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This is the story of Christians like Johanon—Christians whose faithful presence in a ravaged city is sowing seeds of hope in the shell of a once-towering empire.

A City on the Move

To grasp just how radical it is to stay in Detroit, one first must understand how un-radical it is to leave.

Detroit (from le detroit du Lac Erie, "the strait of Lake Erie") was settled by the French nearly a century before America's founding. After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, Detroit became a major producer and exporter of goods such as stoves, railcars, and steam ships, and grew into a global industrial center just decades after the Civil War. When the automobile and, with it, Ford's assembly line debuted in 1898, both drew incredible wealth to the city as well as new residents who could secure a middle-class existence doing factory work. That included waves of black families from the South, looking to escape Jim Crow-era injustices.

"Detroit was one of the few U.S. cities where African Americans could become wealthy as blue-collar workers," says Harvey Carey, senior pastor of Citadel of Faith and a Detroit resident for nine years. "When the auto industry began to boom, people flooded from the South and were able to build an unbelievable lifestyle here."

The lure of prosperity drew more than half a million new residents in the 1920s alone, making the Motor City the fourth-largest U.S. city in population, behind Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. By 1929, Detroit had burgeoned to 1.6 million people, many of whom were immigrants or first-generation residents. In 1950, its population peaked at 1.8 million.

Not surprisingly, Detroit was also one of the first cities to take up federal plans for an interstate highway. New roadways allowed home and business developers to build outside the city limits, which "sow[ed] the seeds of the suburbanization and sprawl that eventually would empty the city core," notes journalist Scott Martelle in Detroit: A Biography. As the city's population grew and cars became commonplace, more residents and businesses relocated to surrounding suburbs.

But underlying prejudices played a major role in their departure. Deed restrictions in many Detroit suburbs barred selling or reselling property to blacks. Racial and ethnic tensions simmered in factories and mixed neighborhoods, bubbling up into a riot in 1943 that killed 34 over three days. Paradise Valley, Detroit's oldest, most dynamic black neighborhood, was demolished in the early 1960s to expand the Chrysler Freeway. By this time, auto-industry jobs had begun moving overseas. Then a police raid on a party the morning of Sunday, July 23, 1967, ignited a torrent of brutality and vandalism that lasted five days and took 43 lives. The "riot"—or "uprising"—was the nail that sealed many Detroiters' long-ago decision to leave for supposedly safer neighborhoods, better schools, and shorter commutes.

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Faith in a Fallen Empire