The demise of Detroit

When all “directions” fail there arises in the darkness over the abyss the one true direction of man, towards the creative Spirit”

– Martin Buber, I and Thou, 1923

The demise of Detroit

In the introduction to the book Place Management, which was authored by Christer Asplund and Jacob Ikkala and published by Bearing in 2011, I wrote about Venice and the iconic importance of Harrys Bar in the attractive branding message of the city. I also wrote:

“Europe is full of places like Harry’s Bar in cities with a historic past, where the opportunities of the place have not been utilised as they could. To balance and develop all the assets of a place and make it attractive in the global marketplace is a necessity for growth and wealth creation. (…) With increased mobility, the importance and expectations of the local region and place have increased immensely in the competitive and global marketplace. Turnaround is possible for places in decline.

Working in the field of place management, I do my best to follow the current trends and learn from both success stories and failures, and failures are inevitable in a world in evolution with hyper competition bringing change so fast that it is already half underway when it is noticed.

Detroit classic carA city that has been in decline for quite some time is Detroit, in Michigan, United States.

Once America’s capitalist dream city, Detroit is now the country´s greatest urban failure, having fallen the longest and the farthest. The city was once one of the greatest industrial cities in the history of the world, but today large extents of it are a decaying, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Nearly half the male population are unemployed, a large proportion of the population is illiterate, not the least due to closing of many public schools, more than half of the children are living in poverty and the city government is drowning in debt. 

As economic conditions have gotten worse, crime has exploded.  Every single night in Detroit there are frightening confrontations between criminals and exasperated homeowners.  Unfortunately, the police force has been dramatically reduced in size.  When the police in Detroit are called, they often show up very late if they even show up at all. It may seem as if Detroit is the real worlds Gotham City, the fictional American city of Batman fame.

Detroit´s demise was bred by the very conditions that made it the world’s fastest growing city in 1930. It became too dependent on one industry, one source of income for its residents, local businesses and tax revenues.

Detroits populationWhen its car industry was booming, Detroit was the American dream at its best, presenting a chance for working men to make a decent wage and to enter the middle class. But when the automobile industry’s fortunes faded as demand dropped and competition from abroad intensified, Detroit was badly prepared.

A city once bursting with prosperity lost half of its population. A third of Detroit lies abandoned. Its future is uncertain.

President Obama bailed out the city’s auto makers in 2008  and said at the recent Democratic National Convention that “Osama is dead, Detroit is not”. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, declared in a New York Times opinion piece in 2008 that Detroit should be allowed to go bankrupt. 

A more objective article about the auto industry bailout can be downloaded here:

A serious examination of the state of Detroit is presented in two competing narratives, showing Detroit as beyond salvation and Detroit as a canvas for a new, post-industrial America.

Building in DetroitThe first is “Detropia”, a film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, looks at the political and physical landscape of the city. The second is “Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis”, a book by the Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli.

Ms Ewing and Ms Grady provide the stark visuals that underpin Detroit’s realities in their beautiful and moving film. When planning the project, the directors intended to focus on the city’s revival. But as they began working, they realised “that the story of Detroit is not one of the future but of people dealing with decisions made long ago; a story of consequences”.

Their camera records frustrating union meetings, tense confrontations between the mayor and the public about his plans to “downsize” the city, long rides past abandoned auto plants, and the somewhat surreal existence of artists attracted by the city’s cheap rents.

There is much discussion in “Detropia” of the American middle class and whether it is dying. China serves as the villain to many of the people in the film, most clearly in scenes of the annual auto show. Excitement about the unveiling of the Chevy Volt, a hybrid car, is dampened by the introduction of a significantly cheaper Chinese vehicle. The anxiety is palpable; the belief that globalisation has killed the middle class all too real.

Abandoned Detroit streetThere are signs of hope in "Detropia," as the film spends time with some of the young artists and loft-dwellers doing what they can to revitalize the downtown core (while enjoying amazing real estate deals). But as retired schoolteacher and blues club owner Tommy Stephens says: "No buffer between the rich and the poor? Only thing left is revolution." His club, the Raven Lounge, sits a few blocks from a formerly humming GM plant.

Mark Binelli, who grew up in Detroit, returned in 2009 to see for himself the supposed resurgence brought in by young artists and idealists. He ended up spending close to three years there. The result is a book that attempts to look at both sides of the story. In his view the city has managed to do the unthinkable: turn the end of days into a laboratory for the future. Urban planners, land speculators, neo-pastoral agriculturalists, and utopian environmentalists, they have all been drawn to Detroit’s baroquely decaying, nothing-left-to-lose frontier.

Mr. Binelli confesses to being seduced by the idealism of city’s new residents and the tenacity of those who never left. In one chapter, he meets Mark Covington, a gardener who has gained much attention for his urban farming efforts. He is only one member of a growing movement that has made Detroit a leader in urban farming in America.

Detroit streetAccording to Grace Lee Boggs, a long-time Detroit activist, the city has enough unused land to become the first entirely self-sufficient city in the world. Yet while Mr. Binelli is open to being convinced, he remains ultimately sceptical that any city can be saved by artists.

Detroit is a confusing place and it is to the filmmakers’ and writer’s credit that they admit to having to rethink the opinions they came with, sometimes with hazy results. As Mr. Binelli writes:

It’s undeniable that Detroit feels like an extraordinary place, and at the same time, just as Greenland might be called ground zero of the broader climate crisis, Detroit feels like ground zero for…what, exactly? The end of the American way of life? Or the beginning of something else? Either way, that is why so many divergent interests are converging here right now. Who doesn’t want to see the future?

The decline of this once successful and great city serves as a warning for the new industrial capitals of the world. It also provides a glimpse of what might be possible for the old ones. But there may be hope.

Quad helixIn Bearing we believe in the importance of working with place development according to the the Quad Helix model, in order to achieve place excellence. The model is a methodology for how to make the key actors in a place cooperate for the common good.

One up and coming success story in Detroit might be the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, which is instrumental in revitalizing Detroit’s downtown creating neighborhoods from industrial zones along the East Riverfront, and bringing jobs to the West Riverfront and other central locations.

In the Quad Helix terms, this organisation fulfills the role of the every so important context management.

1 comment

  1. On February 27th, 2013, the Economist reported that “on February 19th it became highly unlikely that Detroit will be allowed to muddle on for much longer. A state review team concluded that there was a local-government financial emergency in Detroit and no way of resolving the situation. … The governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, has 30 days to respond, but most people think he will take far less time than this to appoint an emergency manager for the city.”

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