Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013
As has long been expected, the city of Detroit has officially filed for bankruptcy. While many will point to the sui generis nature of the city as a one-industry town with extreme racial polarization and other unique problems, Detroit’s bankruptcy in fact offers several lessons for other states and municipalities across America.
The Day of Reckoning Can Take Much Longer Than We Think to Come
What’s most surprising about Detroit’s bankruptcy is not that it happened, but how long it took to get there. In authorizing the bankruptcy filing Gov. Rick Snyder talked about “60 years of decline.” He’s not joking. It’s been widely known that Detroit has been in trouble for a very long time.
Time Magazine ran a 1961 story called “Decline in Detroit.” Jane Jacobs described its lack of vitality in her 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:
Researchers hunting the secrets of the social structure in a dull-gray district of Detroit came to the unexpected conclusion there was no social structure….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….Detroit today is composed of seemingly endless miles of low density failure.
Moving from urban planning to economics. She wrote in 1969’s “The Economy of Cities”:
This was the prosperous and diversifying economy from which the automobile industry emerged two decades later to produce the last of the important Detroit exports and, as it turned out, to bring the city’s economic development to a dead end.
These are both well known, but the record of troubles in Detroit even predates this, going back at least to Life Magazine’s 1942 article “Detroit Is Dynamite” which gave a prescient warning to the city just a year before 1943’s race riot.
For a city as uniquely troubled as Detroit to remain in serious decline for such an extended period of time before going bankrupt is a testament to the sheer resilience of cities. It also suggests that those predicting eminent doom for their own city unless it changes its ways are likely to end up as false prophets.
Indeed, Detroit’s day of reckoning may not even yet be fully here given that various challenges to the bankruptcy filing are expected. The fact that Detroit has limped along for so long suggests that cities may be able to survive nearly definitely as “zombie municipalities” similar to zombie banks. Though this may possibly end in a Greek style crisis at some point, a very lengthy existence as the undead would seem to be possible.
Decline Poisons Civic Culture and Sunders the Commonwealth
Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.
This comes about because in a city in decline — such as in late imperial Rome — people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.
When the pie is growing, it’s easy to come to an agreement over how to divide it because everybody can get a bigger slice at the same time. But when the pie is stagnant or shrinking, zero-sum thinking takes over. To make a sacrifice is seen to in effect allow someone else to profit at your expense. Perhaps these dynamics were present latently before, but tough times bring out the real civic character.
In Detroit’s case everyone from public employee unions who refuse to give up any of their benefits (and will no doubt fight to deny the bankruptcy filing) to suburban towns that would rather pretend the city does not exist have played a role in setting the disaster. With nobody willing to sacrifice for the greater good, prisoner’s dilemma logic results happen. You can see this playing out in nearly any troubled American city. By contrast, it seems to be healthier places like Denver that have managed to build stronger regional civic consensus. It’s simply easier in those places.
Instead, Detroit chased conventional wisdom approaches and fad of the month type endeavors ranging from constructing the fortress-like Renaissance Center to the People Mover to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool Cities” program, none of which did anything but generate hype. What they all had in common is a transfusion of subsidies to the city (and taking on debt) rather than building a consensus around addressing the real issues.
America Doesn’t Learn Lessons From the Past
The last thing Detroit teaches us is that America too often doesn’t learn from its mistakes. Detroit’s troubles have been evident for quite some time, yet it’s hard to see that many other post industrial cities have managed to carve out a different path. Rather, they pretended that Detroit’s fall was somehow unique due to its auto industry dependence – and managed to ignore other failed cities as well – while embarking on the same turnaround strategy via conventional wisdom and silver bullets.
They have even managed to ignore failures much closer to home. Booming new suburbs can look just 5-10 miles down the road to see yesterday’s hot spot now turned into a festering mess of dead and dying malls, declining schools, increasing poverty, and falling home prices. Yet most of them are simply replicating the same pattern that is destined to fail financially over the long term in any region without either severe building restrictions or very high population growth.
Sadly, none of these augur favorably for change. Detroit may continue to garner special international attention as a train wreck people can’t stop watching, but less spectacular slow motion civic failures seem likely to remain commonplace unless somebody finds a way to overcome these forces.
Further Reading on Detroit
I have been chronicling the story of Detroit for quite a while on this blog and the postings on Detroit have generated more readership than those for any other city. This shows the profound hold the city has on the world’s attention. Here are a few previous articles you might be interested in if you haven’t read them yet:
The Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline (by Pete Saunders)
Yes There Are Grocery Stores in Detroit (by Jim Griffioen)
Detroit: Urban Laboratory and New American Frontier
The Other Side of Detroit
This post originally appeared in New Geography on July 20, 2013.
Saturday, July 20th, 2013
[ In this post, Detroit native Pete Saunders pulls no punches in assigning the ultimate blame for Detroit's demise. You can read more of his work at his web site Corner Side Yard - Aaron. ]
God, My Father, why has thou forsaken me? All those who were my friends, all have now forsaken me. And he that hate me do now prevail against me, and he whom I cherished, he hath betrayed me.
Lyric excerpts from the Fifth and Fourth and Words, respectively, of the Seven Last Words of Christ orchestral work by Joseph Haydn.
Ever since the announcement late Thursday that the City of Detroit was indeed going to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection, the Internet has been overflowing with commentary on the matter. The commentary has come from all places and taken on by all comers – from the political left and right; from hard news and general interest sources. And all usually with the same scripted and lazy tripe about how Detroit reached its nadir:
- Single-minded dependence on a collapsing auto industry doomed Detroit.
- An inability to diversify economically doomed Detroit.
- Public mismanagement and political corruption doomed Detroit.
- An inability to effectively deal with its racial matters doomed Detroit.
- The dramatic and total loss of its tax base doomed Detroit.
That’s it, people, they seem to reason. The Motor City’s fall from grace is as simple as that. You do the things Detroit did, and you get what Detroit got. You defer decisions just as Detroit did, and you too will suffer the consequences. The speed with which the various articles on Detroit came out proved to me that many writers anticipated the announcement with at least a twinge of glee.
As I’ve written before, Detroit’s narrative serves everyone else as the nation’s whipping boy, and that came through in the last couple of days:
You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can even find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.
But let’s leave that aside. I’m pissed because no one seems to acknowledge the central reason Detroit is filing for bankruptcy now. It has endured abandonment – white flight abandonment – on an absolutely epic scale. Before there was auto industry collapse, before there was a lack of economic diversity, before there was mismanagement and corruption, there was abandonment. People skirt and dance around the issue when they talk about the loss of Detroit’s tax base. What Detroit lost was its white people. The chart above illustrates how Detroit’s unique experience when compared to similar cities.
Detroit is what happens when the city is abandoned. And frankly, there is a part of me that views those that abandoned Detroit with the same anger reserved for hit-and-run drivers – they were the cause of the accident, they left the scene of the crime, and they left behind others to clean up the mess and deal with the pain. What’s worse, so many observers seem to want to implicate those left behind – in Detroit’s case a large African-American majority community – for not cleaning up the mess or easing the pain. Their inflicted pain which they’ve made ours.
White abandonment of Detroit did not start with the 1973 election of Coleman Young as mayor, or even the 1967 riots, yet those two events accelerated the process. And indeed, Detroit had a very unique set of circumstances that caused it to veer down a troubled path. The very first piece featured in this blog was about the land use and governing decisions that were made more than one hundred years ago in Detroit that literally set the city’s decline in stone. I identified eight key factors:
- Poor neighborhood identification, or more broadly a poorly developed civic consciousness.
- A housing stock of poor quality, cheap and disposable, particularly outside of the city’s traditional core.
- A poorly developed and maintained public realm.
- A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
- Freeway expansion.
- Lack of or loss of a viable transit network.
- A local government organization type that lacked accountability at the resident/customer level.
- An industrial landscape that was allowed to constrain the city’s core.
Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic wrote perhaps one of the best recent articles I saw on Detroit when he acknowledged that even a half-century ago, journalists were predicting a dire future for the D. Take this quote Conor found from The Reporter, published October 31, 1957:
The auto industry created modern Detroit simply as its dormitory and workshop, attracted polyglot millions to it, used it, and now threatens to abandon it. Civic consciousness played little part in the lives of the masses of Irish, German, Poles and Italians who flocked to Detroit in search of a Ford or Dodge or Packard pay check, and who settled there in islands of their own – any more than it played a part in the managements of Ford or Dodge or Packard themselves, or in the crowd of Negroes who also descended upon the city during the boom years of the Second World War… Indeed, it is remarkable that any sense of civic responsibility at all should have been generated in so rootless and transient a community.
What can a city do when it finds its patron industry and its middle class moving out, leaving it a relic of extremes?… But urban deterioration offers at least one advantage. Once a city core has become as run-down as Detroit’s you can start to rebuild fairly cheaply.
Yes, that is from 1957.
The chart at the top of this article was done for an article I did more than a year ago, looking at U.S. Census data for several peer cities over the last seven decennial censuses. In it, I concluded that Detroit’s experience of abandonment was entirely unique:
Between 1950 and 1970, the decline in Detroit’s white population was on the low end of the spectrum of cities on this list, but it was in the ballpark. Prior to 1970, Detroit and St. Louis were the white flight laggards. After 1970, the bottom fell out and Detroit stood alone. While there certainly are economic reasons white residents may have had for moving, this graph may lend credence to the twin theories of Motor City white flight – the 1967 riots and the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman Young.
I’m not trying to persuade anyone of the invalidity of their decision to move from Detroit. There were good reasons and not so good reasons. I’m only trying to describe its impact relative to other cities. And where exactly are those white residents who left over the last 60 years? Certainly many have passed on. Some are currently in the Detroit suburbs or elsewhere in Michigan. Some are part of that great Detroit Diaspora that took them to New York, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. There are clearly at least 1.5 million reasons why white residents left Detroit.
But the fact is, had Detroit experienced white flight at the same combined rate as the other cities on this list, and not experienced any other changes, there would be nearly 350,000 more white residents today. Maybe 140,000 more households. Maybe more stable neighborhoods.
Can you imagine that? An additional 350,000 residents means Detroit would still be a city with more than one million people. It would likely be viewed in the same way that a Philadelphia or Baltimore is now – challenged but recovering – instead of the urban dystopia it’s widely seen as today. What impact would that have had on the city’s economy? On the metro area’s economy? On the state’s economy? Or simply the city’s national perception?
I’ve mentioned here on several occasions that the reason I chose the planning profession is because I grew up in Detroit during the 1970’s. I looked around and saw a city with an inferiority complex and saw people leaving in droves. My naïve and childish thinking was, “instead of leaving the city, why don’t people stay and work to make it better?”
Silly of me. Abandonment is the American way.
Nonetheless, I view Detroit’s bankruptcy announcement positively. It acknowledges that its troubles are far deeper than most realize. It can be the springboard for fiscal recovery, a re-imagining of the city and an actual and complete revitalization. Detroit indeed is in uncharted waters, and its abandonment means that in many respects it could be viewed as a frontier city once again. I would not be surprised if, after restructuring and reorganization, after recapturing its innovative spirit, the city could see growth almost like it did at the beginning of the twentieth century, mimicking what, say, Las Vegas has done for the last 40 years. Even at this dark moment, Detroit has assets that are the envy of other cities.
But let no one forget that it is abandonment that brought Detroit to this point.
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on July 20, 2013.
Monday, July 15th, 2013
I participated in an interesting message board debate a few weeks ago. We were discussing the steep collapse in the urban core (Center Township) population of Indianapolis, a drop comparable to Detroit’s. It lost another 14.5% during the 2000s and even the downtown itself only added less than 1000 people at time with other downtowns were growing more sharply.
Most people were quick to blame schools. I agreed the schools were a problem but suggested crime was a bigger one. Besides which, nobody has yet demonstrated a real turnaround in urban schools, while multiple places have been able to achieve stunning improvements in crime.
What most took me aback was not the debate over which order to rank the two, but rather than many people effectively argued Indianapolis doesn’t even have a crime problem. “It’s not that dangerous” seemed to be the tone, and people talked about how they personally did not feel unsafe or threatened despite living in the city and that suburbanites simply sensationalized urban crime.
I disagree with that in the strongest possible way. While no doubt things can be sensationalized and you aren’t likely to get killed walking down the street, Indianapolis does have a serious crime problem. Almost immediately after our debate died out, someone was shot and killed in the middle of downtown on the 4th of July. And after that there was a series of five murders in one week.
While many cities have seen a drop in murders this year, Indianapolis murders are up 35% and the city is on track for upwards of 150 this year. To put that in perspective, New York City has experienced a stunning drop in murders this year (after a record low last year), and is tracking towards somewhere around 300 murders for the year. NYC has a 10 times the population of Indianapolis but only twice as many murders. When you consider that much of Indianapolis’ population is in outer “suburban” areas that were annexed and have very few murders, the urban core murder rate must be far, far higher than NYC.
Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs says the city isn’t more dangerous and points at declines in violent crime overall (query: has it fallen by 80% in the last 20 years, like it did in New York City?). This is exactly the same spin that Rahm Emanuel has been giving to explain away Chicago’s high murder rate.
The people trapped in these neighborhoods tell a different tale. In some Chicago neighborhoods mothers won’t let their kids stand by the window even if they are home because of the risk of getting shot. Someone in Indy similarly said, “I hear gunshots and police sirens every night. I’ve taught my kids how to roll out of bed and get underneath it when it starts happening.”
Make no mistake, the top reason to reduce crime is to keep people from becoming its victims or having to live their lives in terror in neighborhoods like this. But beyond that crime is simply fatal to the urban fabric. Just as one data point, some researchers found that every murder committed causes a city to lose 70 people. Chicago actually would have gained population instead of losing it if its murder rate were the same as New York. Clearly crime is high among the factors driving people out of the central city who have the means to leave, and keeping those who might be willing to move into to it away.
Additionally, given the impressive record of crime reduction in New York and many other places, including Los Angeles (which has also made huge strides in improving police-community relations from its Detective Mark Fuhrman days), it’s also clear that progress can be made.
I’m not sure that there’s a ready answer for schools. My hypothesis has been that it will be families returning to the city that turns around the schools, not a turnaround in the schools bringing families back. But crime is clearly different. Yes, gentrification will “improve” the crime situation. But NYC and LA have seen dramatic crime reductions even in their toughest neighborhoods, ones that have not seen gentrification.
Crime problems can be solved if there’s the will to do so. That will is ultimately lacking in too many places. There’s a fatalistic attitude towards crime too often, and few politicians have the stomach for the spending it will take or the blowback many crime reduction efforts will clearly generate.
But by contrast look at something like fire protection. It’s well known that if you don’t put out a fire in a timely fashion, your entire city can burn down – including rich people’s neighborhoods – something that has happened again and again throughout history. Hence no city, no matter how poorly run in other areas, ultimately allows its fire protection to fall below minimum standard. For example, even in Detroit, while the fire department has seen major cuts, has tons of broken down equipment, has to deal with a stunningly high percentage of arson fires, etc, there is still a baseline level of fire protection for the city, something that was documented in the recent documentary about the Detroit Fire Department called “BURN.”
That fire protection is generally the best provided public service has been known for a long time. For example, in 1972’s “Report From Engine Company 82,” Dennis Smith (admittedly a fire fighter) had this to say:
The people in the South Bronx know that when the corner alarm box is pulled the firemen always come. If you pick up a telephone receiver in this town you may, or may not, get a dial tone. If you get on a subway you may, or may not, get stuck in a tunnel for an hour. The wall socket in your apartment may, or may not, contain electricity. The city’s air may, or may not, be killing you. The only real sure thing in this town is that the firemen come when you pull the handle on that red box.
Failing to put out fires in a timely fashion is simply unacceptable in a city, while we’ve grown used to tolerating large amounts of crime. Places like New York City have decided that they for one will not accept high crime rates, and have relentlessly attacked it, making stunning progress.
I think we need to acknowledge that macrotrends played a big role in this. Mayors like Giuliani and Daley got big credit for turning around their cities, when in fact many big cities all came back at the same time, suggesting common outside forces played a big role. (Saskia Sassen does a great job of documenting this macrochange in “The Global City.”) The peaking of the crack cocaine epidemic likewise helped incredibly. I’m sure there are many other such common factors.
Yet it doesn’t seem unreasonable to attribute at least something to policing and policy changes. Both NYC and LA saw major changes under the leadership of William Bratton. (Chicago, which tried different methods, has not seen similar results, though has had improvements in the last 20 years). It seems to me a lot of people would rather die than give any credit to Giuliani, Bloomberg, the NYPD, Bratton, Kelly, Broken Windows, etc. Myron Magnet wrote of this, “Some people can’t – or won’t – see what’s in front of their own eyes.”
There is certainly plenty of scope to debate or critique various police tactics (e.g, stop and frisk). I myself am very troubled by the increasing militarization of the police, for example. This is a debate that needs to be had and reforms made where necessary. And the police definitely need to be held accountable when they do wrong, something that requires significant, vigilant oversight.
Yet to me the current crop of NYC mayoral candidates give off a soft on crime air. If the next mayor decides to opportunistically score cheap political points at the expense of NYPD, not just that mayor, but the entire city, may come to regret it. Sadly, too many people no longer remember what it was like even in Manhattan not that long ago. (For a sample to refresh your memory, read this). For example, the New York Times in 2004 asked “Is New York Losing Its Street Smarts?,” citing a woman who thought it was a joke at first when she got mugged.
The Millennial urban dweller who has never experienced anything but urban Disneyland is sadly unlikely to understand what is at stake. And indeed even if NYC takes its foot off the gas on crime, things are extremely unlikely to go back to what they were (thankfully). But even a modest uptick in crime can have a chilling effect, and the crime genie can be fiendishly difficult to put back in the bottle once it’s loose. Just ask Rahm Emanuel. Despite his crime stat rhetoric, he knows the score. He meets the families of the victims and I’m sure desperately wants to end the killings.
As for Indianapolis, it’s hard to argue it has really been serious about crime. Before doing a job search for Public Safety Director, the city council specially raised the salary of the job – to $125,000 a year. That’s for a person overseeing both police and fire with a budget of $525 million. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been unable to recruit somebody with the experience befitting the 13th largest municipality in the United States. The previous occupant came from White Plains, NY. (His contract was not renewed). The current one came from Corpus Christi, TX.
I’m not saying Troy Riggs is no good, merely that this is a huge step up for him. He certainly deserves a fair shot to do the job, which he’s been on less than a year. But Indy is in a sort of lose-lose position. Either they hired another guy who’s a bust. Or if he succeeds he’ll be “gone in 60 seconds” to someplace where they’ll pay him a real salary.
I’ve long argued that Indianapolis public sector pay is too low to do a proper national job search for any key position in city government. But it’s tough to change when locals don’t agree. See, for example, Paul Ogden, who strongly feels differently. But it’s the same elsewhere. Detroit had a recent controversy over the pay of its police chief too.
Call me crazy, but I don’t know anyone in the private sector managing a $525 million budget that’s safety critical who only makes $125K/yr. If that salary was raised by just $25-50K, the field of potential recruits would increase enormously. Skimping on policing is the epitome of penny wise, pound foolish – and it’s the city’s citizens, disproportionately the poor ones, who pay the price.
At the end of the day it’s simply a matter of priorities. You could buy a lot of policing for the cost of even one of the $500 million stadiums that dot the American landscape. You can be sure that if a major fire ever again did wipe out a good chunk of a city, state and local government will do whatever and spend whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. One hurricane in New York and Bloomberg puts $20 billion in improvements on the table for better withstanding future storms. Yet crime and other ills have effectively destroyed big chunks of our cities, and we’ve just let it happen.
I find that urbanists seem to rarely talk about public safety unless it’s about some controversial incident with the police. I think that’s a mistake. Most cities in America aren’t seeing the strong investment flows and growth of a New York, San Francisco, or Seattle. Outside of a “green zone” downtown many places are still in decline. There’s nothing more important to restoring confidence in those places – and put and end to the ongoing human tragedy in too many of their neighborhoods – than fighting crime. Public safety really is Job #1.
Tuesday, July 9th, 2013
[ Given the emergence of an artist movement in Detroit, the comparisons to Berlin are obvious. However, in this piece that ran over in Techonomy last year, Justin Fox argues the comparison is invalid. I'm glad to be able to repost it. And I'd also suggest that you might want to check out more of the material from Techonomy Detroit - Aaron. ]
After the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin had very cheap housing and industrial space, some in spectacularly grand old buildings. Years of division—with repressive communist rule on one side of town and isolation and economic stagnation on the other—had left the city depressed and underpopulated. Reunification initially only made things worse, as uncompetitive Eastern-side state-owned factories closed en masse.
This translated into, among other things, apartment rents much lower than in any other major Western European city. The low rents and post-industrial landscape drew artists and other bohemian sorts. Then low rents plus a burgeoning cultural scene drew young college grads who couldn’t find good jobs anywhere (German unemployment was high in the 1990s). They could get by in groovy, low-cost Berlin. This influx eventually translated into economic revival. Now Berlin is a boomtown, and everybody’s complaining about the skyrocketing rents.
Detroit’s roughly the same size as Berlin (measured by metro area population). It’s got a lot of cheap real estate, some of it spectacularly grand. It’s got abandoned factories. It’s got great cultural history (mainly on the music front). So … let the young bohemians come and the boom begin, right?
Uh … no. I’m moderating a panel at the Techonomy Detroit conference titled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” but I just don’t buy it. Sure, I’m rooting for Detroit’s revival. And the revival seems real, although still in its early stages. Studying and learning from the struggles and successes of other cities (as WDET did with its series on the Detroit-Berlin Connection) is never a bad idea. But the notion that Berlin could be a model for Detroit strikes this outsider as wrongheaded and a bit dangerous. It is an aspiration bound to be thwarted. Here’s what makes Berlin so different from Detroit (and vice versa):
1) Berlin is a political and cultural capital. The economic impact of becoming the capital of a reunited Germany in 1990 was actually a disappointment for Berlin at first, as some government agencies stayed away, and corporations did, too. But the reality of becoming the capital city of a major economic power, and the construction boom that went with that, eventually had a big impact. Berlin also was quickly able to regain its pre-World-War II status as the country’s artistic and cultural capital—thanks in part to massive federal subsidies. So it became Germany’s New York (minus finance and media) plus its Washington, D.C. (minus the huge defense and homeland-security industry). With super-cheap rents. That’s a lot of magnetic power, and by the late 1990s Berlin had become the default destination for creative, ambitious, educated young Germans. Detroit has none of these dynamics going for it except the real estate. Bringing in a few curious artists is great, but expecting a mass inflow of hipsters from all over America is crazy. It would already be a huge victory if lots of creative, ambitious, educated young Michiganders began moving to the city.
2) Berlin reunified. Detroit never had a Wall, but it’s been riven by its own division over the past half century, a stark racial and political separation between the city and the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s clearly been progress made in recent years, with new stadiums and other development downtown, and an apparent shift—born of shared economic desperation—toward more of a we’re-all-in-this-together regional attitude. But the divide is undeniably still there, and it means that even a successful revitalization will of necessity have to take a much different, less-centralized shape than in Berlin. Three quarters of metro Berlin’s 4.4 million people live within the city limits. In Detroit it’s the other way around; more than 80% of the 4.3 million inhabitants of the metro area live outside Detroit proper. Finding ways to tie city and suburbs together remains one of the area’s biggest challenges.
3) Berlin has good public transit. Yeah, its air connections have long been something of a joke, but that should improve dramatically with the opening next year of a new airport. The city is also linked by high-speed rail to the rest of the country’s major cities. Detroit’s got a great airport, but beyond that it’s built quite literally around the automobile. The millennials who would have to begin flocking to Detroit to make a Berlin scenario real don’t seem to like cars much. There’s no easy way around this: Detroit simply can’t afford to build a mass-transit infrastructure right now, and a Berlin-style, youth-oriented metropolis is almost inconceivable without such an infrastructure.
4) Detroit knows business. Yes, the city’s main business has been through a really tough time lately, but metro Detroit is full of private sector expertise—not just in automobiles—and seems to be growing a new entrepreneurial class. Berlin has a startup scene now, but that’s been driven mostly by newcomers. When its long, slow return to prosperity began it was a city of bureaucrats, former communists, and the long-term unemployed. Detroit has a huge advantage over Berlin here, an advantage that should be exploited and emphasized.
5) Detroit has better immigrants. Sure, now Berlin is attracting jet-setters from all over—and has attracted hard-working immigrants from Turkey and Eastern Europe for years. But Detroit, and U.S. cities in general, have two big advantages over their continental European counterparts in attracting ambitious, entrepreneurial newcomers from other countries: (1) we speak the global language, English, and (2) despite occasional problems we have a deserved reputation as a nation where newcomers can thrive. The Detroit area has of course already benefited from its status as destination No. 1 in the U.S. for immigrants from Arab countries, and any realistic comeback scenario for the area and the city proper has to include a big role for overseas immigrants.
There’s an echo here of the competing visions of urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. Florida is of course the progenitor of the idea that a new, urban “creative class” is the key economic driver of our time—and that cities (like Berlin) that can attract young creatives will thrive. Kotkin argues that this simply won’t work for most American cities, and that messy, immigrant-filled, strip-mall sprawl is an equally vibrant and more realistic model. Florida, who married a Detroiter, has been talking up the creative-class link to the city’s revival. Kotkin, in a recent newspaper profile of Florida, scoffed that “There’s not enough yuppies on the planet to save Detroit.”
In the case of the Detroit area, they’re both right. Locavore restaurants and design studios aren’t going to bring back the regional economy. That’s going to require other, more mass-scale kinds of business success, and possibly some big-time government investment. At the same time, returning the city of Detroit to its rightful position as economic and cultural heart of the region—which seems like an essential prerequisite to any truly sustainable revival of metro Detroit—will take exactly the kind of building-by-building, restaurants-and-galleries-and-cool-little-creative-businesses entrepreneurship that Florida loves so much. Detroit is not the next Berlin. But it may still get a little bit of that Berlin spirit.
This post originally appeared in Techonomy on September 11, 2012.
Thursday, June 13th, 2013
One of the major controversies following the appointment of Kevyn Orr as emergency financial manager for the city of Detroit has been the exploration of whether or not the art at the city-owned Detroit Institute of the Arts can or should be sold to satisfy creditors in the event of a bankruptcy filing. This obviously sent shock waves of indignation through the community.
Following on from that, the Detroit Free Press took a look at what other assets could be on the auction block. In addition to extremely valuable masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh and Matisse at the DIA, there are also classic cars at the city history museum, the animals at the zoo (estimated price of a female breeding giraffe: $80,000) and Belle Isle Park.
Obviously with $15-17 billion in long term debt and no way to pay it off, Detroiters are delusional if they don’t think they are going to face painful sacrifices. This is the day of reckoning for a region that has failed in its basic duties.
On the other hand, having an asset fire sale is not a good idea. Cities are not companies, where you can file Chapter 7 and liquidate. Indeed, cities can’t be forced to sell assets at all under bankruptcy, though certainly pressure can be brought to bear.
This reminds me of the approach that has too often be taken regarding privatization. Mayor Daley in Chicago seems to have selected assets for privatization not based on any public interest criteria, but based on where he thought he could generate cash. This seems to be common. What public assets have positive market value? Sell them off! Similarly, the Orr seems to be looking at Detroit’s assets merely as sources of cash.
NYT Economist Paul Romer presciently told me that better handling of assets in bankruptcy is a key issue for cities and something on which private sector restructurings might shed some light. Corporate bankruptcies not only restructure debts, they ensure assets are allocated productively. But municipal bankruptcy today is almost entirely about paying what is owed. “How can we make sure that civic assets end up used more efficiently in municipal bankruptcy?” Romer asked.
I think it’s a good question, and one that deserves thought well before bankruptcy emerges. Cities accumulate assets over time but often fail to manage them. Corporations suffer from the same issue, but there’s generally a more rigorous asset management approach. For example, when I was working in corporate technology, we held quarterly asset impairment reviews to ensure we fairly valued any capitalized assets on our balance sheet. We also performed application portfolio reviews to classify systems in terms of things like “invest and enhance”, “maintain”, or “retire” and formalized these in our annual SLAs with user groups.
Retiring assets is a hugely contentious issue anywhere. I’ve yet to not find a corporate software application that someone somewhere didn’t scream bloody murder about getting ride of. A common tactic for things like reports is for IT departments to simply stop producing one to see if anyone screams. (I one time launched a new system where the legacy environment that was being replaced had over 1,000 reports. We managed to go live on the new system with 15. Given that it has been in production for a long time now, I suspect they are back up to a thousand).
I really haven’t seen much in the way of analogous processes for government. But I think there should be. That is, there ought to be some type of criteria developed to articulate the public interest and policy goals with regards to assets, and then the existing asset based managed according to that. The idea is to invest limited resources wisely and make sure that the asset base of a city is being utilized properly. And when assets are to be disposed of, it’s not some emergency cash raising exercise.
When it comes to asset disposals, perhaps cities should in fact look to museums. They are organizations that hold precious assets in trust with the idea that they will be cared for in perpetuity. However, there’s also a recognition that disposing of artwork can sometimes be appropriate, if safeguards are put in place.
As one example of how to do it right, the Indianapolis Museum of Art developed a formal deaccessioning policy that includes reasons for disposing of art work, the process for doing it, and restrictions on the use of proceeds. They also maintain a deaccessioning database where the public can review and comment on artwork that is proposed to be disposed of, and see which works were sold and where the proceeds actually went.
Something analogous for cities, along with an actively managed process for asset review and management, might help help avert these frantic searches through the attic looking for heirlooms to sell and such. It would also provide a robust framework for saying No to privatizations and/or asset sales. Otherwise there will be no way to separate the signal from the noise because some group of people will always complain loudly when you want to do something.
It might be too late for Detroit to do something like this at this point, but other cities should look to develop more rigorous asset management policies and procedures.
Thursday, February 21st, 2013
Pretty much everyone is being forced to come to grips with the reality of the 21st century urban world. I’ve noted before that religious movements are no exception. As part of this trend, Christianity Today magazine has been doing a project called “This Is Our City” focused on urban issues. They’ve been profiling several cities during the course of the project, and this month’s city is Detroit.
I’m delighted to have an article about Detroit included as part of this. It’s called “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong.” In it I note how Detroit as a city is often little more than a movie screen onto which others project their ideas. Thus many of the reports you see about Detroit bear little resemblance to reality. Here’s an excerpt:
We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That’s not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we’d never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as “Rust Belt”—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.
But there’s a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit’s fate. In some ways the city has become America’s movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called “ruin porn” shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing how many of these are nearly devoid of actual people.
Many of these are clear variations on the “canary in a coal mine” theme: If we as a broader society don’t change our ways, we will end up like Detroit. This is in marked contrast to say a “Rust Belt” label or the various movie stereotypes of New York, which are at least rooted in some local reality. What makes Detroit’s projected identities different is that they largely are rooted in a reality external to Detroit itself. Whatever your pet idea or phobia, Detroit seems to be the perfect lens through which to explore it, and the screen upon which you can project it.
You might also be interested in perusing the other Detroit articles on the site, especially “Faith in a Fallen Empire,” and also “Why Church Partnerships Really Matter,” which discusses the Everyone A Chance to Hear (EACH) initiative that brought together a large number of regional churches in one of the few movements that is really working to bridge the city-suburb and racial divides that plague the city.
Here also is an interesting video about Riet Schumack and the youth gardening program she’s part of there. It’s an interesting window into an aspect of the urban agriculture movement that might be bigger in Detroit than anywhere else. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
Sunday, January 13th, 2013
Last week the Detroit Works Project released their long awaited strategic plan for the city. This is the one led by Toni Griffin that produced a lot of public controversy because of suggestions it would result in the planned shrinkage or decommissioning (or even forced residential relocations) in sparsely populated neighborhoods.
Called “Detroit Future City,” this plan doesn’t shy away from facing the tough realities that face Detroit, but its recommendations are somewhat muted with regards to shrinkage. Nevertheless, the message is clear: in a broke, declining city, neighborhood triage is a must.
The full document is 184 pages. I perused it, but wasn’t able to review at the level of detail I normally like to. Partially this is because it was published in a hyper-annoying “cinemascope” type format that makes it almost impossible to read on screen without magnification and lots of horizontal scrolling. This aspect of the plan’s publication was an immediate knock against it in my view. However, it will share a few observations I gleaned.
The plan is notable for admitting that Detroit can never be repopulated. In fact, its only goal is to stabilize population loss 20 years from now, and settle in for a population of 600-800,000 people, or approximately the same as now.
The plan is frank about the scale of the challenges, including 150,000 vacant and abandoned parcels, empty land equal to the area of Manhattan, and vastly oversized infrastructure relative to the population and industrial base, along with poor service delivery in areas ranging from public safety (Detroit has the second highest violent crime rate in the country) to street lighting (about half of the street lights don’t work).
Part of that does involve identifying how to deploy infrastructure in neighborhoods. Here’s a graphic on that which will no doubt get some airplay:
Some areas are slated for upgrades, others reductions, and some perhaps “decommissioning.”
The strength of the plan, however, is in its approach to development in which the core concept is to develop a multi-nodal network of neighborhoods, and to have neighborhoods that are strategically differentiated from each others. This is very different from the core-centric or “hub and spoke” model that exists today, and is somewhat similar to my “100 Monument Cirles” concept for Indianapolis. Suffice it to say, I like it. What was missing from this was strengthening neighborhood identify, something Pete Saunders identified as a key weakness of the city.
A lot of the content behind this is disappointingly standard, however. The focus is green infrastructures, transit, mixed use neighborhoods, etc. This is basically planning conventional wisdom that would be at home in lots of different cities.
I was pleased to see that they de-emphasized rail transit. Only the M-1 light rail on Woodward remains. The rest of the core network would be BRT. I’d argue that reliable and higher frequency “plain old bus service” is the core need, however. There’s the proposed transit map:
Some may decry this, but in a city that’s over-infrastructured as it is, the last thing you need is more physical plant to maintain over time.
And perhaps the focus on green is to some extent understandable given the vast quantity of vacant land in Detroit. One of their intriguing concepts is “landscape as infrastructure”, though it didn’t fully connect with me. They did talk about ideas like medium intensity agriculture and new urban forest typologies. The Hanzt Farm example shows this already underway.
Lastly, the focus, and especially the near term recommendations around, regulatory restructuring is critical. Detroit benefits today from a sort of laissez-faire environment because government is so ineffective. If government effectiveness were restored, it could easily strangle the good things happening in Detroit, which are largely non-conforming. The answer is to get the regulatory system up to date with what we want to see. I would have preferred to see some types of harder targets around this, such as “85% of new development approved as of right.”
The plan considers boosting the number of jobs in Detroit as the most important mission. The city today has the 5th lowest number of jobs per resident of any of the top 100 cities in America, this despite large population losses. Jobs in the city are needed both for residents and rebuild the tax base.
The numbers on this seemed a bit squishy though. The report says that there is one job for ever four residents of Detroit. As there are about 700,000 residents, this would mean about 175,000 jobs. Yet they say there are 350,000 jobs. (If the resident figure included only working age adults, the projected number of current jobs would be even lower than my estimate).
The goal by 2030 is to increase this to between 2 and 3 jobs for every resident. This implies simply staggering job growth. Their mid-point population estimate for 2030 is still 700,000, so to go from 0.25/1 to 2/1 or 3/1 implies 700-1100% job growth. This is a CAGR of 11-13% – off the charts. To put it in perspective, metro Houston’s job growth CAGR from 2000 to 2011 was only 1.3%.
I may be totally off base on what they were getting at in these numbers, but having solid and realistic projections is critical, and, alas, all too rare. Unrealistic growth rate assumptions are common in civic plans, as I highlighted in the example of Cincinnati’s Agenda 360 plan.
[ Update 1/16: I was contacted by someone from the study's technical committee indicating that the 2 or 3 jobs per resident figure was an error in the PDF that was not present in the official version of the plan. There are apparently about 193,000 jobs in the city, with the plans actual goal a doubling of that over 30 years. Still ambitious, but not mathematically impossible. ]
The job growth is projected to come from four key target sectors: eds and meds, digital and creative, industrial, and local entrepreneurship. These sectors are reasonable as these things go given where Detroit is, but seem unlikely to drive the major growth they seek, excepting possibly entrepreneurship.
Neither Wayne State nor Detroit’s health care/life science infrastructure is nation leading. Every city and state in America is chasing eds and meds, and as I noted, the great growth curve in these industries may be over. Additionally, the trend nationally seems to be towards more decentralization of health care infrastructure in metro areas. While I’m sure there will be some growth here, I’m not optimistic about major expansion.
Similarly, digital and creative jobs are the fad du jour. I strongly doubt anyone will even consider there to be categories of jobs called “digital” or “creative” by 2030. These will be absorbed into industry generally. These are also the same types of sectors being pursued everywhere. Detroit certainly has a concentration of these because of its auto design cluster and just simply being a big city. But other than autos, does it really have a competitive advantage here? The big expansion opportunity would seem to be mostly suburban relocations of the type spearheaded by Dan Gilbert. I wonder how much gas is left in that tank, however.
The other two are more promising. Local entrepreneurship is a catch-all, but clearly indigenous startups are a great way to boost the economy. The report’s focus on equipping and facilitating minority entrepreneurship was especially relevant. Given the collapse of the city, Detroit’s residents have had to become innovative and self-sufficient of necessity. These skills from the school of hard knocks are in many ways worth much more than formal education when it comes to starting a business. If the city can figure out how to marry these “survival skills” of residents with a commercial orientation, it could be powerful. The same recipe of figuring how to do business in unstable and tough environments is common in the Middle East, where there’s a longstanding entrepreneurial and trading tradition. Unsurprisingly, Middle Easterners have been prominent among those who’ve thrived in Detroit. The challenge is how to activate the similar skills in other ethnicities for business purposes.
Industrial employment would also seem to be a possible area of growth, but not in the way envisioned in this plan. Industrial employment has been in decline, and new industrial facilities have tended to locate in outlying areas, not traditional urban manufacturing zones.
However, there are types of industrial businesses that can have a hard time finding a home. For places that are willing to welcome them, there could be opportunity. I noted this around the heavy industrial zone in Northwest Indiana.
This involves being willing to take on more brown than green industry, however. And it raises a whole host of issues around environmental justice, etc. However, Detroit, as this plan notes, is desperate for jobs. Trade-offs at least need to be considered. Rather than “focusing on the look and feel” of industrial areas, as the plan put it, why not roll out the red carpet for businesses like tanneries, scrap metal processing, etc. that are increasingly unwelcome in places like Chicago? Being friendly to to these types of businesses is probably the most likely road to success in industrial employment.
On first read, there’s some interesting stuff in here. They plan is less creative than I’d hoped overall, but probably takes the most aggressive line that was politically realistic. The real questions is, what happens next? Can any of this actually be actioned, or will fiscal and other problems effectively render it a dead letter? Only time will tell.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2012
[ Pete Saunders has another great article for us on Detroit. Don't forget to check out his blog - Aaron. ]
The “Detroit” we’ve all come to love — and expect
Every so often, Detroit seems to pop up in our popular consciousness in a negative way. Ever since the ’67 riots, a steady stream of bad press has altered the national perception of the Motor City. Right now the city’s efforts to prevent state takeover because of its fiscal problems seems to shape discussion about Detroit. The most recent demonstration of this is the State of Michigan’s proposal to make Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, the jewel of the city’s park system, into a state park through an extended lease agreement.
But I’ve had a rather counterintuitive thought for some time – Detroit is our nation’s urban “boogeyman”, our poster child for urban decline, and we are the ones who prevent the city’s revitalization because we won’t let that image go. America needs Detroit to be our national whipping boy.
Whipping boys came into prevalence in 15th Century England. I think Wikipedia’s entry on the subject captures it well:
They were created because of the idea of the divine right of kings, which stated that kings were appointed by God, and implied that no one but the king was worthy of punishing the king’s son. Since the king was rarely around to punish his son when necessary, tutors to the young prince found it extremely difficult to enforce rules or learning.
Whipping boys were generally of high status, and were educated with the prince from birth. Because the prince and whipping boy grew up together they usually formed a strong emotional bond, especially since the prince usually did not have playmates as other children would have had. The strong bond that developed between a prince and his whipping boy dramatically increased the effectiveness of using a whipping boy as a form of punishment for a prince. The idea of
the whipping boys was that seeing a friend being whipped or beaten for
something that he had done wrong would be likely to ensure that the prince
would not make the same mistake again (emphasis added).
If that doesn’t accurately describe Detroit’s position in our nation’s collective conscience, I don’t know what does.
I grew up in Detroit. Like so many others, I’ve long since moved away (been gone for 30 years), but I occasionally come back to visit family. I left the city as a teen, but I remain an avid fan of the city’s sports teams. I regularly read about events and happenings in the city via the Internet. And, if given a chance, I could still navigate pretty easily throughout the city. I heartily root for the city’s revitalization.
I sincerely believe that growing up in 1970s Detroit contributed to my ultimate career path. As a kid, I remember news reports of people leaving the city for the suburbs or any number of Sun Belt cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix. I remember reports of arson fires to abandoned buildings. I remember Mayor Coleman Young taking such a defiant political stance on most issues that he may have urged (if not necessarily directly so) continued “white flight” and suburban expansion. And, of course, I remember the tag that dug deep – “Murder Capital of the World”. That kind of environment might prompt – did prompt – many people to just give up on cities in general and Detroit in particular, but I always had the vague notion that someone should stick around and try to make the city better. I was first exposed to the field of urban planning during an eighth-grade career fair, and I later made it my career choice.
It was clear, however, that most people did not react to Detroit’s decline as I did. The city’s decline allowed it to be pushed into the recesses of the American mindscape. It was only to be recalled as a foreboding reminder of the evils of cities.
In my mind, four films from the last fifteen years seem to capture the general national image of Detroit and continue to shape our perceptions. The 1997 film Gridlock’d features Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth as heroin addicts traversing a bleak urban environment, trying without success to get the help they need to drop the habit. The much more celebrated 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile takes place in the same stark physical environment and details the visceral world of MC battling. The 2005 film Four Brothers covers yet again the same desolate setting as four adopted young men seek to avenge the senseless murder of their mother. And 2008’s Gran Torino, featuring Clint Eastwood, put a different spin on the meme by putting an elderly white widower into the same gritty landscape, full of resentment toward the people around him who represent the city’s demise.
Of course, we don’t need films to tell us what to think about Detroit. Journalists, business leaders, artists, and others are more than happy to report on a physical environment that is a gray and gritty, post-industrial collection of smokestacks, abandoned buildings. Everyone knows that Detroit is a city with huge swaths of vacant land and substandard housing. Time Magazine famously purchased a house in Detroit to provide a launching pad for reporters to chronicle the city’s collapse. On more than one occasion I’ve heard people suggest that Detroit is undergoing a “slow-motion Hurricane Katrina”. The image of the city’s people is one of, at best, ordinary blue-collar, hockey-loving, working-class slugs, holding on but facing inevitable economic obsolescence because of an inability to compete in today’s bottom-line global economy. At worst, they are poorly educated and isolated miscreants who relish burning buildings every October 30th (“Devil’s Night”), and causing mayhem when one of the local sports teams actually wins a championship.
There are aspects of this in virtually every large city in America. You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme ™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.
Why is Detroit our national whipping boy?
The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become. This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here. City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling
infrastructure. By doing this they can garner support for (or just as likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city? We could become like Detroit!
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban. As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad, or even worse, in their own communities. I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip. No one immediately associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable for discussion to the average guy when talking about Detroit. Cities like Miami and New Orleans have long histories of high crime rates, but that perception rarely registers like Detroit’s because they have other assets like South Beaches and French Quarters to mitigate it. Cities like Memphis and Baltimore have a violent crime profile similar to Detroit’s, but they fail to excite in the way Detroit does.
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation to maintain a smug arrogance and sense of superiority. I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions. Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing. Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions. Or the Big Three. Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters. Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption. And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people. We are not you, they say, because we made better choices. But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives. This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.
Detroit needs a reprieve. It needs a second chance. Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future. There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them? There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products. There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick. There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back. Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.
More importantly, we must recognize that Detroit’s story is not unique. It is the story of every American former industrial city, just writ large. America is the land of second chances – we need to let go of our “at-least-we’re-not-Detroit” smugness and support this city. Detroit has paid its dues, and it is long past time for the city to cash in.
By allowing Detroit to move on, we’ll find that it will free up other communities across the nation to actually focus on their own problems. There’s a checklist of activities that require urban leadership. Dealing with foreclosures. Crushing income inequality and economic disparities. Mind-numbing traffic congestion on our roads. Crumbling infrastructure. Unsustainable sprawl development. The impact of global climate change on water availability in the Sun Belt. That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, other cities certainly have their fair share of problems.
But I look at Detroit like this. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra in his song “New York, New York” – if it can be fixed there, it can be fixed anywhere.
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on October 16, 2012.
Sunday, October 7th, 2012
Trailer for Detropia. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
I was lucky to get to see Detropia, a buzz-laden documentary about Detroit, at the UMass-Boston film series, where Heidi Ewing, one of the film makers, was present for a post-screening discussion. Ewing, incidentally, grew up in suburban Detroit.
The title is an interesting word play. It’s a portmanteau of ambiguous meaning. It could be a combination of “Detroit” with either “utopia” or “dystopia,” though as the bleak civic outlook suggests, the latter is far more appropriate. The film provides a look into the lives of various Detroiters. There’s no real story here, no narrative, just a look as if through a window into a portion of the civic experience. The lack of any real relatedness between the characters fuels the sense of disconnectedness in the film. Though billed as a sort of cautionary tale about America, and explicitly intended to provoke political discussion per Ewing, it isn’t exactly clear what conclusions we are supposed to draw from it, or how it would inform any real debates or decision making as the core conflicts and issues are not addressed in sufficient depth to enable that.
The story focuses on three black principals: Tommy Stevens (the backbone character of the film), owner of a blue-colar blues bar called the Raven Lounge; George MacGregor, president of a UAW local; and Crystal Starr, a barista and video blogger. They are all thoughtful and likeable characters. A corresponding trio of white minor character groupings fill out most of the rest of the cast: an newly arrived artist couple, a group of metal scrappers, and the Michigan Opera Theater (admittedly shown in a multicultural way, but I think representing a stereotypically white endeavor and with a healthy dose of white faces).
The film has gotten good reviews, and most of them have heavily focused on the expert and stylish film making. It’s well done on many levels. I won’t repeat all those other reviews here, but suffice it to say that the film is worth seeing on an aesthetic basis alone.
However, being beautiful is only part of a film. The story you are actually telling is important too, particularly in a documentary work. Detropia, while it has some very strong points, also has a number of weaknesses that have been overlooked by the critics.
The biggest win for the film was its prescient prediction of the failure of the Chevy Volt. Stevens’ bar, the Raven Lounge, is only a few blocks from a shuttered GM plant. The plant closure naturally hurt his business. When he hears that the new electric Chevy Volt will be built there, he’s excited at the prospects. However, on checking out the Volt at the auto show, he notices serious problems, notably the short distance it can travel on a charge, and the high price tag, particularly in comparison to new Chinese competitors. He’s very clear that he thinks that dog won’t hunt – and he’s right.
Ewing uses that to great effect to show the hope springs eternal nature of Detroit’s civic thinking, in which the Big Three are perpetually just one new hit car away from being “back.” Not only is this “next big thing” thinking a failure in its own right, but the hits never quite come. That a bar owner can instantly see this while GM’s executives apparently could not is telling.
Similarly, as some New York Times commenters noted, the young men who raid abandoned buildings for scrap metal seem to have a much firmer grip on economic reality than auto company executives. They know the current market prices for their goods, and even understand how their work fits into the global supply chain. Presumably they also make a profit.
Another standout, and moving, scene was that of MacGregor’s UAW local receiving news of American Axle’s new wage proposals, ones that include big pay cuts for people who are barely earning a living wage as it is. Some workers would have seen pay drop from $14.35/hr to $11/hr. $14.35 is only about $30,000 a year – hardly the wage of a labor aristocrat. Imagine trying to support a family – housing, transportation, food, etc – on only $11/hr. Here we see the destruction of the American middle class as a real life work in progress. This a type of scene that’s been replayed far too often across America. (The UAW rejected the proposal outright and the plant closed).
However, the labor scenes also show the weakness of the film. There was a clearly one sided presentation of the facts designed to elicit maximum labor sympathy. Detropia mentions a Cadillac plant that closed and was, according to the UAW rep, moved to Mexico. However, GM also built a new state of the art Cadillac plant in Lansing in recent years that makes the CTS we see MacGregor driving. That wasn’t mentioned. The film notes the large pay cuts new UAW workers are expected to take, without showing how existing workers emerged from the bankruptcies with far less damage than other stakeholders. Delphi’s union retirees, for example, got a special pension top up from a bankrupt GM to keep them 100% whole while non-union retirees were out of luck and saw their pensions slashed 70%. The UAW came away owning a good slug of GM, and the hourly wages discussed in the American Axle example don’t fairly represent what Big Three assembly workers enjoy. The presentation was so one-sided and with an obvious political ax to grind it’s no wonder no company representatives would agree to be interviewed by these film makers.
In the Q&A, UMass-Boston film curator Chico Colvard keyed in on the role of the artists in the film (and a pair of briefly-featured Swiss tourists in town to check out “decay”) as ambivalent figures. On the one hand, they represent new blood for a city that desperately needs it. On the other, they are seen as interlopers or even parasitical, making their art and career from the wreckage of other people’s cities.
I thought this was very effectively communicated visually. The artists treat Detroit like a gigantic stage set. They seem oblivious to and disconnected from the experience of Detroit, except inasmuch as it provides them with low-rent opportunities to experiment. The scenes of them in gold gas masks, used heavily in promotional materials, reveal them as an almost literal alien presence in the city, invaders from outer space.
Ewing enthusiastically endorsed this analysis. She said that hearing the term “blank slate” used in reference to Detroit “pisses me off” as Detroit is a richly historic city. She also railed against NYT style romanticizing of the city’s new artistic arrivals.
Alas, Colvard failed to ask the obvious follow-up: What makes Ewing any different? How is her film different from the rest of the ruin porn review? She gave no indication that she’d ever considered this question.
Indeed, Ewing and co-director Rachel Grady are exactly like that young artist couple, except that those artists actually live in Detroit. They are using the raw material of that city and its residents to make their art and reputations. Colvard described Detropia as the “hottest film on the indie circuit,” so this seems to be working out for them. If their film seems less creepy than avant-garde street performances in gas masks, it’s only because they have more flair and a stronger commercial orientation.
I’m not necessarily saying that Ewing and Grady deserve to be castigated for making this film. But based on this discussion, Ewing at least seems oblivious to being a part of the very system she seems to view with ambivalence if not outright negativity.
There’s a lot of ambiguity and potential conflict in telling the stories of Detroit, to say nothing of actually turning it around. This was explored in the film but is something that deserved more attention, as solving it is the key to moving the city forward.
Ewing’s own reaction to the blank slate meme, and some of her subjects’ reaction to the idea of shrinking Detroit, bring out the “It’s our city” attitude that so many people have towards Detroit. Young upscale white knowledge workers and not-from-Michigan artists are seen as invaders. The shrinkage plan is seen as a way to turn over large tracts of the city to white investors. And there’s an element of truth in these.
Yet, unless someone from the outside sees in Detroit an opportunity for themselves, either personally or as an investor, how will the city ever come back? Ewing decries the paternalism that left the city dependent on the fortunes and good will of three major employers. But what to replace it with? Without that indigenous paternalism, it seems impossible that Detroit will ever see the investment needed to start a turn-around without a new group of stakeholders who have their own ideas about the city and what it should be. People are not just going to mail Detroit checks.
This will be a very bitter pill to swallow for many people who have stuck it out in Detroit through the decline, only to see opportunists swoop in. The high profile and racially charged debates over the Cobo Hall renovations, a state receivership, and a state takeover of Belle Isle all illustrate this. Successfully navigating this will be an enormous challenge, but is clearly of huge importance to the future of the city. Detroit needs new blood and new investors. But where is the benefit to the city if the people who live there are excluded? Cities are, after all, about people, not buildings. The people of Detroit are not wholly innocent in the matter of their city’s decline. Yet as with a Greek tragedy, the punishment is excessively disproportionate to the transgression.
Speaking of which, Ewing attempted to encourage the crowd with what to me was a startling statement. She said, “Young people in their 20s are talking about the heydays of Detroit as if they lived them. I can’t think of any city with a stronger sense of nostalgia.” She intended this as a positive but it is clearly one of the reasons the city has gone down the tubes. Nostalgia to any degree of excess is a profoundly corrosive force. It locates the apex of a civilization in an imagined past that never really was, and often inspires bitterness at the supposed forces that destroyed it. The decline of manufacturing would have been an enormous challenge to the Midwest in any event. But when it is populated with people who cling stubbornly to any lost threads of a disappearing past rather than turning forward to make a new future – and the “next hit car” and “it’s our city” ideas are both part of this – that makes success nearly impossible, as Detropia makes that all too clear for the Motor City.
Thursday, August 2nd, 2012
A few recent news stories caught my eye that I wanted to highlight.
Transport Tax Crushed at the Polls in Atlanta
The proposed sales tax increase in Atlanta that would have funded a large capital program for transit and highways went down to a bigtime defeat. This was interesting since capital referendums generally seem to do well.
There’s still a lot to process on this. Richard Layman had some thoughts on his blog that are worth a read. A couple things stuck out at me.
First is the unlikely anti-tax coalition of the Tea Party, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP. When I noted how the Tea Party types and the NAACP had joined forces in Cincinnati to oppose a streetcar, I was assured by locals this was not the start of a trend but came from the personalities involved. But here we see it again. I’m not sure if this is the start of a trend or not, but it’s something to watch. I’ve noted for a while now that the populist wings of the left and the right are fed up with the establishments of their respective parties. At some point could there be a left-right populist alliance against the big money interests? I’m not saying that’s the case here, but there are interesting points to ponder.
The second is where this leaves at Atlanta. As I noted in my piece “Is It Game Over for Atlanta?.” this is a troubled region that lost huge amounts of jobs, saw the worst erosion of per capita income of pretty much any big city, and even saw per capita GDP declines. And it’s choked with traffic and other assorted infrastructure ills. Meanwhile, places like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Nashville offer a lot of the Atlanta experience without the same level of problems. Atlanta is no longer the only game in town in the Southeast. Maybe a big infrastructure program isn’t what Atlanta needs, but if not, what’s the plan?
Lastly, with the federal spigot drying up and states broke, urban regions are going to have to find ways to invest in their own highway and transit infrastructure the way they’ve largely invested in their own airports. We see many cities stepping up and voting in infrastructure spending (albeit excessively skewed to transit in my view) while others vote it down. If this keeps going, we’ll get a real life test of where the choice of investment vs. disinvestment gets you.
Google’s Motorola Mobility Unit Moving to Downtown Chicago
In the wake of Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility, it is moving the headquarters and 3,000 employees downtown from suburban Libertyville. This is being touted as a huge coup for Chicago’s tech hub ambitions.
From a regional perspective, this is a net nothing. However, it clearly goes to show the ongoing power of the Chicago Loop not just as a tourist and quasi-public sector downtown like so many, but as a bona fide commercial powerhouse. I can’t prove this with data, but it seems to me that Chicago may have the strongest trend of any city in America of corporate relocations from the suburbs to downtown.
This is also a tribute to Rahm Emanuel’s star power. Economic development via Rahm’s Rolodex appears to be working. He started courting Google’s then CEO-Eric Schmidt for major investment in the city some time ago. This goes to show the advantage a city like Chicago has. Very few cities have mayors that can get any CEO in the country on the phone whenever they want. Chicago does.
On the other hand, I can’t agree with the schadenfreude some are feeling over the prospect of wind swept parking lots at vacant suburban office complexes. This is really no different than suburbanites who left rejoicing over the city’s ills. Ultimately, Chicagoland is a single economic region. And I hate to break it to you, but while moves like this make huge headlines, the majority of the economic and population growth will continue to be in the suburbs. At some point the burbs may get fed up with Rahm’s poaching, and that would bode ill for the type of regional cooperation that’s critical needed to move the area forward. I think Rahm should think about bringing his era of active recruitment of suburban firms to a close in the reasonably near future.
Why Detroit Deserves to Lose
Yet another saga out of Detroit illustrates why this city and region have fallen so far. The city has been hemorrhaging people and jobs for decades, has likewise been mis-managed for decades, and is flat broke. Basically, the city would go bankrupt without state financial support. Unsurprisingly, when the state gives you money, they put strings on it. This has resulted in a big tussle back and forth over the degree of state control, some of which is legitimate and natural.
But a recent debate over the future of Belle Isle, a Frederick Law Olmsted designed park on an island in the Detroit River that’s owned by the city, has shown the type of attitude that’s held Detroit back so long.
The city is broke and can’t afford the park anymore. The park also needs major repairs. The state said they’d take it over under a long term lease as a state park and make the investment to fix it up. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Apparently not to Detroit’s leadership, which has gone apoplectic. Saying “hands off our island” they are protesting state control over the park. What do they want instead? It’s pretty simple. As someone put it, “state support without state control.” In other words, give us your money and go away.
This is the exact same attitude Detroit has taken on everything. It’s why, for example, the Cobo Center sat in a decrepit state for so long with no action, for example. Detroit wanted suburbanites to pay, but wanted the city to retain control of the asset. We’ve seen where this has gotten Detroit.
Regarding Belle Isle, Mayor Dave Bing said, “I have never in my 46 years in this city seen a governor of the state of Michigan involved in city politics like this one.” Given the state of Detroit today, one can’t help but ask, what took the state so long? It should have intervened long ago.
As always, Detroit’s leaders continue to try to point the blame at outside people and forces instead of taking a cold hard look in the mirror. These guys just aren’t serious.
Louisville Aging Cluster
The New York Times has a piece on Louisville’s efforts to build an economic cluster around care for the aging. I can’t say how successful this is likely to be, but I think it illustrates good thinking. Everybody and their brother is saying their economic future is some variant of life sciences (and high tech, advanced manufacturing and logistics, and green tech). They can’t all win in those general markets. And Louisville in my view really isn’t that well positioned.
So rather than try to make some big generalized push, the idea is to look for a specialized part of the industry where you do have more leading capabilities, and try to focus on that. That’s exactly what Louisville is doing here with aging care. There are supposedly something like 500 local companies doing work related to that. It’s also right down the rails of the demographic changes happening in America and the world. We’ll see how this plays out, but this sort of more specialized thinking is how cities ought to be looking at economic development strategies.