But in recent years, the Motor City has been enjoying a bit of a comeback. New development has gone up downtown. Businesses are moving back. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl two years ago.
And now its mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, the cheerleader and force behind some of that new momentum, is facing criminal charges that include perjury, obstruction of justice, and misconduct in office. The ballooning scandal has many in the city questioning his ability to govern, calling for his resignation, and wondering what effect the scandal will have on an already beleaguered city.
"Detroit has its image problems to begin with, and this certainly doesn't do them any good," says Earl Ryan, director of the Citizens Research Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in Detroit that doesn't take official positions on elected leaders.
Mayor Kilpatrick was formally charged on Monday with eight felony counts, stemming from news of romantic text messages between him and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, that broke two months ago. Ms. Beatty has since resigned, and was charged with seven felony counts.
The issue isn't the affair the two were apparently having five years ago, but the fact that Kilpatrick allegedly had three police officers fired for an investigation that might have uncovered the affair, and then lied under oath when questioned in a lawsuit brought by the officers last summer. He later persuaded the City Council to approve an $8.4 million settlement with the officers, apparently to prevent the text messages from being released.
"This was not an investigation focused on lying about sex," said Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, in announcing the charges. "Our investigation has clearly shown that public dollars were used, people's lives were ruined, the justice system was severely mocked, and the public trust trampled on."
These are the first criminal charges Kilpatrick has faced, though it's hardly the first hint of a scandal since he took office in 2002 at the age of 31. Dubbed America's "hip-hop mayor," he is known for flashy dressing and an outsize charisma, but has also been dogged by reports of excessive partying, misuse of a city credit card, and the news that he had the city lease a luxury SUV for his wife's personal use.
The current charges stem from revelations of more than 14,000 text messages between Kilpatrick and Ms. Beatty that made clear that the two were carrying on an affair at the beginning of his first term. Both had testified in the lawsuit against Kilpatrick last year that no affair occurred.
But some also credit him with helping build a slow downtown renaissance in Detroit, landing new development projects, and just a few months ago, announcing that Quicken Loans would move its headquarters and 4,000 employees from Livonia, Mich., to downtown Detroit.
"The mayor has been at least in part responsible for a lot of [improvements] going on," says Mr. Ryan. "This is the sort of thing, however, that can go a long way toward derailing good efforts."
Even before the charges were announced, calls for Kilpatrick's resignation had been increasing. The Detroit City Council passed a non-binding resolution last week asking him to step down. On Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press echoed that call in an editorial. "Who wants to talk about long-term economic plans with a guy who could be facing up to 15 years in prison?" the editorial asked.
Still, Kilpatrick shows no signs of leaving.
"I look forward to complete exoneration once all the facts in this matter have been brought forth," he said at a press conference Monday after the charges were announced.
His tenacity hasn't surprised some observers, who say his entire identity is wrapped up in the office.
"This guy will never quit," says Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. A conviction would force him out of office, but Mr. Ballenger notes that one is unlikely before his term ends at the end of next year. He believes Kilpatrick may still run for reelection.
But Ballenger says the city is in such bad shape that he doubts anybody – even a mayor not facing criminal charges – could be truly effective.
"Its national reputation is at the bottom of the barrel right now and has been for years," he says. "This will just underscore it."