Detroit's Small–Scale Manufacturing Revolution —

After decades of stagnation, Motor City’s downtown is rolling again.

In a wide industrial building in West–Side Detroit, 50 people are diligently working a production line, necks craned over angled tools, assembling custom commuter bikes. Some are fitting fenders to the C–type bike, a one–speed ride with drop handlebars, while others are fine–tuning the B–type, a classic European city bike with a low crossbar (available in refreshing mint green).

September 5, 2018
Colourful illustration of a man riding a bike.

Founded by Calgary native Zak Pashak in 2011, Detroit Bikes makes about 8,000 bicycles a year, from hand–welding frames out of U.S.–made steel tubing to fastening newly spoked wheels assembled on site. The city that gives the company its name is also the place with the best possible workforce for the only high–volume bicycle manufacturer in the United States “Tinkering and fixing is in the DNA here,” Detroit Bikes chief operating officer Chris Kiesling explains. “People just know how to put things together.” When he set up the company in Detroit, Pashak didn’t just find a skilled, job–hungry workforce, but also a low cost of living and affordable real estate – the results of a decades–long downturn.

Now Detroit Bikes is part of a movement of small–scale manufacturers who are re–investing in Detroit and re–establishing the city’s maker culture. Hip and high–end label Shinola has 250 workers here assembling turntables, watches and leather goods. And doubling down on Motown’s musical clout, Jack White opened Third Man Pressing in 2017, where eight vinyl presses turn out discs to feed the long–play record revival.

Detroit factory workers.

Detroit is also a living transportation museum: Not just the centre of the American automobile universe, it’s also home to a 1980s monorail, a growing cycle culture and the new five–kilometre–long Q–Line streetcar that launched in 2017. “Detroit had an extensive streetcar network until the 1950s, when it was shut down and sold,” 26–year–old Jacob Jones tells me over early–morning coffee in the lobby of the David Whitney Building, a historic skyscraper facing Grand Circus Park. Neglect of public transit combined with socio–economic tensions both contributed to the abandonment of the inner city, and “Detroit’s population has declined every year since,” he says. As of the 2016 census, the population was still falling. Jones, a guide for Motor City–boosting design and tour company Pure Detroit, leads me past several landmark buildings on Woodward Avenue, where the refurbished facades are one sign that life is returning to the downtown core; the bikes zipping down Detroit’s main street are another.

At least one Detroit long–player has joined the urban redevelopment party. Ford Motor Company, founded in Detroit in 1903, announced in June it had acquired Michigan Central Station, long a symbol of the city’s decline. The building, empty since 1988, will undergo a redesign by architecture firm Snøhetta to become the centrepiece of Ford’s new downtown campus. Ford has invested $11 billion in electric and autonomous vehicles and 200 employees will staff a research hub posted here in Detroit. It’s a glimpse of the future, but don’t call it a comeback. The people of Detroit will tell you they never left.