Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Detroit's Metamorphasis

So once again this morning while watching the morning news, there was a snippet about Detroit. While only about 1 minute in length and lacking any real economic substance, it was the opening introduction the reporter gave to the story (and the city) that made me laugh out loud.

Obviously going for a type of Fox'esque edginess, the reporter stated; "Economic, urban and social decay; it's what this city is all about these days." I laughed simply because it occurred to me that the way the situation was reported was more like they were touring a freak show instead of a disaster site. The attitude from the country is, and seems to have always been 'Gee, someone ought to do something about that'. Wildfires threatening the homes of wealthy Southern Californians is deemed a national disaster, while a city bleeding to death seems to be the country's sick version of reality television.

Let me move on to what I hoped this piece would be all about:

How this all came about and what will the "new" Detroit look like when the metamorphasis is complete.

Now, what we all see on television are the absolute worst areas of the city. Journalists want to find the most exaggerated image to further the impact of the story. True, there are scores of areas in Wayne County that are desolate, abandonned and in ruins. There are also still regular looking middle class neighborhoods though. Remember, 800,000 people still live in the city limits and 5 million in the greater metropolitan area.

At it's zenith in the start of the 1950's, the city of Detroit had a population of over 2 million residents. Over a half-century later, Detroit is an un-recognizable gjost of the gleaming city of the 1950's. The city's boundaries are sized for over 2 million residents, yet only 800,000 remain inside them, and even that number is questionable these days. The infrastructure was built for a city of that size as well obviously. With so much of the population gone, the majority has been abandonned and/or bulldozed. Virtually all major manufacturing has long ago left, leaving giant, forboding industrial parks rotting back into the earth. Whole acres of neighborhoods have been erased from the earth, turned back into praire land with only empty streets, sidewalks and streetlights to guide no one. Still furthermore countless homes and commerical buildings lay abondonned in a state of collapse and rot reminiscent of a post-war Europe.

First, Detroit had the misfortune of being one of the centers of racial tension in the 20th century. The ensuing maelstrom that occured has been like none other in the United States. The results of racism and ignorance can only be matched by that of South Africa. It really was, and still is, THAT bad. If you were white, you fled the city. Most African American's were not "allowed" to leave the city. A form a segregation so hideous and glaring was created that it still exists today. If I were a man of color in the 1960's, I probably would not be allowed to buy a house outside of the city of Detroit. This is a practice called "redlining". Banks tooks maps of the city and suburbs and outlined in red the areas where they would not grant loans. These areas were by far minority populated. While this practice was used by financial institutions around the country, it's effects are most devastatingly seen in Detroit.

Second, Detroit put all of her eggs into one basket; the auto and manufacturing industry which supported it. What were once tens of thousands of auto-jobs that spurred hundred of thousands of other jobs, has dwindled to only a tiny fraction. When the auto industry found cheaper (non-union) labor overseas, it moved jobs. Then, the imports came. Toyota and Honda started the trend. The big three had no previous competition and were wholly unprepared for what happened next. Declining marketshare and sales left Chryster, GM and Ford what they are today. Only now are they recognizing the competitiveness of the market. Ford has realized it can't only sell F150's and GM has hopefully realized it cannot only sell Tahoe's and Suburban's. It might be too little, too late. Most of us are not economists or MBA's, but the fatal flaws of their past business model can be seen to anyone. Furthermore, one could also state that the industry that built the city, also destroyed it. It started with the city ridding itself of all public transportation to appease the auto industry. Today, Detroit is the only "major" US city with no major public rail system. Instead, freeways were installed by ripping out whole neighborhoods.

Third, the citizens of Detroit have continually elected corrupt, impotent and apathetic city leadership. I now believe there are some serious corrupt political forces in that city who do not want change or improvement, as they are in some sick way profiting from the despair. City resources are put toward having giant casinos built in the city as if that in some way will make it all better. New ballparks are great, but the city is like a car. If the engine is not running, no amount of paint or polish will help.

Fourth, is a complete lack of responsibility by the public and the goverment. Fueled by racism and greed, millions of whites fled to the suburbs. They continue to flee today, to new "exurbs" even further out. Only a generation or two later, those with the financial means to do something about the problem are continuing to run. It makes a grave statement to the American idea of disposability. Turn, walk away, shed all responsibility and turn a blind eye to the suffering and despair. Whats worse, is those who like to make fun of the situation. What a worse statement of morality than to laugh, and even kick, those who are down. A famous quote from history reads; "If we can not save the many who are poor, we cannot save the few who are rich".

So what will become of this stricken city in future and in the meantime?

State and city officials seems to living on the empty dream that it will return to it's former glory of 2 million inhabitants with the auto industry being a giant, profitable employer and economic powerhouse again. They have pushed legislation that run in-line with those beliefs. However until they are able to move on from the past, the city will never be able to move forward, forever living through the former glory of itself. On the contrary, Detroit will more than likely become the most unique urbanized area in the country when recovery has been completed. It will look nothing like it's 20th century self.

In reality, I expect the city's population to continue to fall, and keep falling for a few more decades. In the end, there may only be 100,000 inhabitants left inside the old city limits. With the massive swaths of land already abandonned in the city, some have brought up truly unique and forward ideas such as turning that land into farmland, or simple re-forestation of some areas. A recent CBC report on the city also brought up the idea of Detroit becoming a "super-green" city. What about using massive open areas as energy producers? Large wind turbines lining parts of the freeways (The Lodge, I-75, 94, etc.). What about industrial rooftops being fitted with solar panels? The possibilities of becoming a clean energy exporter are endless, and that's assuming that not a single other soul leaves the city!

I'd like to get to Detroit with a large group of people to document some of the city's historical ruins before they go the way of Tiger Stadium or the Hudson's Building.

There will always be millions of people living in what is now suburban Detroit. However, it will be those hearty few souls, those with visionary plans and the ability to think outside of the box that will eventually re-create Detroit. Will we see it in our lifetime? Only if we begin to take a bit of responsibility for the situation, offer up our intellect, and pick up a shovel.

Remember, we're talking about human beings here. We are ALL made in Detroit.

1 comment:

  1. Pete!
    Thanks for being the kind of person who stands up for Detroit! Being from the 'metro detroit' area my whole life I feel like many people in west michigan are like.. "oh yeah.. detroit, ew!" It's good to hear someone finally stand up for it and claim respect that we ALL are part of it and we ALL should want to help.