour newsletters. 

We’ve spent the last few weeks catching up on our own history, combing through poorly kept archives to find the first official Detour email, sent to readers on March 16, 2018: “Secrets, scandals and nachos.” 

Besides some scattershot formatting, there’s a lot that looks like a Detour of the present: questions about tax incentives (that failed Amazon proposal); new biz highlights (Detroit Sip and Candy Bar); criminal justice concerns (rape kits and sexual assault legislation in the wake of the Larry Nassar investigation); speculation about the applications of AI technology and student literacy research; and food and culture recs, from botanas to Black Women Rock. 

Not everything’s the same: We didn’t keep up with the Big Sean and Blake Griffin dating drama beats, for one. 

While our other fascinations and irritations have been fairly consistent, those 2018 Detours reveal significant changes in the city. This week, we’re taking the time to look back at a few of the biggest issues from five years ago, where there’s been progress and what challenges Detroit is still facing.

Thanks for taking the Detour, whether you signed up five years ago or just started reading. Without further ado, here’s what we’ve learned since 2018. 

1. A little bit of skepticism goes a long way

Over the last five years we’ve seen our share of broken promises, sweetheart deals and million-dollar hustles. Whether it’s a developer touting jobs for Detroiters, a land swap trading bridges for parks or factories or tree farms — in this town, it pays to be skeptical. 

Remember when Detroit offered Amazon $4 billion to build its second headquarters in Motown? We do. And for losing that bid, Detroit sure came out a winner. Earlier this month Amazon announced it was pausing construction of HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, after pulling out of its other proposed campus in Queens, New York. Opponents of the Queens location — fearing gentrification and opposed to the $3 billion in tax breaks — successfully fought back with the help of elected officials.

A similar fight is taking place in Detroit, even if the result seems all but decided. On Monday, members of Congress joined protesters opposing $800 million in incentives for the $1.5 billion District Detroit project. Remember the first time the Ilitches said they’d develop that area with taxpayer money? We do. And so does Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who called on city officials to “stop gaslighting and lying to our residents.” 

But wait, Mayor Mike Duggan and his billionaire bros have promised us 6,000 permanent jobs as part of what we’re getting for that $800 million! And when they cut that ribbon, all 1.2 million square feet of office space will surely be flooded with high-paying jobs. It’ll happen because they said it would, and because office space is in such high demand

Plans never change, and promises always come true when taxpayers fund them. Well, except that original District Detroit plan, of course. Oh and Dan Gilbert’s Monroe Blocks project, now slashed to roughly half its originally announced size while adding a concert venue and market hall. (Can they please keep the downtown roller rink?) And we just can’t wait for the new Hudson’s site tower, spiking 912 feet — no, scratch that — 685 feet into the skyline, bursting with even more office space. What’s not to get excited about? While we get as excited about a new Target as anyone, we won’t stop side-eyeing anytime soon. 

Our favorite reader submissions from Detour’s first year

Readers have been sending us their thoughtful and hilarious questions and comments since Day One — and, when we’re lucky, poetry. We’ll never forget this utterly perfect Detroit haiku:

Loose burger you say?
You just take a coney dog
and take out the dog.

—Justin Carinci

2. The city works for us (even when it doesn’t) 

City officials aren’t the only ones who can and should help address challenges in Detroit. But hey, because we vote for and pay these folks to do just that, Detour has always paid special attention to what city and county governments are and aren’t making happen.

Detroit showed it can step up in a sudden crisis, reinvigorating its infrastructure to lead the regional response on COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations. But it is some movement on the long-standing and slow-moving affordable housing crisis that feels like the biggest shift over the last five years. The city has demolished almost 3,500 properties since Proposal N passed, and almost 1,000 more properties are in the process of being rehabbed, says the city (though we have to wonder if there could have been more rehabs and fewer demos). Fewer homes are going to or being sold at the Wayne County tax auction, even though the county is making more money than ever on that particular pain point for Detroit and advocates are still pushing for reform in the property tax system.

With renters making up half the city, tenant protections and accountability for landlords are critical. The City Council has answered the call by passing the Right to Counsel ordinance and opening (months late) a new Office of Eviction Defense. What the city hasn’t fixed is the troubled rental registration program, leaving tenants still largely on their own when it comes to trying to get landlords to make repairs. In response, more tenants are organizing, and we’ll be watching to see how officials respond to the pressure.

The reforms would have been impossible without Detroit’s housing advocates pushing, floating proposals and keeping officials’ feet to the fire. It’s also hard to imagine how the city would meet residents’ needs without, for example, the United Community Housing Coalition. The nonprofit’s revenue skyrocketed between 2020 and 2021 as it passed through emergency rental assistance grants and provided housing lawyers for people during the pandemic. It is also still shouldering the burden of running the Make It Home program to help renters save the houses they live in from tax foreclosure, and it’ll continue to represent people in court through the Eviction Defense office.

On the not-so-great side of the government ledger, the last five years have provided City Council investigations and indictments that slowed progress. Former Councilmember Andre Spivey pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in 2021 after an FBI informant got him to agree to vote for certain towing contracts in exchange for cash. He was sentenced to 24 months in prison last year. The investigation also swept up former Councilmembers Janeé Ayers and Scott Benson. Neither Ayers nor Benson were charged with a crime. Ayers lost her re-election bid in 2021. Benson is still on the council. Former Councilmember Gabe Leland pleaded guilty to misconduct the same year for taking bribes but got probation.

Council had its most turnover ever when the body was sworn in last year, and the former legislative newbies have settled in, with hard work, contentious votes and a (usually) productive working relationship with City Hall. Thankfully the Detroit Documenters, barely a glimmer in our eye back in 2018, are helping keep both the city and the county participatory, transparent and accountable.

The most eye-catching email subject lines from Detour’s first year

Coming up with an absurd, inspired or at least self-entertaining subject line is one of the most fun parts of writing each edition of Detour. These are some of the most ridiculous early headers:

  • A tale of payoffs and pot-stickers
  • KAWS me outside, girl
  • Who’s hungry for a dystopian pizza future?
  • Detroit riddle: what does a car company do with 1,000 extra windows?!
  • How to set fire to regional cooperation, with just one letter
  • Hey Wayne County, where’s your naughty list?
  • The goose fleeing Comerica in a thunderstorm is all of us

3. Detroit’s story is never set in stone

Detroit is a city of change by way of ongoing big development and restoration. We saw Michigan Central Station — Corktown’s largest eyesore for decades — become the venue for the mayor’s 10th annual State of the City address last week. The long-vacant station has been no stranger to news coverage of Detroit’s rolling revival, especially after the 2018 transfer of power from the controversial Moroun family to Ford Motor Co., which Detour covered obsessively. The automaker bought the 500,000-square-foot building for $90 million and said it would spend more than eight times that amount — $740 million — on renovations (while also securing $207 million in tax incentives). The Morouns’ celebration of the sale after years of procrastination to vastly improve the property drew saucy flak, while Ford got the locals excited and threw a public party to celebrate its pledge to make the grounds its automated and electric vehicle campus.

Historic postcard with illustration of train station covered in repeating text: “TBD”
How we felt about the Michigan Central Station renovation in 2018. Image credit: Detour

The large-scale renovation plans seemed almost inconceivable at the time, but here it is, almost complete. In advance of its anticipated opening later this year, Ford has beefed up its Corktown property portfolio and renovated far beyond the oft-referenced 1,000 windows the Morouns installed during their decades-long ownership of the building.

That old depot is just one of many big developments and rehabs in the city that have started to take shape. There’s the old Fisher Body Plant 21, one of the largest Black-led rehabilitation projects in Detroit’s history; the Joe Louis Greenway that will connect 23 neighborhoods; and the high-design Oudolf Garden Detroit on Belle Isle. And let’s not forget the 2023 Grand Prix construction paving the way for the event to leave Belle Isle for Detroit’s downtown streets — something residents were loudly rallying for with little luck five years ago.

Residents are still waiting for other mega-developments in the city to live up to their billion-dollar claims. For Detour’s 10th anniversary, we’ll have to check in on hotel plans at the former Joe Louis Arena site; how District Detroit’s planned community benefits worked out; and if Gilbert’s big Monroe Blocks and Hudson’s site projects are finally part of the downtown skyline. After all, we were awaiting the Packard Plant’s sweeping redevelopment in 2018, and now it’s in demo

And that’s development in Detroit, keeping us on our toes like a Miguel Diaz change-up.

The most repeated words in Detour’s first year 

Here’s a list of the notable words that showed up more than 100 times in the first year of Detours: Detroit (duh), city, people, community, downtown, public, residents. The person we talked about most? Mayor Mike Duggan, with more than 50 mentions. 

4. Getting from point A to point B in this city keeps getting harder

From potholes to bus cuts and that collapsed pedestrian bridge, transportation is still one of the biggest barriers in Detroit. Through the years, we’ve covered many attempts to improve transit and mobility options. We almost forgot the big one from our early days: In early 2018, county officials proposed a $5.4 billion regional transit plan which included more buses, a few airport routes, commuter rail to Ann Arbor and more. However, later that year, officials from Oakland and Macomb County voted against putting the plan on the ballot, stalling funding for regional transit once again. 

In a smaller but encouraging update, Oakland County passed a 10-year transit millage a few months ago to support SMART and other transit providers in the county. For DDOT, there have been plans to improve the bus services and to add more routes, but in 2019, the standard bus fare increased by 50 cents to $2, while we’ve also seen both service cuts and large ridership decreases since the pandemic. Still, we don’t miss the days when L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive who died in 2019, used his metro Detroit might to squash both regional transit and regional cooperation at large. (Remember when he called Duggan a “creep”?)

Things haven’t gotten much better for drivers, either — although in 2018, changes to car insurance were far from certain. Duggan was one of the people out front leading the insurance reform efforts, pressing state legislators and trying to federally sue to try to lower the rates. In 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer passed legislation to end the state’s requirement for drivers to purchase policies that guarantee uncapped lifetime medical benefits in the event of a crash. But rates are still disproportionately high for Detroiters.

The city made some changes to address mobility and pedestrian safety on its streets by adding thousands of speed humps to residential streets during the last few years and undertaking major streetscaping projects like the overhaul of Livernois Avenue. Other possible changes include implementing “road diets” when redesigning streets to protect bike lanes and sidewalks. Speaking of sidewalks, regulations on scooters were implemented last month, putting regulations on the Birds, Limes, et al. that appeared seemingly out of thin air back in 2018. City Council voted to add rules on where scooter riders can and can’t ride (not on grass, but can on sidewalks).

The local autonomous vehicle hype seemed hypier in 2018, but we still had a lot of questions — just like we still do about the planned self-driving vehicle corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor, which was announced by Whitmer in 2020 and secured $130 million in funding last year. (The state’s smart highway plans date further back to at least 2014.) Though Ford and other private companies are ponying up for the 40-mile corridor plans, we still think we were asking the right infrastructure questions back in June 2018:

“When CEOs like (the Emagine theater chain’s Paul) Glantz, or county executives like Mark Hackel and L. Brooks Patterson fight against funding a regional transit authority, they argue that we should spend money on fixing roads and advancing new tech for drivers, not buses or rail. You may agree or disagree with that premise. But it’s worth asking what else we may need a regional transit authority for in the future. GM and Ford didn’t construct the nation’s highways to sell cars — the public sector did. Who else, if not the public sector, do we think is going to build and manage millions of people moving across a truly connected region? Waymo and Uber are building cars of the future, but do we expect them to build the infrastructure of the future, too?”

The silliest “secret links” from the first year of Detours

If you don’t scroll to the very, very bottom of Detour, you miss the easter egg tucked at the end, and you’re absolutely missing out. Here are some of our faves:

  • Forget dance like nobody’s watching. Dance like your city depends on it.
  • Sooo a lot of those ’90s kids movies — fodder for endless nostalgia listicles — don’t totally hold up… but maybe the soundtracks do? Today’s newsletter is brought to you by the Motown crooners who lent a soulful vibe to “The Land Before Time” and “Mulan.”  (And we guess you too, 98 Degrees.)
  • “You sat in gum,” “Your cat is dead,” and other lyrics that got edited out of the “Friends” theme song and are now preserved in the Detroit Historical Society archives
  • That classic philosophical question: If a custom political attack Snapchat filter is made for a policy conference filled with Baby Boomers, will anybody see it?
  • We’re still waiting for the movie version of the epic Trick Trick vs. Rick Ross No Fly Zone drama of 2014. Someone buy the rights, stat! 

5. You know it, we knew it — Detroiters are what make this city special

Detroit is thriving with enough talented people and vibrant culture to fill 10,000 years of newsletters. We knew that going in — that’s part of why we started Detour — and it’s never been truer that these amazing groups and projects are what give the city meaning. 

In April 2018, Willis Show Bar was just opening. Detroit’s newest classic jazz club still hosts plenty of shows and entertainment rocking from Wednesdays through the weekend. Elevated Yogi is still hosting its group smoke sessions before yoga. Chene Park was renamed for the Queen of Soul, and the city is keeping the grounds in shape with a few updates to the building and landscape at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre

The city started to show more love for Rouge Park. We’ve gotten stormwater projects and bigger commitments to improve the city’s parks and recreation centers — not to mention Belle Isle upgrades and all the new additions to the riverfront (and floating tiki boats cruising the river). 

Volunteer groups have been meeting critical needs, from food to health. In the wake of a 2018 hepatitis A outbreak, student volunteers with Wayne State University’s Street Medicine Detroit program were offering impromptu checkups for people experiencing homelessness. During the pandemic, we saw the organization create public hand-washing stations

Camera follows driving blue pickup truck from behind, filled with water that is splashing out. Turner laying down in the truckbed with feet hanging out.
Riding around Detroit in a hot tub pickup truck. Image credit: GIF captured from “JA RULE” music video from Benjamin Earl Turner

In the past five years, Detroit saw a host of chefs working to alleviate business and food insecurity — and creating their vision for a food sovereign city. Raphael Wright is set to open Neighborhood Grocery in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, and the Detroit Black Food Security Network is also working to open the long-planned Detroit Food Commons, which will house the Detroit People’s Food Co-op and a community kitchen. To help the community learn about sustainable food practices, Make Food Not Waste started the Upcycling Kitchen in 2021 and has scaled way up. College students Emily Eicher and Alyssa Rogers also started the Detroit Community Fridge in 2020, which has grown to five locations

The Black Bottom Garden Center co-op opened to support local green thumbs, an idea that sprung out of community meetings. Keep Growing Detroit is still supporting those who want to grow their own food through its Garden Resource Program, and the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund launched on Juneteenth in 2020, helping Black Detroiters secure access to the land to start urban farms and gardens without losing their investment

In 2018, we were watching our favorite 5-year-old fashionista Ali Boler, who is now 9 and still a street fashion IG icon. Detroit artist Eric “El Cappy” Lowry is still customizing sneakers. And just last month, Detroit’s beauty, fashion and lifestyle entrepreneurs came together to form the Detroit Fashion Community. It’s enough to make us wonder if Detroit is becoming the next “fashion city.”

We’ll end with the words of hip hop artist Benjamin Earl Turner, whose locally produced music video for “JA RULE” captivated us back in January 2019

“The idea was to … make Detroit the sort of shining star of the video, but do it in a way that detaches it from all the narratives that are too cumbersome for it to hold,” Turner said. “There’s just hella random beautiful stuff here. There’s also just hella random beautiful stuff you can only do in Detroit.”

Kate (she/her) is passionate about journalism that involves Detroiters from the start and helps readers solve problems and find joy in their daily lives. Her favorite Detroit spot to watch the sunset, play soccer, watch the freighters go by and feel a little haunted is Historic Fort Wayne.

Noah (he/him) believes people benefit their communities when they create civic media and commit acts of journalism. He enjoys being anywhere with live music or tacos.

Sarah (she/her) believes the best local reporting is a service, responds directly to community needs and reduces harm. Her favorite place in Detroit is her backyard on a summer evening.

Erin’s (she/her) personal motto for journalism is: “Invest in the journalists of tomorrow, for they may be our bosses one day.” Her favorite places in Detroit are its classrooms — for the sometimes subtle and other times obvious student intellect.

Malak (she/her) believes in local journalism that provides people with verified and comprehensive information. Her favorite places to unwind and pick up a new read are at Detroit’s bookstores and libraries.

Lynelle (she/her) likes working with Documenters because she thinks it’s important for us to share our news and our voices with our neighbors and networks. Her favorite spaces in Detroit are the urban gardens that promote peace, hope, health and healing.