Saturday, March 14th, 2009
There’s a meme out there that seems to be picking up steam that Detroit represents not so much a unique dysfunction, but rather a harbinger of what is to come for America’s cities. Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes said, “Back when Michigan’s economy was merely troubled — before $4-a-gallon gas and frozen credit markets pushed the auto industry into free-fall — Gov. Jennifer Granholm warned the Big Mitten’s deepening economic problems could presage what lay ahead for the nation. I and other skeptics chortled, figuring the collective denial of economic reality, anti-business rhetoric in Lansing, rote acceptance of labor’s influence in policy-making, and higher tax loads on individuals and companies here couldn’t possibly go national. The combination was too toxic, too self-defeating, too steeped in a last-century worldview that had been discredited by events and chronic failure. But I was wrong.”
John Reed gets in on the theme in a long piece over at the FT titled “Rust Sleeps: Can We Glimpse an American Future in the Travails of Detroit?” Per Reed, “Instead, Michiganders, despite being self-deprecating to a fault, make a point their countrymen won’t want to hear: Detroit is no longer the nation’s worst-case scenario, but on its leading edge, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. ‘It’s like the rest of the country is getting to where Detroit has been,’ said Peter De Lorenzo, who writes the acerbic and very funny Autoextremist.com blog. That means that smug mock-horror is no longer the appropriate reaction to the frozen corpse. Instead, get ready for a shock of recognition.”
Speaking of the Autoextremist, who is required reading btw, he said last week, “Several years ago, I called Detroit and the declining U.S. auto industry ‘the canary in the coal mine’ for the rest of the nation. The lack of a national health care program, the nation’s growing uncompetitiveness in the face of a burgeoning global economy, the steady erosion of this country’s manufacturing base and so on were issues that were going to catch up to the rest of the country eventually.”
With a deep recession ravaging much of the country and doing severe damage especially in the industrial heartland, this has a surface appeal. And no doubt this recession has accelerated the train wreck of any number of places like Detroit that already faced a strategically untenable position.
But I do not believe the rest of America is heading the direction of Detroit. Detroit’s problems are unique, deep, and longstanding. It is tempting to say that Detroit’s problems are of recent origin, or maybe date them back to the 70’s oil shocks or the riots of 1968. But the reality is, Detroit’s problem far pre-date those events. Consider this view of Detroit:
Virtually all of Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening
That was written by Jane Jacobs – in 1961. And she wasn’t the only one who noticed something wrong that year. Time Magazine ran an article, “Decline in Detroit” discussing the matter.
Detroit’s decline has been going on for a long while. Auto production soared to an all time peak in 1955—but there were already worrisome signs. In the face of growing foreign and domestic competition, auto companies merged, or quit, or moved out of town to get closer to markets.
This article is a must-read – it was published October 27, 1961
In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs cites the collapse of Detroit to a one industry town and the cessation of the development of new businesses resulting from a focus on large scale efficiency in manufacturing as a fatal flaw that doomed this once thriving city. She dates this to the 1920’s. Again quoting, “Detroit had a high rate of development through most of its history and a very high rate indeed at the time the automobile industry was being developed there. But since 1920, Detroit has had an exceedingly low rate.”
Ironically, in the same book Jacobs uses Detroit as an example of good urban development, showing its progression from flour mills, to copper processing, to steam ship engine manufacture. There was a plethora of industries that developed and flourished in Detroit. But when the auto industry started to consolidate, something when wrong and the system that had sustained Detroit’s development stagnated.
Beyond that, Detroit seems to suffer, and to have long suffered, from dysfunctional leadership – not just governmental leadership, but leadership across the board. Reading about the financial travails of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was shocked to discover they had an endowment only 1/3 the size of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Detroit is one of America’s largest cities – it was in the top 5 in America for a long time I believe – and for long one of its most prosperous. The auto industry generated fantastic wealth in Detroit. Why did so little of it make it back into the cultural infrastructure of the city? This is but one example.
This has been going on so long that it is hard, honestly, to blame the leaders there today. They were born into a system that is so bad, it would take truly heroic leadership and change to move the ball. How does one effect racial healing, or a rapprochement between city and suburb? It seems like a daunting prospect for even the most well-intentioned.
I don’t have the time to make an exhaustive study of the matter – though someone should – but it seems to me that Detroit is a fairly unique case. There are probably some other places that are suffering as much and will continue to suffer after the recession is over, but I don’t think the rest of America is headed on the Road to Motown. Most of America lacks Detroit’s long, institutionalized decline, stagnated one-industry economy, and terrible historic culture of leadership.