Detroit: A Uniquely American Story

Downtown Detroit Skyline

Fresh off of Mayor Dave Bing’s stark address on the city’s financial challenges and the Governor’s threat of appointing an emergency manager, I recently headed to WJR radio in the heart of the city’s New Center area to record a segment of the Prosperity Agenda. Since my travels often take me outside metro Detroit I always find it interesting on my way to the studio to take a few extra minutes and just drive around to see what’s happening in the many neighborhoods and business enclaves that dot the landscape. This time I looked even closer than usual. As a native Detroiter and a longtime booster of the city (some would say apologist), I am not totally sure what to make of the dire financial conditions that confront Mayor Bing and the city council today.

The actual numbers part of it can be explained rather easily. Many of Detroit’s elected leaders spent most of the last 50 years kicking the can down the road and ignoring obvious warning signs. The city’s population, once approaching 2 million, dropped to just over 700,000 in 2010. Home prices and commercial properties have fallen to lows almost never heard of in major U.S. cities.  Large employers have left. And having represented the city at the state capitol for a number of years, I know too well that these problems have been enlarged by the State of Michigan having largely turned a blind eye to Detroit’s problems in recent decades. For all of the cutesy band-aid programs that state lawmakers have enacted in recent years to assist Detroit and other core cities, their collective good has been dwarfed by draconian state budget cuts to cities ($4B last decade), poor economic development strategies, and a general disinterest in dealing with anything urban. Where have the Feds been in all of this, you ask? C’mon. The next modern federal urban policy plan that I read will be the first one.

So that takes us to 2011, and according to Mayor Bing, the city will be $45 million in the hole by next April unless he and the city council achieve major concessions from just about everyone involved. These are tough times, to be sure.

Dan Gilbert's increasing investments in Downtown

Yet, as I continued my drive I noticed lots of new energy in the city. It is actually an influence that has been slowly building, often unnoticed, for several years.  TechTown, after a few false starts, seems to be finding its groove as a top flight incubator for start-up companies. The College for Creative Studies, having opened a graduate school in the vacated design building of General Motors, is bustling with activity. Farther south along Woodward Avenue, downtown’s renaissance continues as well with its newfound promise as a technology hub led by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and his family of companies.  New live/work financial incentive programs for home buyers and renters are bringing city dwellers, as well as workers, to an area of town that already boasts 95+% occupancy rates.  Young college educated adults living in greater downtown, many of them entrepreneurs, increased by 56% during the last decade. Historic neighborhoods like Corktown, Midtown, Woodbridge, and Hubbard Farms are reemerging with a new liveliness not felt in the city in many years. The huge medical strongholds of Henry Ford Hospital and the Detroit Medical Center are expanding their collective footprints, too.

The proposed M-1 Route

And, with a little luck, the city seems poised to realize its first real investment in public transit since before World War II. These are exciting times, to be sure.

So what should we make of this place? It’s a city whose municipal government is in financial peril. It’s a community that, save New Orleans, has experienced financial hardship unlike any American city during the last fifty years. Yet it is also a city of real hope and real opportunity. A place that out of pure necessity is spawning a creative culture that is as multi-dimensional as the people themselves.  One that is entrenched in a unique history that is accepting of its faults and seems to relish in the grit of the place.

This is the dichotomy of Detroit. It’s a place where you can be heartbroken at breakfast and uplifted by dinner just about every day of the week.

It’s an incredible ride. And these are interesting times, to be sure.

  • Joe,

    Many excellent points. Detroit will rise and fall with its people and with its culture. The irony of the Big Three is that its founders (Ford, Dodge Bros.etc) were some of the best entrepreneurs of the industrial age, but wound up creating a very inflexible culture in the city. Detroiters are rediscovering those Big Think values today. Thanks for reading.

  • Economists and politicians have hypothesized for years that Michigan is the canary in the cave for America’s well being. What happens in Michigan is a precursor to what awaits the rest of the country. And while the state, and Detroit specifically, have been posterized for its struggles, we look in now on how a place takes charge of its own destiny.

    A common assessment that we frequently hear is that we should look to Detroit as a model for what to do with our urban centers and distressed neighborhoods. Namely, we should turn to urban agriculture en masse to bring farms or farmlets into the city. And it has its merits. With massive population decline and entire neighborhoods gutted, the disassembling of abandoned neighborhoods inevitably asks what to do next with these tracts of land? And there is no question that the failure to be even moderately self-reliant in our food production has exposed us to huge liabilities in food security and the health of our local economies and bodies. The latter is a natural response to the former. But the real value of learning from Detroit, or even generalizing about what is happening there, should not be boiled down to urban agriculture alone.

    The lesson in Detroit is in its attitude and procedure. In particular:

    It’s small
    Small, incremental development is rarely considered creditable in a Burnham-inspired planning context that still demerits small plans. The certainty that exclusionary zoning and immense master plans bring in efforts to maintain the status quo brings a false quiet to our built environment. We are entering the post-Burnham era of development. It is inevitably going to be vernacular, not monumental.

    It’s local
    The essence of Detroit’s attitude is in its localism. This is a far cry from Detroit’s Big Three Robber Barons flying to Washington, DC to beg for handouts from the rest of us. What is happening in Detroit, and what will actually allow Detroit to reincarnate as a more resilient place is not what the Big Three were able to bring home but the self-determinism of those on the ground. In a more uncertain, less capitalized future, we will no longer be able to waste our time or dollars looking to an increasingly incapable federal government. Decisions and financing will be more dependent on local strength and local innovation than ever before.

    It’s organic
    Yes, a lot of the gardens are organic in Detroit. But that is not the point (although it is certainly a boon to restoring the relationship between farming practice and our health). Detroit’s ability to roll up its sleaves is not the result of a master agricultural plan or a vision for how to reshape the city. It is incremental and it is slow, lending it immense credibility and authenticity. And it’s messy. We would be mistaken to think that we are going to be able adapt, grow, and once again prosper within our means whilst lying to ourselves trying to maintain the “everything is fine and well” approach. The deconstruction of the over-scaled, monolithic, and unpaid-for urban footprint that we’ve over-produced will not be organized, it will not be easy, and it will not be done with federal beaurocrats leading the way. It will be done organically, slowly, and thoroughly. 

    With all the value that Detroit brings to the rest of us curiously watching, we look on with caution. It is yet to be seen in what form or how Detroit will eventually re-organize its urban fabric. If it is to be an urban center or a constellation of urban centers, it will necessarily embrace village making with the same vigor that it has agriculture. How will the lines be drawn between what is town and what is farm? To re-emerge as a vibrant, dynamic, and resilient place it must it must successfully build on its new agricultural foundation to form its centers of economy, society, and traditions.

    If it is true that Michigan is the bell cow of the United States, we will see small, local, organic urban reconfiguration in its earliest iterations in Detroit. What form will it eventually take in our other communities?