11 Ways Detroit Changed the World for the Better

By: Alexandra Zaslow and Ashley Woods

The 2013 version of Detroit may be bankrupt and beginning to rebuild, but the city is drawing from its tremendous wealth of history as it looks ahead. From music and industry to sports and invention, Detroit has led the way since being founded by explorer Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac in 1701. The city’s geographic location on the Detroit River helped the settlement grow into a thriving fur-trapping and trade hub.

Detroit’s contributions to American and international history are significant, in part because of its shared border with the Canadian city of Windsor. Detroit was the last stop for many slaves who passed through the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada. That border also made Detroit a natural center for hatching liquor-running schemes during Prohibition.

Here are 11 incredible ways Detroit has changed the world for the better.

1. When Martin Luther King Jr. previewed the “I Have A Dream” speech.

Before the March on Washington, 25,000 Detroiters gathered in Cobo Hall to hear a preview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on June 23, 1963. Known as the “Detroit Walk to Freedom,” MLK Jr. marched down Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther, the Reverend C.L. Franklin and 125,000 other civil rights believers. For the 50th anniversary in June 2013, thousands gathered to walk down Woodward Avenue in remembrance. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president, told WJBK that the march signified “that the work for freedom and justice must continue.”

2. When the Red Wings won the first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

The Detroit Red Wings’ journey to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1997 and 1998 ended one of the longest cup droughts in NHL history. A million people showed up to celebrate the team at a parade down Woodward Avenue in 1997. The Red Wings’ first championship in 42 years gave some credence to the nickname “Hockeytown,” that Detroit had adopted. It set the stage for greatness behind the Red Wings bench and on the ice (22 straight playoff appearances!), leading some to dub them the greatest franchise in pro sports. The team’s integration of European and Soviet-style hockey strategies, best expressed by the famous Russian Five lineup, led the push to make hockey a truly international game.

3. When Hazen S. Pingree’s potato patch inspired the nation to feed the hungry.

He was the greatest mayor Detroit would ever know. Hazen S. Pingree, an avowed social reformer and enemy of major corporations and monopolies, fought during his 1890-1897 tenure to expose corruption and negotiate fair costs for Detroiters. But Pingree is best remembered for his potato patch. The Panic of 1893 hit Detroit hard, and by late 1894, there was no money left to care for the poor. Pingree mounted an unprecedented public works campaign and opened the city’s massive holdings of vacant land for garden plots and potato patches. “Pingree’s potato patches broke the back of hunger,” the Detroit Free Press later wrote, according to Historic Detroit. “They were nationally acclaimed and copied. They revealed a city of boundless energy and industry unwilling to live on doles.”

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