Last year I did a podcast with my friend Dwight Gibson about how pragmatism killed Michigan. He told me an incredible story that I hadn’t before heard. A Detroit house that Rosa Parks once briefly lived in had been moved to Berlin.
Parks’ niece had managed to buy the house for $500 but couldn’t raise the funding to preserve it from demolition. She met Berlin-based American artist Ryan Mendoza, who decided to do something about it. He sold $100,000 of his artwork and used the proceeds to disassemble the house and rebuild it, mostly by himself, in Berlin.
This story (see the NYT on it) is a profound illustration of the difference in mindset between cities like Detroit and Berlin.
But as it turns out, the story wasn’t over. Because of the press Mendoza received, he made plans to bring the house back to the United States and exhibit it as a civil rights tribute. He partnered with Brown University to reconstruct the house in Providence.
However, shortly before the house was to go on display, Brown University backed out after they reportedly received a cease and desist letter from the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute in Detroit, which has apparently been in conflict with Parks living relatives before. Mendoza was able to go forward with the exhibition, but had to do it without university support.
It’s hard to get a sense of what’s really going on. The Detroit Free Press reports that the Rosa and Raymond Parks institute has been aggressively refuting the Parks connection to the house and saying it has “no significance.” Academic researchers the Free Press talked to disagree. Mendoza has apparently offered to sell the house to local museum in Detroit, but there’s still no local funding available. The situation is a mess.
Detroit saw no value in this house where Rosa Parks lived, and furthermore appears to believe that no one else should be allowed to see value in it either.
This is but a small sample of the incredibly suffocating state of mind that exists in too many Rust Belt communities. It helps explain why they’ve so struggled to turn themselves around.
A friend of mine from the Pacific Northwest moved to an Ohio city a year or two ago to take a job. He was so turned off by the relentless negativity in the local culture he decided to hightail it back to the PNW pronto.
When I first started visiting Nashville several years back I kept trying to figure out why this city was growing so much more than Midwestern ones. There seemed to be no objective reason. For every unique thing Nashville had, I could easily find one or more compensating ones in Midwestern cities. In many respects Nashville was actually worse than similar sized Midwestern places.
But Nashville had a completely different vibe. There’s an old saying that “city air makes free.” The air in Nashville was free from the suffocating cloud that hovers over too many Rust Belt places.
Looking at what Ryan Mendoza has had to go through, is it any wonder that a lot of the talent that could be propelling these cities into a better future decided instead to abandon ship?
Cover image: Brush Park, Detroit. Photo Credit: Stephen Harlan, CC BY-SA 2.0