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.
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.
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.