Berlin: 'Poor But Sexy,' Detroit: 'Empty But Sexy'

Email a Friend

WDET's Martina Guzman spent six weeks in the German city of Berlin, exploring a long-recognized but underreported connection between that former manufacturing giant and the Motor City. In this post, which you can hear from the radio here, she gives a first-person account of visiting Berlin and talking with several people that recognize the connection between the two cities, especially their diminished but still "sexy" industrial prowess. 

On the roof-top patio of a members-only club in Berlin, scantily clad Germans bask in the sun. Club SoHo House is buzzing. A far cry from the grimy cold war uses of so many Berlin Buildings. There, I spotted Germany’s national newspaper, Die Zeit. On the entire front page of the travel section a photograph of the glorious and now derelict Detroit Train Station stared at me. The headline read: "Leer aber sexy," or "empty but sexy.” Berliners connect to Detroit. In 2004 their mayor coined “Poor but sexy” to describe Germany’s hip capital. Berliners embraced the catch phrase and used it on everything from t-shirts to tourism campaigns.

Detroit and Berlin have a lot in common in that they’re both part of the industrial revolution. John Kornblum is a native Detroiter whose family worked in the auto industry. He graduated from Michigan State University, and was the American Ambassador to Germany during the Clinton Administration. He still works in Berlin as an international business consultant, and points out similarities between his adopted city and his hometown. Neither were large or especially well known until middle of 19th century. Detroit is very spread out, Berlin is too. They have lots of leftover structures from the heyday of industrialization. 

Back in the U.S., on the campus of Wayne state University in Detroit, Robin Boyle teaches Urban Planning and Chairs the Department of Urban Studies. He says Detroit and Berlin boomed and by the early 1900s they were two of the most important cities in the world. 

“Modern Berlin was the cradle of the electrical industry…Siemens developed this remarkable intellectual power in terms of electrical machinery. Almost at the same time…the city of Detroit, the small manufacturing town based upon timber and wheels was becoming the powerhouse of the most important product of the twentieth century: the automobile. Both of them are incredibly important for innovative advancement…both intellectually…industrially and artistically." 

While Detroit was in a boom with automobile manufacturing, Berlin bounced back from the devastation of World War I, and ushered in the roaring twenties. 

Berlin was the second most important center for Jazz of its day, And the same could be said of Detroit. Detroit’s cultural center was driven as much as anything by the attraction people into the city for jobs. 

And then it happened: each city faced existential challenges in its own way. 

“The differences are about the shocks to the system…clearly no other city in Europe has seen so many fundamental shocks to the system. Detroit’s story is in sense of one long, slow dripping shock.”

Berlin was destroyed in the Second World War, then divided by the Berlin Wall during the cold war. America and Detroit benefited from Europe’s war time devastation. American car culture and Detroit innovation revved up in the post war years. Detroit’s slow dripping shock began in the late 1950s when manufacturing began to leave the city causing continual job loss, then the race riots of the1960s, mismanagement and rising crime led to a dramatic and decline in population — from nearly 2 million at its peak in 1950 to fewer than eight hundred thousand today.

Former Ambassador John Kornblum says that Like East Germany, which lost its intellectual class and young professionals to the West, Detroit also suffered from the decades of brain drain. 

In 1960s the situation was similar to that of Detroit in that people wondered whether the city could keep going. There was a loss of population, especially educated population. In the 1980s the public perception of Berlin often focused on its Nazi past and divided cold war present. Detroit’s image was hardly better. Rightly or wrongly, it was also called murder capitol U.S.A. and plagued by arson, so much so it was called "the city on fire." Both cities had horrific public images.

But that’s hardly the end of the story. 

“A good story is always a story of renewal and repurposing and I think that’s what’s occurring in both of these places." 

That’s Bruce Katz, Vice President at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Metropolitan Policy Program. Katz says Berlin worked against tremendous odds to reinvent itself and offers a model on how to redesign a destructed landscape. Berlin has also excelled at remaking its physical landscape. What we had in Berlin was literally the removal of a division in the middle of the city. The city had to be knitted back together, which allowed for some obviously creative planning and design. 

Excellent urban planning, enormous federal and local investment, social safety nets, good schools, and niceties like cheap rent are among the factors that have helped revitalize Berlin and turn its image around. It takes all of these elements and more to bring a city back from the brink. Each successful city will customize its own solutions. Katz says Detroit wouldn’t be the first city to shrink in order to succeed. 

I do think that what Detroit is doing is remaking a very large landscape to fit a smaller population, which frankly many German cities, Berlin but also Leipzig, have had to deal with since the reunification of Germany. Detroit is a remarkable city with a remarkable history. Again because it has an iconic stature among American cities, there is the potential in terms of what cities offer, in terms of their architecture and design, amenities, to attract creative individuals, particularly young individuals, to the city.

If Detroit doesn’t have potential it doesn’t have anything. A generation ago who would have thought Berlin would come back. With its immigrant communities, techno, Jazz, industrial know how, Detroit is filled with people and energy waiting to thrive, and this city’s re-invention will be anything but boring.