It’s funny how much the past can inform the future. Take the City of Detroit’s motto. It’s inspiring, timeless, and sobering, especially when you consider how it uncannily fit Detroit’s difficult 2013. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Detroit’s motto is “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” which translates to “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.”

The city’s motto was penned by Father Gabriel Richard after a terrible fire swept through Detroit on June 11, 1805. There was no professional fire department to battle the blaze, so Detroiters formed a “bucket brigade.” They passed a bucket of water from person to person, starting at the river and ending wherever the fire was.

Despite the people’s best efforts to save their beloved city, Detroit burned. Completely. The fire destroyed most of the buildings in Detroit, leaving only a river warehouse in tact. The population of the city hovered around 600 at the time. 600 now homeless people in need of food and shelter.

Father Gabriel Richard, a Catholic priest at Ste. Anne’s Church, organized the food shipments that helped feed the hungry people. In the wake of the fire, Richard penned what would become the new city’s motto: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.”

Detroit’s motto translates to “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” The motto was certainly fitting for the time in which it was written. Richard, likely coughing from the thick smoke hanging in the air and unable to escape the scent of charred wood, saw plainly the destruction around him. He knew that Detroit had been leveled, but he didn’t give up. And he knew his fellow Detroiters wouldn’t, either.

Street art found in the North End neighborhood. Daily Detroit photo.

Despite the ashes the city had been reduced to, Richard and the people of Detroit were hopeful. They knew they could rebuild, and they did.

But is Detroit’s motto still relevant today?

Fast forward to July 18, 2013. The City of Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. Once again, Detroit had been dealt a harsh hand on top of the difficulties already plaguing the city. There was another mass exodus from the city, and the population shrank. Without a fire in sight, the city had been massively reduced.

The nation looked on and saw a great American icon hurting. However, some Detroiters remained, and they refused to give up. “Speramus meliora”: We hope for better things.

Detroit scrambled to get its act together, to clean up the mess. It managed to succeed. On December 10, 2014, the City of Detroit exited bankruptcy.

Now, Detroiters are working together to create a new city. They’re moving forward, and it’s obvious that they’ve made progress. “Resurget cineribus”: It shall arise from the ashes.

Detroit’s motto is so much more than the words on a seal. It’s a testament to the resilience of Detroiters. It’s a witness to the fires that the city has been through, and the motto is a reminder to the world that Detroit will not be defeated.

While the city is recovering, there are still snags. The road to the New Detroit isn’t smooth and straight. It twists and turns, forcing Detroiters to talk about issues that have been left untouched for decades. Recovery isn’t an overnight event, either. It took years for the early Detroiters to rebuild their city after the fire and create something new, and it will take years for today’s Detroiters to rebuild and create something new again.

Is Detroit’s motto still relevant today? I think, yes. “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” We hope for better things. It shall arise from the ashes.

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