Can Detroit Be Saved?

by Dennis Sanders on March 27, 2011

While on vacation, I heard the latest bad news to come out of Detroit: the loss of 25 percent of its population from 2000-2010.  The new population according to census figures is 713,777; the lowest figure in a century and before the Big Three made the Motor City the fourth largest city in nation in the middle of the 20th century.

During the vacation, a friend commented on how we are seeing the death of an American city.  I have to admit that such talk bothered me.  Of course, part of the reason it does bother me is because it’s so personal to me.  I’m not from Detroit, but my hometown of Flint is just 70 miles up the road and I have relatives that live in and around Detroit.  So, it’s hard not to take such talk of the death of Detroit as a slight against me and my people.  I know my friend meant no offense, so I’m not mad at him.  Just goes to show that when you hail from Michigan, you tend to feel somewhat embarassed from being from there because of the current state of the economy.

The continued loss of population makes one wonder: can Detroit be saved?  It’s been the question that we Michiganders have been asking for about 30 years or so.  I think Michigan’s largest city does have a future, but I think that the state and the city have to find ways to build a future where cars are not king.

Cars are what made Detroit Detroit.  Just like Pittsburgh was known for steel, Detroit was known for the horseless carriage.  The problem is that the world is changing.  When the Big Three were king, they ruled.  Future competitors like Toyota weren’t a factor since most of Japan was bombed into the last century.  But over time, Japan rebuilt and made affordable cars and later cars that were just  as good as the Big Three if not better.

Detroit has never been able to really respond to changing tastes and the rise of competitors in Japan and later Korea.  The jury is still out as to whether General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have learned their lesson.  Ford, I think is getting the idea, but the other two are still doubtful.

For Detroit to rebound, it has to give up it’s car addiction.  Autos will still have some role in Southeastern Michigan, but let’s face it: the days when the Big Three employed tens of thousands of Michiganders is long gone.  The Economist links to a Bloomberg article that Detroit is seeing a big growth in tech jobs, but there’s just one problem:

Auto industry executives are trying to make Silicon Valley engineers feel at home in Detroit. With a burgeoning number of technology job openings to fill, they’re scouring Internet companies for workers, wining and dining applicants, and seeking promising students at schools such as Stanford University…

Expertise in cloud computing, mobile software applications and energy management are in demand in the Motor City as automakers replace car stereos with Internet radio and gasoline engines with motors powered by lithium-ion batteries. Technology job postings in the Detroit area doubled last year, making it the fastest-expanding region in the country, according to Dice Holdings Inc. (DHX), a job-listing website.

Do you see the problem here? Yes, there are tech jobs to be had in Detroit, but they are coming from the auto industry. I don’t have a problem with these jobs per se, after all, as cars get more technical the auto industry has to become more high tech. The problem here is that this seems to be the same song with a different verse. Michigan is again hitching its star to an industry that could bring some great highs and some really low lows.

Here’s what the Economist has to say about these tech jobs:

I think it’s a little disconcerting that so much of the hiring seems to be driven by carmakers. As a kernel around which to build an initial concentration of talent, that’s fine, but ultimately Detroit’s success will hinge on whether it becomes a hub for new firm growth. There’s just a limit to the extent to which the carmakers can scale up tech employment. For the city to rebound as a tech centre, skilled workers need to be able to strike out on their own and start new enterprises that then employ many more people.

This is one place where Detroit is at a significant disadvantage thanks to the condition of its broader economy. A tech worker in Silicon Valley who tries to start a new firm and fails will probably be able to find new tech employment fairly easily. A tech worker in Austin who starts a new firm and fails may not immediately find another tech job, but can almost certainly find some work. This safety net of employment reduces the risk of entrepreneurship and encourages new firm formation. In Detroit, could a worker who sets out on his own and fails expect to be re-employed within a few months?

Detroit has a lot of things that could make it a Silicon Valley of the north, but as the blog notes there are also a lot of knocks against it.

For Detroit to survive, it has to create a sustainable base of jobs. That’s why southern cities like Raleigh and Austin are doing so well. The problem is that Detroit has never created a base of sustainable jobs; it never had to. After the wrenching changes to the auto industry that started in the 70s, Detroit never really seriously tried to move beyond cars. In Detroit and in most of Southeastern Michigan, there has always been hope that something would come and make things like they were circa 1962. We have always hoped the auto industry would come bouncing back and things would be okay. The articles I’ve linked to shows we still cling to that hope.

What Detroit should be doing is trying to bring the Dells and Apples to the area in ways that Raleigh and Austin did. It should also help foster new industries to develop that are not so tied to the Big Three. The first step to rebuilding the city ( to make it sustainable, NOT make it what it once was) is to admit we have a problem with an addiction to autos. Once we can be free of that habit then maybe Detroit and the rest of Michigan can grow.

So is anyone up for an intervention?

Photo by Shakil Mustafa.

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Urban - Big Tent Revue
March 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm

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Daniel Jack Williamson March 29, 2011 at 1:50 am

Just a few thoughts that flitted across my mind as I read your article:

You wrote: “Just goes to show that when you hail from Michigan, you tend to feel somewhat embarassed from being from there because of the current state of the economy”

I would propose the following edit:
” . . . when you hail from Michigan, you tend to feel somewhat embarrassed at the conclusion of U of M’s football games against Ohio State . . .”

I couldn’t resist the joke, but I offer it in a good-natured, rather than mean-spirited, way. I hope you forgive my indulgence.

By the way, I’ve always owned or leased Fords. I’m pleased to see that Ford is improving its reputation.

I’m quite familiar with Detroit. I’ve been there many times. I was born in Sandusky, Ohio, and I can see that many Detroiters are familiar with my hometown, too, as evidenced by the license plates of the cars snaking their way along the roads leading to Cedar Point.

Ohio has a Rust Belt problem, too. On two occasions (2002 and 2004) I was the Republican candidate for state representative in a portion of Ohio’s Rust Belt, encompassing Lorain, Oberlin, parts of Elyria, and the vicinity. I didn’t win the elections, as one would expect in such Democrat bastions, but I had a chance to think long and hard about remedies for Rust Belt decay as I drew up my own economic development plans for the district I hoped to represent. It would take a book to detail each facet of what I envisioned, and even my own blog, to date, contains only a fraction of my proposals, so I don’t plan to elaborate much within this thread (it’s already a wall of text, as it is), but my approach to urban renewal differs from most other approaches I’ve come across. My approach is different because my assessment of the causes of the decay are different.

While I readily agree that Detroit’s economy must be diversified to counter the prevailing trend, I do not think that the auto industry is at the root of the decay at all. Attitudes are at the root of the decay.

Most obvious to us Republicans is that the residents of these areas have an attitude that they will only vote for Democrats. As I met voters door-to-door, they expressed opinions on issues that matched up very well with Republican Party platform planks, but they just couldn’t see it. Somehow, these Democrat voters thought they had more in common with their Democrat officeholders than they did with the Republican candidates, but that was far from the truth. The Democrat politicians have always fed these voters propaganda that are just words that the voters wanted to hear. Often, the actions of these Democrat politicians contradicted the words they’d utter to the electorate. To get right to the point, the Democrat politicians flat out lied. Such deluded voters never get the kind of representation that they think they are voting for.
One-party rule is repressive in an American metropolis (but to a much much lesser degree) just as surely as it is repressive in dictatorial regimes. With that kind of entrenched power, there is no accountability. There could be accountability if the voters would occasionally vote Republican to purge some corrupt Democrats from the halls of power, but they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that the Republicans in their own city are more evil than the self-serving Democrats who’ve been helping themselves to the spoils of the city for scores of years. Somehow, they need the blinders removed. One would think that the unraveling of Kwame Kilpatrick would have spurred a rejection of the status quo, but they just shuffle in some other Democrats to replace the Democrats that just got ousted. Other Democrat politicians whose names are not Kilpatrick are emboldened that voters will never truly clean house, so they have a green light to conduct business as usual. Mostly what made it into headlines, though, about the Kilpatrick episode were just about an exchange of text messages. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Much more lies beneath the surface than that, and it extended, and continues to extend, beyond Kilpatrick and his cronies. In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer exposed in greater detail the corruption of one-party rule in county government. Clevelanders were ticked off at the corrupt politicians who were exposed by the media, but they wouldn’t go so far as to clean house by electing a slate of Republicans, but they at least voted for a restructuring of county government according to a plan drawn up by Republicans. I guess that’s a start. In Cleveland, voters finally learned that the economy of the region was hampered by Democrat politicians who were more interested in extorting and shaking business enterprises down (for their own personal enrichment) than they were in helping the businesses to grow (which would have benefited the whole population) If you were a business, what would you do? Put up with the shake-downs? Give in to the politicians’ demands for kickbacks in exchange for freedom from political interference in your business? Or would you rather just relocate, and avoid that headache altogether? This is why the top brass of these Rust Belt cities must wine and dine to attract enterprise. If it weren’t for wining and dining and cutting a back room deal, the city wouldn’t look attractive enough to set up shop there. If there wasn’t such favoritism, such horse-trading, such pay-to-play kickback schemes, on top of icky high tax rates, businesses would come of their own accord without need of further enticements.

One-party rule in Republican strongholds can also harbor political corruption that evades accountability, but we’re discussing Detroit, so, ’nuff said about that.

Another attitude is that the future is unfamiliar territory to lifelong residents of these cities. They yearn for the good old days, and don’t want to part with the vestiges of those treasured eras. The truth of the matter is, the good old days really never were all that good. Problems festered back then, too. Just like a song can play on the radio that can remind you of a time of life when you had more vitality, the same can be said of fixtures and landmarks that no longer serve any useful purpose. In Detroit, this can lead to wariness of other industries perceived to potentially supplant the auto industry. People have emotional ties to this sort of stuff that prevents them from moving on, that prevents them from pushing the frontiers, that prevents them from being on the cutting edge of 21st century technology and innovation. Another manifestation of this is opposition to infrastructure upgrades, particularly the transportation grid, that might be seen as wrecking the neighborhood, such as widening a street into an arterial thoroughfare or adding a highway interchange that requires the exercise of eminent domain and the services of wrecking balls and bulldozers. Also, think of all the enterprises that manage to find a suitable property on which to set up shop only to have the local historical society put the kibosh on demolition and new construction plans. They cling to the remnants of the past so religiously that they are willing to chase away the future to preserve the past. They’ll mount a campaign to get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the firm will have to abandon all their best-laid plans. The jobs and the commerce that would have improved the outlook for the city’s future are forfeited. New public buildings whose proposed plans call for demolition of existing structures may have to jump over these same hurdles. Also, when school enrollment drops to the point where closing some schools are warranted, watch neighborhoods spring into action to make sure it’s not their school that’s closing, even if a newer, safer, more useful and sustainable structure will be the new destination for the neighborhood’s students, and even if few families with school children still reside in the neighborhood compared with generations past.

There are attitudes about education and career preparation that need to change, too. I’ve been a substitute teacher in Lorain, Ohio, and there are students who actually think that they can live at their parents’ house for the rest of their lives without having to work, never mind the fact that they’ll outlive their parents, so eventually there will be no one else to support them. There are some who want to live a life of thuggery, who view time in jail as giving them some street cred, and who may even rely upon prison as a fallback option for obtaining food and shelter if they aren’t faring well out on the streets. Others delude themselves that they’ll become a pro football player or basketball player without ever having to prepare for college in order to play at the college level. They fancy themselves as the next LeBron James or Kobe Bryant that jumps right from high school to the pros, never mind that they don’t have the work ethic of LeBron or Kobe, so they’ll never really develop their skills. They think that some recruiter will scout them out during their high school games even though their team is not a winning team, and, even at that, they can’t even log enough quality minutes to get their names printed in the sports section of their own local newspaper. There are students who plan to live in style by playing the lottery until they win that multi-million dollar jackpot because they believe the state lottery’s hype that they can get lucky and win big so long as they keep playing. No lottery ever advertises how many people lose, nor how much cash they end up losing. There are some who fashion themselves as future rap stars, yet they have such a limited vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine them becoming accomplished wordsmiths who can string together any compelling memorable lyrics. I told a high school class that despite the high unemployment rate in Lorain, there were still high-tech, high-wage jobs that companies had difficulty finding qualified applicants for. I mentioned nursing and engineering among the examples. The students asked me, “What’s an engineer?” They didn’t know. I told them an engineer is essentially an inventor, and that local firms had to conduct national job searches to fill those jobs. Most prospects, though, had little desire to relocate to Lorain because their skills were in demand in other places where they already had connections, such as relatives. Another reason for so little desire to relocate to Lorain is that Lorain is commonly perceived to be a drab decaying town while other cities where they can get hired are so much more vibrant. Since the companies can’t find workers willing to relocate, the companies, themselves, relocate. What we really need is home-grown talent–engineers who do not need to relocate because they already have ties here. How can we raise up a generation of engineers in our cities when the students don’t even have a clue what engineers are or what they do? The citations presented here only confirm that Detroit automakers have to go all the way out to West Coast places like Stanford to recruit qualified workers, but their efforts to entice those prospects to Detroit isn’t as fruitful as they’d like them to be. Lack of homegrown talent is killing Detroit.

Akin to political attitudes, there are the attitudes of The Powers That Be who, though they might not be politicians, they still wield power within the town. Some of those powers might be industry moguls, but there are also mafia dons in the mix. A mafia don doesn’t care, really, whether a town’s population is shrinking or not so long as no new rivals for power emerge. For such folk, a vibrant, growing city might be exactly what they don’t want, for, with all the people that a thriving city will attract, some of those new arrivals might emerge as rivals for power. To hold on to power, it’s better to shrink the town so that it isn’t at all attractive to outsiders. Seriously, some of this decay is by design. Youngstown, for example, an important mafia link halfway between NYC and Chicago, has its urban planners engaged in designing how to shrink the city rather than to grow it. Detroit has some huge downtown casinos that have no qualms about cannibalizing Detroit as long as they can keep separating Detroit residents from the money in their wallets. Detroit residents who’ve gambled their money away can’t very well invest in home improvements to help beautify their neighborhood. The casinos don’t care if all the houses become dilapidated so long as their tall, sleek, always-good-as-new neon-lighted towers highlight the city’s skyline. They dupe the city into thinking that they’re revitalizing it even as they suck the lifeblood out of it, just like they dupe gamblers into thinking they’ll get lucky even as they extract every last dollar out of patrons’ pockets.

I’d spent some time configuring ways to clean up polluted brownfields in my district, but Ohio issues bonds in a statewide program to, supposedly, revitalize brownfields. The only brownfields that get revitalized, though, are the ones where companies see the value of a location but want corporate welfare, i.e., government financial assistance, to pay for the environmental cleanup. The state government pays the big bucks out of the bond funds to attract the business, but the state doesn’t get big bucks in return. It’s the company that will make the big bucks. These bond funds provide all kinds of cover for backroom deals and political patronage while cloaking themselves in the banner of environmental protection, but the pay-to-play attitude that prevails in these negotiations behind closed doors does a disservice to Rust Belt communities. Brownfield revitalization is not prioritized according to the hazards that these properties could pose to residents. Instead, deal-brokering rules the day as an unholy alliance between developers and politicians cherry-pick the most prime properties while none of the bond funds get allocated to clean up any properties other than those that the developers want to get their hands on. The persistent neglect of the other brownfields only heightens the perception of urban decay, which, in turn, presents obstacles to marketing the city in such a way as to attract new commerce.

I drew up lots of plans for infrastructure upgrades as well as outlines of pathways to pursue in improving educational outcomes in the local schools in order to share these ideas with editors, reporters, and voters while on the campaign trail, but attitudes, not a lack of carefully crafted proposals, were the major impediment to undertaking any revitalization initiatives, not just my own proposals, but anyone else’s as well.

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Gary January 27, 2012 at 9:10 am

I’m from Houston, but had a girlfriend from Detroit. Rather than tech, might I propose what Houston does? We have a first class medical center and a first class port. Both are huge employers and revenue generators. I’d think Detroit’s proximity to the Canadian border would make it an ideal place for Canadian’s coming across for medical care and also for importing and exporting goods. We support the port with a property tax and the medical center is also all non-profit. These are a couple examples of when government support can really be beneficial.

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