6 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Detroit Answered

Moving to Detroit or just visiting?

You might have heard about our comeback. It’s real. You might also have heard about our reputation and odd traditions. Those are real, too.

In case you didn’t know, Detroit is a city with an indefatigable spirit. Take our city motto for instance: “Speramus meliora. Resurget cineribus” —it means “We hope for better things” and “It will rise from the ashes.” It was true after the Great Fire of 1805 (which inspired the motto), and it couldn’t be more true today.

Got more questions about Detroit? Here are the answers that will help you make sense of the Motor City. 

1. Why is Detroit called Motor City?

Detroit has been recognized as being the home of the American automotive industry. Lucky for the city, Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, and Ransom Olds, another automotive pioneer and namesake for Oldsmobile, both happened to be born in nearby Michigan cities.

Little known fact: Ford didn’t invent the assembly line; Olds did. Ford created the first conveyor belt-based assembly line, enabling the mass production. By 1924, the “big three”—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler—were all based in Detroit, locating here to take advantage of the skilled workforce and supply chain. Other cities just couldn’t compete, and Detroit continues to be automotive headquarters of the U.S.

2. Why is Detroit called Motown?

In 1959, songwriter and producer Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in Detroit, combining the words “motor” and “town” to create the label’s name. He signed artists such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5, and the signature sound became synonymous with the city.

3. Why does Detroit look so bad?

Well, it wasn’t always so bad. In the 1950s, the success of the auto industry made Detroit a thriving and wealthy zip code, but prosperity also brought crime and corruption. Over the next few decades, the city slowly decayed and more than a million people left, leaving lots of urban blight. In 2013, the city filed bankruptcy, the largest municipal case in history. But we’re on the rebound. Investors and Detroit believers have funneled money into more than 100 new development sites, parks and neighborhoods, prompting Forbes to give us (yet another) nickname, America’s Comeback City.

4. Why does Detroit have “mile roads”?

Thanks to Eminem, you’ve probably heard of “8 Mile.” We’ve got a 7 Mile Road, 6 Mile Road, and even a 37 Mile Road. It’s not because we couldn’t think up a better name. Detroit’s mile road system was based on the number of miles from the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.

The system originated from the Land Ordinance Act passed by the Continental Congress in 1785. According to the act, “A surveyor of each state shall be appointed by Congress…to divide the said territory into townships of six miles square by lines running due north and south, and others crossing at right angles…The plats of the townships shall be marked out by subdivisions of one mile square or 640 acres and numbered from 1 to 36…” The mile road names stuck around, but each one has another name—8 Mile is also known as Vernier Road—and some have more than one name as they move out into the suburbs.

5. Why do Detroit fans throw the octopus at hockey games?

This tradition started back in 1952 when a hockey team had to have eight wins to win the Stanley Cup. Detroit Red Wings fans Pete and Jerry Cusimano, owners of a local fish market, got the idea to toss an octopus, which has eight tentacles, onto the ice for luck. They did, and the Red Wings won the Cup that year. The octopus became thought of as a good luck charm by fans ever since.

6. Why do the Detroit Lions play on Thanksgiving Day?

That tradition started in 1934, and it was all about marketing. Detroit businessman George Richards bought the struggling team, which was originally from Portsmouth, Ohio. Ticket sales weren’t as high as he’d like, so Richards, who also owned a local radio station that was affiliated with NBC, negotiated an agreement to play a game against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day that would be broadcasted on television nationwide. The idea was a success, and the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day game has been a tradition every year, except during World War II. The Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving Day, too, but it was our idea first.

Stephanie Vozza