When Detroit Was Great: Scenes From a Past America

Before there was bankruptcy, there was a thriving city.

The Detroit skyline, as seen from Windsor, Ontario, in 1929. (Library of Congress)

"A CHANCE FOR A FRESH START" is how the Detroit Free Press blasted the news that the city had filed for bankruptcy on its front page Friday. Detroit Mayor David Bing said much the same Thursday: "This is very difficult for all of us, but if it's going to make services better off, then this is a new start for us."

That difficulty is immediately obvious. When Detroit filed for bankruptcy Thursday, it joined just over 60 municipalities to do so since the mid-1950s. Detroit, with as much as $20 billion in debt, is by far the largest city to ever do so. It's not at all clear where the city goes from here, and what kind of precedent the bankruptcy proceedings will set for the nation's other struggling cities.

For Detroit though, it wasn't always this way. Search through photos of the city throughout the 20th century, and you see a grand arc of urban exuberance to urban decay. Today, Detroit is a city of contrasts. Great structures of a bygone age, such as the baroque Michigan Theatre, are now vacant or re-purposed. The Theatre, once adorned by crystal chandeliers and constructed on the site of Henry Ford's first factory, is now a parking garage. How's that for symbolism.

Here's a look back at what Detroit once was, and what many hope it now has the chance to become again.

In 1905, a boat steams across an icy Detroit river. (Library of Congress)

"The Heart of Detroit" taken between 1910 and 1920. (Library of Congress) Baseball fans crowd in front of City Hall on Oct. 6, 1908, watching the Free Press scoreboard containing the Detroit-Chicago score when the Tigers clinched the American League championship for the second time. (Library of Congress) Detroit is lit up in this photo dated between 1910 and 1920. (Library of Congress) The Detroit Iron and Steel Co.  in 1903. (Library of Congress)

Kids at a ball game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit in 1942. (Library of Congress) "Streetcar safety demonstration," taken between 1915 and 1930. (Library of Congress)

Construction of gas holder, Detroit City Gas Co., in 1913. (Library of Congress)

Band concert, Belle Isle Park, in 1907. (Library of Congress)

Men work in foundry and machine shop that produced automobile engines; it merged with Cadillac Motor Co. in 1905. (Library of Congress)

In March, 1963, this headline graced The New York Times:

(New York Times)

The story's lede: "There is no singing the blues in Detroit these days, even though a gray, chilling winter has tried to linger in spring's lap." High hopes for the city under "Michigan's dynamic new chief executive," Gov. George Romney.

This is a general view of the National Auto Show during previews, Oct. 14, 1960, at Cobo Hall in Detroit. (AP Photo) Swinging from Alaska to Detroit, Sen. John F. Kennedy addresses a large Labor Day crowd in Cadillac Square as he pushed his presidential campaign into Michigan on Sept. 5, 1960 in Detroit. (AP Photo) A small crowd wanders through the 59th Detroit Auto Show in Cobo Arena, Jan. 15, 1975, as the show opened its fourth day in a nine-day run.  (AP Photo)

From an EPA photo, new cars are loaded onto railroad cars at Lasher and I-75 in July 1973.

Detroit Pistons center and future Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Lanier rides a trolley outside Detroit's Cobo Hall in 1977:

(AP Photo/Richard Sheinwald)

Ronal Reagan officially became the GOP nominee for president at the Republican National Convention in Detroit in July 1980. This AP photo features Reagan, his running mate George H.W. Bush, former President Ford, and their wives.

(AP Photo)

Of course, life in Detroit wasn't always great for everybody. Racial issues have spilled over into violence in the city for decades. Here, in June 1943, the Michigan governor called in troops to stop fighting:

(AP Photo)

And more recently, massive riots took place over five days in 1967; the riots broke out over police brutality toward Detroit's black citizens and the economic stagnation of the black population:

(AP Photo)

And even in the seemingly good times, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf writes today, some saw the city's fall coming.

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