The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Berlin-Detroit Comparison

Downtown Berlin at night.  Source:

Could Berlin actually serve as a template for Detroit’s rebirth?

One day last week I was in my car, listening to an interview on NPR.  German novelist Peter Schneider was talking about his latest book, Berlin Now.  In the interview, he discussed how the city has recovered from its World War II and Cold War legacy, what reunification has meant to it and how arts and culture has revitalized his city.  But interestingly he drew parallels between Berlin and Detroit — never very pretty cities,  they were devastated by economic and social disasters and were looking to remake themselves in a new image.  Maybe there was something to this, so I did some investigation.

It turns out that the comparison of the two cities is nothing especially new, with many people exploring the parallels for some time now.  Two years ago Justin Fox at posed the same question: “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?”  Ultimately he fell on the side of no, for the following reasons:

  • Berlin is a political and cultural capital.
  • Berlin reunified (implying that Detroit’s deep city/suburban divide is the Motor City version of the Berlin Wall).
  • Berlin has good public transit.
  • Detroit knows business (acknowledging that Germany’s true economic drivers are beyond Berlin; the Ruhr Valley, Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg all outrank Berlin in metro area GDP in Germany).
  • Detroit has better immigrants (pointing out the relative openness of U.S. cities to immigration when compared to much of Europe).
I don’t disagree with these points, but I do think there’s some merit to the comparison, and perhaps much that Detroit can learn from Berlin’s experience.
Maybe one way to see this is to compare 1910 Berlin with 1960 Detroit.  At the start of the 20th century Berlin was becoming the center for music and art in Germany.  Artistically, Berlin was the home of early 20th century German Expressionism movement and was also home to Germany’s robust theater scene.  It was also during this time that Berlin developed its reputation for eclectic nightlife.  But as we all know Berlin suffered terribly — and yes, inflicted much suffering — through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II.  The paralysis of the Cold War on Berlin extended the suffering there, until reunification in 1990 sparked the city’s rebirth.
One might put the 1960 version of Detroit in the same position.  By 1960 Detroit’s auto industry was showing more than just seeds of decline, yet the Motor City was developing into a major center for American popular music and art.  However, urban unrest, racial tensions, the decline of the auto industry all conspired to put 2014 Detroit in an economic and social position similar to 1964 Berlin.
I have much to learn about Berlin; I’m no expert on European cities.  But it appears at some points after World War II and German reunification, Berlin came to grips with several things that elevated its profile and help it to craft a new image:
  • Berlin came to terms with its Holocaust legacy.  From memorials as large as The Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe to as small but equally poignant stolperstein memorials (stumbling block) scattered throughout the city as a reminder of lives lost and commemorated, Berlin has gone to great lengths in search of forgiveness and redemption.
  • Berlin has continued to foster an eclectic arts scene.  An article from the New York Times four years ago about Berlin’s arts scene had a quote that might apply to Detroit: “If artists here aren’t given an opportunity, they create one for themselves.”
  • Berlin has learned how to commoditize its arts and cultural scene.  The same New York Times article details how artists and galleries are transforming Berlin neighborhoods, bringing new people to old places.  Berlin is not the high-priced art world of New York, London or Paris, and it may never be.  But its work is definitely transforming the city.
As I see what Berlin did I’m reminded of things like Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, linking art to community renewal.  I’m reminded of the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose collection held little interest to outsiders until the city’s bankruptcy filing — then it was acknowledged to be one of the most extensive and significant collections in the country.  I’m reminded of another New York Times article from last year that says the arts scene flourishes while the city flounders.  New artists are establishing themselves, suburban galleries are moving to the city, exhibits are rising in prominence.  I’m reminded of Detroit’s importance to rock, R&B, gospel, jazz, hip hop and techno music, making it truly a music center.  And for those who wonder about the city’s fiscal situation on arts?  There’s this killer quote from the article: Detroit is “not a top-down city.  There’s nothing the government is doing that is why somebody would visit here.”
I think it’s worth noting that a growing arts scene does not necessarily lead to population growth or even substantial economic growth.  In Berlin’s case, the city population has been virtually unchanged for 60 years (including the former East and West Berlin together prior to 1990).  The return of the political capital from Bonn to Berlin hasn’t yet meant that Berlin will rival the Ruhr Valley, Frankfurt, Munich or Hamburg for economic dominance.  Perhaps it never will.  Maybe arts was able to stem the decline, and help make rebirth realizable.
So in the end, I think Detroit can learn something from Berlin’s experience.  I think Detroit has the arts and cultural assets to establish itself as a significant arts player, and that it could contribute to the city’s rebirth.  These assets have always been there, but the city’s hyper-focus on the fortunes of the auto industry and its well-documented social divides have meant that it has yet to learn how to build on them.
That will come.

4 Responses to “The Berlin-Detroit Comparison”

  1. Alon

    First, you should fix your blog's template, because it makes it very easy to accidentally scroll to another page and lose my comment.Second, the Berlin-Detroit comparison is weak, because Berlin never underwent Detroit's post-industrial decline. Many regions of Europe did; in Germany, the center of this is the Ruhr Valley, which has incomes significantly below those of southern Germany, and declining population (Essen, Dortmund, and Duisburg's populations have been declining for decades, and the state as a whole, which includes wealthier Cologne and Düsseldorf, peaked in 2003). What happened in Berlin was a series of external political shocks: the division of Germany, the Cold War, and communism in the city's eastern half. It's now slowly rebounding from these shocks, with the help of generous transfers from West Germany and growth in the public sector as it moved back from Bonn. Berlin is not seeing a spontaneous revival with the influx of artists, but generous government programs that make it so, coming from its unique political history. It's no more appropriate as a model for other cities than Washington is.The European regions with the US Rust Belt's history of early industrialization followed by post-industrial decline are not faring as well. The Ruhr is far from the most impoverished; some regions, including Wallonia and Northern England, have been in continuous decline since WW2 or even before (Lancashire began losing its textile mills after WW1). Manchester is seeing population growth nowadays, but as a whole it's still much poorer than Southeast England. Wallonia is not seeing any sort of revival; the cultural institutions that would have been built in Liege had Wallonia been an independent state, instead went to Brussels, which became Francophone during the period of economic history when Wallonia dominated Belgium.


  2. Pete Saunders

    Alon, thanks for your comment. I too struggle with the comparison, but it seems too many people want to make it true, on either side. I'd agree that Detroit has more in common with Manchester or Birmingham in England, and less in common with Berlin. But then I saw this in today's Detroit Free Press: article makes it clear that the Detroit-Berlin comparison extends only to the shadier/cheaper East Berlin, and not to the West.And yes, I'm going to work on improvements to the blog that will put an end to some of the bugs. Thanks.


  3. Alon

    Sure, no problem! I was just a bit annoyed when the first version of my comment (which was shorter) was lost because my mouse interpreted my touch as scrolling to the right and moved to the next post.


  4. studioyork

    Hi Pete, I live in Berlin and was born and raised in Detroit. If you have any questions, let me know! 2 Significant differences: Education (equal/integrated + college/trade school provided) & Public transportation (job opportunities, integration).



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