Monday, December 21st, 2009

Detroit Roundup

Jim Meredith, the man behind the excellent Archizoo site, wrote a thoughtful critique of my Detroit plan and offers up a plan of his own. He’s even got his own cross-compare chart at the end.

The Wall Street Journal just ran an interview with Mayor Dave Bing. I’ve been very impressed with Bing so far. He’s starting to confront some of the core challenges of city government. The thing that most impressed me was that after being elected in a special election to replace Kwame Kilpatrick, he did not lay low, trying to avoid controversy, until facing another election just a few short months later. Instead, he started pursuing tough change right away, betting that the voters would back him up. He was right. Here are some snippets:

Yet Mr. Bing is a realist, something Detroit hasn’t had at the helm for a long time. “We’ve been paralyzed by a culture in the city of Detroit, and maybe the state of Michigan, of entitlement,” by which he means ever-rising union wages. “Our people, I don’t believe, truly understand how dire the situation is. There are ugly decisions that need to be made and I’m surely not going to be popular for making them. But I didn’t take this job based on popularity.”

One group that surely isn’t a fan is the public employee unions….”Today in the city of Detroit,” he tells me, “our union employee benefits cost 68% of what their base wage is. I don’t think that happens in any other place in the country.” To give a sense of how excessive those pay packages are, he adds: “When you look at one of the most dominant labor unions in the world, the UAW, they’re nowhere close to what we give our city workers.”
…..
How important is his business experience in running Detroit? “A city is a business,” he replies. “It’s a $3 billion plus business. The past administrations didn’t understand that, and I think that’s got us where we are.” Voters realize that private “businesses create jobs,” he says. “That’s where wealth is come from, and for too long we’ve treated them like enemies.”

He wants to make the city “more business friendly,” but how? “Take the licensing and permitting process that people have to go through,” he explains. “I’ve heard nothing but war stories. So I’m focusing on how we can help businesses cut through the red tape in city government. As an entrepreneur, if you have to spend all of your time trying to get licensing and permits . . . guess what you do? You’re going somewhere else. We’ve got to make Detroit a place where businesses can make a profit again,” he says hopefully.

The new Detroit Public Schools financial receiver, Robert Bobb, also seems to be working away at many administrative challenges there. Let’s hope these two guys are the start of a new leadership culture in Detroit that can bring real change. It’s early days for both, but there’s reason to have optimism.

In other news, the Economist magazine ran a piece on Detroit called The Art of Abandonment.

Time ruminates on the future of Detroit’s only white city councilor.

The head of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. says the state will rebound in 2010.

3 CEO’s tout plan to save Michigan’s economy.

And in Time’s Detroit blog, Karen Dybis relates the troubles at the Detroit Symphony and Michigan generally to her own personal story in One More Slap in the Face

The Detroit Free Press last week ran a major eight part series called Rising from the Wreckage, charting the course of the wrenching change the auto industry has gone through and where the future might lead. It had eight major chapters and several related stories. Here are the main chapters:

Related stories:

Here is an excerpt from the series wrap-up editorial:

Education first, last and always…..Somehow, even in its budget struggles, this state has to find a way to invest in improving education or risk prolonging this ugly chapter in Michigan history. That means changing the culture, too, to emphasize the value of schooling beyond the 12th grade and of continuous learning. The days of taking a high school diploma to the local factory and getting a ticket to the middle class are over. They were great while they lasted, but they left Michigan ill-equipped to adjust to the 21st-Century global economy. The future belongs to the smart states — and Michigan had better be among those states if it expects a better one. People who learn are also people who change, challenge, adapt and innovate, the very things the auto industry has struggled to do for a decade. Complacency is born from a lack of appreciation for learning and stretching. And that complacency, as much as anything else, brought Detroit’s auto industry to the brink of extinction.

And here are some excerpts from the letters to the editor:

We have lost sight of where it began. It is not about jobs, wages and benefits. It is all about productivity and a culture of innovation.
…..
We have to be mindful that Michigan’s leadership as the reigning capital of the automotive industry, once the driving force of this country and the world, is indeed “gone with the wind.” It is especially difficult since Michigan was the cradle of its beginning and will probably never rise to this leadership status again. In this technical age, in order to compete with the world’s changes, we must prepare ourselves to meet and understand this challenge in order to sustain meaningful jobs and a living. It must start with the education of both children and adults, where we have fallen short.

Update: Commenter Wad, who is a driving force behind the great LA transit blog MetroRiderLA, posted this as a comment. I thought it was a great story and wanted everyone to be able to see:

An interesting Detroit anecdote I can think of is from the Los Angeles Auto Show, which concluded two weeks ago.

First off, after going to auto shows for 20 years, I must say this year’s was by far the dreariest. This show had the fewest of everything: cars, show models and even car makers. This year, Nissan chose not to attend the show. Even the marketplace only took up half of the convention center space.

GM, in particular, was in a bad way. GM still leased 30 percent of a convention center hall, yet it had only presented its four remaining brands (as well as Saab, which received its death warrant last week). Obviously, this left a lot of empty space at its display.

Yet one of the admirable things GM had done was who it had used to promote its cars. GM brought a few of its automobile assemblers to be the car models. All were wearing cream-colored “GM/UAW quality ambassador” shirts and had name badges and the plants they work at.

The Big 3 had brought UAW representatives before, typically as a token gesture with the workers having their own information booths. This year, though, GM had the auto workers discussing the cars in the job usually done by outside marketing firms.

Not only did the auto workers do a polished job explaining the car, but by talking with them you could quickly tell the dedication they had for their brands. You could ask them of their years they worked in autos and their steps up the ladder. Two people I remembered speaking with was one truck builder who was a Michigan native but transferred to an assembly plant in Texas to preserve his skills. He had been with GM for 35 years.

Another was a woman who had been with GM plants throughout Michigan for 20 years. She is a third-generation auto worker, and she is trying to get her oldest son to follow in the family footsteps.

It’s quite the experience when you meet the people behind the product. I don’t hold GM in much high regard, but this was one of its better efforts.

5 Comments
Topics: Economic Development, Education, Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit

5 Responses to “Detroit Roundup”

  1. Wad says:

    An interesting Detroit anecdote I can think of is from the Los Angeles Auto Show, which concluded two weeks ago.

    First off, after going to auto shows for 20 years, I must say this year’s was by far the dreariest. This show had the fewest of everything: cars, show models and even car makers. This year, Nissan chose not to attend the show. Even the marketplace only took up half of the convention center space.

    GM, in particular, was in a bad way. GM still leased 30 percent of a convention center hall, yet it had only presented its four remaining brands (as well as Saab, which received its death warrant last week). Obviously, this left a lot of empty space at its display.

    Yet one of the admirable things GM had done was who it had used to promote its cars. GM brought a few of its automobile assemblers to be the car models. All were wearing cream-colored “GM/UAW quality ambassador” shirts and had name badges and the plants they work at.

    The Big 3 had brought UAW representatives before, typically as a token gesture with the workers having their own information booths. This year, though, GM had the auto workers discussing the cars in the job usually done by outside marketing firms.

    Not only did the auto workers do a polished job explaining the car, but by talking with them you could quickly tell the dedication they had for their brands. You could ask them of their years they worked in autos and their steps up the ladder. Two people I remembered speaking with was one truck builder who was a Michigan native but transferred to an assembly plant in Texas to preserve his skills. He had been with GM for 35 years.

    Another was a woman who had been with GM plants throughout Michigan for 20 years. She is a third-generation auto worker, and she is trying to get her oldest son to follow in the family footsteps.

    It’s quite the experience when you meet the people behind the product. I don’t hold GM in much high regard, but this was one of its better efforts.

  2. Great story – I may promote this to the main article.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    I actually find the third generation auto worker’s attempt at family tradition sad. Instead of telling her son to go do whatever he wants, she’s telling him to do what she’s done, in an industry she knows is on life support.

    It’s especially bad in the context of Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism. Gellner explains that the reason we have modern education and culture is to support a mobile industrial society, where people don’t always go into the same business as their parents. In contrast, pre-industrial societies change very slowly and are immobile, making apprenticeships and caste cultures a viable form of organizing society, as opposed to mass literacy and general education and a national language.

  4. Alon, I agree – and that’s one reason I wanted it on the front page.

  5. Pete from Baltimore says:

    MR Renn Thamk you for posting the links.I would like to say that there have been many suggestions in the media for what Detroit should do.Some sound good to me.Others don’t.Regardless of what the government does i think that the people of Detroit should be involved in the decision making process.

    I realise that you are an urban planner yourself.So i hope that you dont take this the wrong way .But as you know during the last 50-60 years “urban renewal” has gotten a bad reputation because of the fact that it often involved urban planners making decisions about peoples neighborhoods without the actual residents being allowed to be involved in decisions that would affect them.Often they were told to vacate their homes so a new highway could go through what WAS their neighborhood.

    For instance many people have recomended bulldozing neighborhoods in Detroit and replacing them with organic urban farms. This may be a good idea for all i know.And if it is, then it should be considered.But i do think that the actual people who live in these areas should be asked if that is what they want beforee the government sends in the bulldozers.Ideas like urban farming CANNOT work without the involvement and support of the people of Detroit.

    This does not mean that i think that people like yourself should not come up with plans or suggestions.But simply that the residents of Detroit should have a say in the remaking of their city.

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