Detroit – 2009 and Beyond

Everyone is talking about Detroit these days.  We seem to be the global symbol of the failure of 20th Century business, social, and political practices.  They argue about what the failure of Detroit means to America.  How did they sink so low?  Are other cities next? 

After wading through one article after another by people from other places ringing their hands over us poor souls in our dilapidated city, I thought I’d weigh in on some things I’ve seen.  Through my work now, I’ve been exposed to sectors of Detroit’s communities that are usually missed and here are the reasons why we can bounce back:

1.  We care now more than we did then.
Detroit was abandoned by two generations of mostly white people who fled the city in search of a “Leave It to Beaver” paradise in the suburbs.  They took their money with them.  Practices such as red lining kept more “undesirable” people (and we know what that means) in a half empty city.  This happened in major cities all over the country, but in those other places they stopped it at some point and said, “This is as bad as it’s going to get and we won’t let it get worse.”  Not here.

The generation now approaching middle age and younger simply cares more about what happens to Detroit in the future.  We’ve been to other cities and see what’s missing here.  We’re tired of the racial disputes and city vs. suburb wars that held us back for so long.  We want a thriving urban area at our core.

2.  We have better engineers
I know all about this one from working in the electronics and embedded systems industry for the past 11 years.  Even people who live here don’t often realize that Japanese and European companies set up technical centers in this area simply because of the engineering talent and traditions we have.  This is invisible because most people don’t realize how much technology is under the hood of even the cheapest modern car.

If new energy sources are the future then pulling this area’s talent into the equation is of upmost importance.  Sure there are great research centers in Boston and San Jose, but they’ve failed to technologies that can succeed on the open market.  Our engineers are well versed in taking advanced systems and making them work for the average citizen.  

3.  A half-empty city is ripe for redevelopment
Whether it’s urban farming, next generation communities, or a modern park system, we have an open market to apply better development models for 21st Century communities.  First, though, we have to do something about the squatters and “investors” who will clog up the works.  I don’t know what the answer to this is, but whoever comes up with it could be the architect of not only our redevelopment, but a model for smarter urban areas in the future.

4.  Finally, we have the will to get it done
All the illusions that made up our old way of life are gone.  The huge UAW wages and benefits are going away, our automakers can no longer pretend they still own the market and get away with it, and the malaise that many thought was safely contained under 8 Mile has made its way to Rochester Hills.  There are many people in this country who are still clinging to the roaring nineties.  Not us.  Is there a new idea that could help us out?  We’re willing to try it.  Will it take more work than anything we’ve done before?  We’ve already been working hard only to find ourselves at a dead end.  Give us the light at the end of the tunnel and watch us go after it.

We now have some leadership in the city that gets all of this.  We’re still saddled with squabbling in Lansing and there are holdovers at the local political level that will never learn or change.  We’re just going to have to roll over them.  They had their shot, now get out of the way and the rest of us will show you what we can do.

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9 thoughts on “Detroit – 2009 and Beyond

  1. Well put and well stated. I have to agree. Most of Michigan is in need of redevelopment and unfortunately the switch from manufacturing to a new industry may take awhile to come into fruition. We need those strong leaders to push for the new technologies and to push for them to come from Detroit.

    What better way to redevelop than with a half-empty city. It will be like playing SIM City. Enjoyed your thoughts. Clifton

  2. The best way t o help with redevelopment is to move there. My lady and I are looking at properties in Detroit proper to purchase and help give birth to a new Detroit. We have quite a few friends that have done this and have also started business in Detroit. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Everyone seems to think that Detroit is so bad, when really it is no worse than anywhere else.

    1. Nice to hear, Vince. Without people taking the first step, things will never fall into place. And for those of us that it’s not a good option for, you can support businesses in Detroit. That’s been my main way to substantially help, plus by bringing people in who haven’t been there before or in a long time. It’s something I’ve been able to do through my work as well.

  3. After years of living in a suburb and hoping things would gradually improve, I’ve taken a small step toward contributing. I am a partner at Cornerstone Schools, which simply means I work with a student all the way from 1st to 8th grade, four times a year. The time commitment is minimal, but the chance to mentor a child is very rewarding. Cornerstone does a fanastic job of “changing Detroit one child at a time”. I would highly recommend it.

    1. That’s awesome. Working with kids like that is a pretty rewarding thing in itself. I do a Lunch Buddy program locally where I become a mentor figure for a kid. I’ve done it for several years now and plan to keep going as long as possible.

  4. On one hand, it’s nice to see that the national media is finally taking a look at Detroit, both the good and bad (Time magazine buying a house for reporters to live in for a year). On the other hand, it sucks that they’re only focusing on the negative.

    One of the interesting things about living in Pittsburgh is seeing how a Midwestern city can get beyond the major (only) industry that sustained the city, as well as made it internationally known. The trick is to have new jobs and industries without forgetting the old (which some people in this city have done, even with the football team called the Steelers). I agree with the comment about the number of foreign companies with offices in the Detroit area, but they are pretty much in the suburbs – I’m not sure how much that’ll help the city proper. Plus, a good number of them are still tied to the automotive industry, for better or worse. Also, are you really sure that people aren’t stuck in the nineties (or seventies, which is something that I encounter with the old timer’s in Pittsburgh).

    I agree with Vince – the first thing to do is get people to live in the city limits – not the suburbs. Live in the houses – rehab the old ones (they’re built better than new houses anyway, and have more character), support the local businesses. After a while, there can develop a critical mass.

    There’s an anthropologist (I guess) named Richard Florida, who’s studied and written about cities coming back from the dead (he lived in Pittsburgh and taught at Carnegie Mellon for a number of years) – one of his major theories is that the presence of the “creative class” in a city will then lead to an overall urban renewal.

    Jeff

    1. Not everyone is out of the wars of the seventies as many of those folks are still in power and still doing the same old thing. The younger generations are not as prone to this and are finally moving into leadership positions, or letting themselves be heard in voting. This is the first time in forever that we may have a city council in Detroit not made up by crazies who got into their positions by playing up the same old battles.

      When it comes to the city versus the suburbs, it’s a fuzzy line to watch out for. Yes the city core needs to be brought back and to do that, we need to get people into the city limits. But we have to be careful not to keep slipping into the city vs the suburbs nonsense. The foreign companies in the suburbs do count for something because they’re in this region. We have to start thinking like a region. Not doing that is one of the biggest reasons we are where we are.

      In terms of a creative class, we do have a strong one here but in areas such as movies you had to leave once you hit a certain level or your career was limited (see Sam Raimi and the Evil Dead crew). This is changing thanks to the film industry de-centralizing and the incentives being offerred in Michigan. One area we’ve always done well in is music, but we need to spread that around.

  5. Wow, great article, thanks for sharing. I’m living in DC and trying to move back to the D. I get up there several times a year and can really feel a sense of hope and excitement downtown. People are really being creative. Its so inspiring to see everyone really working together to make good things happen. I would love to live there and be part of this momentum.

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