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Read This, Detroit

Surprisingly good essay in The New Republic -- and an interesting read/reaction from a local commentator.

As for The New Republic, the two authors -- Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley -- take on the "Detroit problem" in the well-respected magazine and offer insights and ideas for its reformation. Of particular note is their comparison between the changes happening in Turin, Italy, and how they could be applied in Detroit.

MLive's comments come from blogger and site producer Jonathan Oosting. He is a masters student at MSU and worked as a new media intern at and at the Lansing State Journal.

A little background on the authors: Katz is director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Bradley is a senior research associate with the Metropolitan Policy Program.

According to the magazine, the essay "draws on research undertaken by Brookings and the London School of Economics for a joint project on older industrial cities."

The worst part: the article subhead. "A plan for solving America's greatest urban disaster." Ugh. That hurts.

Best part:

To allow Detroit to continue its march toward death would come at significant costs, both human and economic. For Detroit to die, especially in the face of such tested methods for saving cities, would be an American tragedy.

Hat tip to Philip Lauri (mural painter to the stars) for finding the articles.

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  • 1

    Actually, I might characterize Jacksonville or Phoenix as "America's greatest urban disaster". Depends on how you look at it.

  • 2

    I don't think anyone in their right mind could say that Jacksonville or Phoenix was in worse shape than Detroit. Maybe Philadelphia. But if you look at some of the structural issues Detroit is facing, mainly attracting reinvestment in the private manufacturing sector, diversifying the economy, and looking to restabilize the tax base; improve the education system and fight crime, other places aren't facing those challenges.
    Let's face it, the city can't address the issue of revitalizing the economy and attracting reinvestment without addressing the crime problem. All the handwringing about fixing Detroit is touching, but there are some simple solutions for what must happen for Detroit to get back to a semblance of civic normalcy. Make sure the Big 3 gets back on their feet and push them to lead the economic transformation by inviting the sectors that can accomplish that: new green strategies, new media and anything high tech to support what they are doing to go as green as possible, and you will have the roots of a true renaissance in our town. Mayor Bing should take the lead in being very innovative in terms of the Big 3's responsibility to Detroit, and should leave no stone unturned in creating new industries and economies of scale to make this a reality.
    Otherwise, you could be looking at the real death of the city in ways some of you can't even possibly fathom.
    Flint won't have a thing on Detroit if these ideas are not tackled immediately. Besides, the Chinese are dying to buy new Escalades and Ford F-150s. Let's not reinvent the car; let's make how it's made and sold a better process. It's how you save Detroit.

    • 2.1

      Sorry, there was some sarcasm involved there. Like I said, it depends on the viewpoint. True, Phoenix and Jacksonville are economically successful, and yet, from a planning perspective, both are incredibly sprawling, placeless places. They are the least "urban" cities that I've ever seen.

      I once had 24 hours to kill in Phoenix. I found a coffee shop in one of the few downtown-like neighborhoods I could find. I asked the workers at the shop what, if they had 24 hours to spend in Phoenix, would they do? Now this was the kind of coffee shop that was carefully located in the city, and was making a go at it despite there not being much density or pedestrian traffic around them. Their response was straight out of those local news exclusives they did back when the Super Bowl was in Detroit, and the reporters asked cabbies what to do in the city on the ride from the airport. The answer?... "What on earth are you doing in downtown Phoenix?" They actually couldn't offer me any sights to see or places to visit, and apologized that I would have to spend a day in their city.

      The point is, there is more to a city than just the socioeconomic factors you mentioned above. Not to say that Detroit isn't a disaster, believe me I live here, but I think that it has a lot to offer that the sprawling anti-cities of the south and west (cities like Phoenix and Jacksonville) do not.

  • 3

    Perhaps, but in terms of what the city needs now, it all comes down to socioeconomics. If you don't address that, then Detroit will become worse than what it is now, those other places notwithstanding.
    And what do thehy have to do with the referenced article in TNR, or my post?

  • 4

    First, I was born in Detroit and raised in Grosse Pointe, a wealthy suburb that abuts Detroit on two sides. The Detroit neighborhoods that are adjacent to Grosse Pointe were some of the most dangerous and blighted areas in the city. I am 42 and have lived in Chicago for the last 17 years. I closely follow articles such as yours regarding the demise of Detroit and plans to salvage it. Before moving to Chicago, I spent five summers working in Detroit and spent one year of law school there. I spent many evenings and time in the city. Myfather spent 40 years working downtown as a lawyer. My mother grew up in the city as a child, as well as two of my grandparents and their parents. I know downtown like the back of my hand and followed all aspects of development there for years. I once dreamed of being a pioneer of restoring the city's downtown to is glory. I would drive through downtown in the winter when it got dark early to see what skyscrapers had their lights on - and much to my chagrin, many were black, and that was 20 years ago. I agree with the points in your article and like the analogies to European cities and their efforts to reinvent themselves. The reason for this message is to point out two critical distinctions that I believe you both overlooked and, which I strongly believe, are key factors as to why Detroit will, unfortunately, not be able to mirror the achievements of the European cities to which you refer. And let me first point out that this is not in the least part due to ignorance or lack of diligence on either of your parts. It is only due to the fact that neither of you grew up there. The distinctions are (1) poisonous racism and (2) poverty. I'll start with the first point. It does not take much reading to learn (and you touch on this in your article) that Detroit (which is now over 90% African American) and its white suburbs are fraught with racism. Growing up in Grosse Pointe, I did not realize how terrible the engrained racism that infects the region was until I was in college in the University of Michigan and people in my dormitory (who were from out of state) reacted in disbelief when I routinely used the N word (fortunately for me, I have learned better and now consider myself devoid of any racist feelings or actions). But it was terrible there. I had a high school teacher who would tell N jokes. To this day, I cannot have a conversation with adult professionals that live in Grosse Pointe without their use of the N word when referring to Detroit citizens. Part of that notion lies in the flawed premise of a lot of white folks whose parents and grandparents grew up in the city proper. When blight started in the 1970s, the message sent to young white kids was that black folk did not keep up their houses and stole from you. I can't tell you how many times it is nailed into your head growing up there as a child that the reason Detroit went to hell was because of the "blacks." My point is that there is an inherent racist bias implanted in most white children who grow up in Detroit's suburbs, not just Grosse Pointe. And it is on both sides too. Black Detroiters have an ingrained mistrust of the white former Detroiters (and for many a good reason too) because they feel they are (rightously so) they are the cause of a scourge. A cursory review of past events illustrates this. Even reading newspaper editorials in the News and Free Press shows that almost any issue facing Detroit becomes a racial one (much more so in other big cities like Chicago). But where I am going here is that the level of federal government intervention that you advocate will most likely never work in Detroit because there are almost impenetrable barriers between the races in that region. The problem is that no matter what the fed decides to do, bickering will ensue and it will turn into a racial circus with the end result being a lost opportunity. Chicago where I live is not free from those types of issues, but it is nowhere near the level in Detroit. And this segues into my second point - poverty. DId you see the statistic that burglary in Detroit actually declined (mostly due to the fact that there is no one left worth stealing from there). Your article impies that there is still some middle class living there. There really is no middle class in the true sense living in the city anymore. They are long gone. The citizenry left there are mostly at or below the poverty level and, I'll even spot you a generation, but there is no way you are going to convince middle class people to move back into the city. Your points, from a metropolitan region perspective, I think have merit. But they will not in the city itself. Believe me, I am truly sad for the state of the city, but there really is no hope outside of a massive scale consolidation of neighborhoods into urban villages as you discuss. But that will not solve the ultimate problem. Black Detroiters will never cede control of anything (outside of a court receiver) because of point (1) above and entrepreneurs will never take the added risk to invest in the city when they can set up shop in one of the many suburbs. It is truly sad. What's even more sad is what will ultimately end up happening is a hodge podge of "quick fix" short-sighted attempts to remedy the problem - all of which will end up being a massive waste of resources and funds, all while the city falls further in decline. Too many outsiders are now trying to use Detroit as a petry dish for the "expirement" for urban renewal and reengineering. What they fail to see is that this petry dish is already infected and is incapable of supporting a new culture. Trust me, it may be more than several generations before the land area formerly known as Detroit ever gets back on its feet. My prediction is that Detroit will continue to languish and remain an urban ghetto for the foreseeable future. Every decade or so there will be another "renaissance" type of renewal effort, but it will come in with a bang, but never bear fruit. Please don't interpret this as a pessimistic view. I have been watching this for over 25 years and nothing has ever worked, and, believe me, the chances at turning things around were a lot greater 20 years ago then they are now. If you ever do any follow up writing on this subject, please take some time to delve into the 2 points above and, not only will you be aghast at your findings, but I truly think you will see that reality, sadly, has a slow sad death in store for that once great city.

    • 4.1

      That's just like one of you all...born in Detroit, but raised in Grosse Pointe. and, yes it is you suburban racists who continue to denigrate and spout negative diatribes as to why the city will never come back.
      Two things: as you so correctly pointed out, all of the whites who fled Detroit for the suburbs, are absolutely responsible for the racism that still so deafeningly permeates Detroit. However, considering how many white kids are downtown chasing black girls and obsessing over teh newest, hottest techno DJ, I don't see today's white youth nearly as racist as those from my generation. (I attended Country Day and graduated from Cass Technical HS. No, it's just the ignorant, wannabe cool kids who perpetuate this nonsense. Regarding poverty, again it's all you rich Big 3 executives who ran the companies into the ground that we can thank for this new poverty problem in Detroit. When GM, Ford and Chrysler were selling million sof cars a year to americans, no one was complaining about being poor, not even the white people in Eastpoint, the Pointes and Warren.
      So, don't cry for Detroit, lamenting how sad it is that everything is screwed up, just stay your sorry behind in Chicago, and never come back.
      Oh and by the way, I too was raised in Detroit, not Grosse Pointe, just for clarification's sake. You people disgust me, and I'm sure most of the readers who actually want to contribute to solutions, not spew nonsense.

  • 5

    Wow, all the dismal, abysmal answers given to us, in the light of a legal background, the Janus Profession. Crime, Racism, and Poverty... no hope whatsoever, it's a done deal! Get up and go, abandon the black hole of America!

    Since we were feted to an upbringing, permit me to say that I too am a Detroiter, one who returned to Lafayette Park. Descendant of the Kerchevals (Jefferson's friend's) and the Campaus, born at Harper in 38, first word... "Hudsons", raised on Grosse Ile, educated at GMI, (Co-op at the GM Technical Center, Corporate Engineering Staff) and the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Design where I witnessed the Peace Corps Speech and read the Greaf Sciety Seech over LBJ's shoulder carrying the School Flag at Commencement in the "Big House", Quoted in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

    Among my interests were Urban Planning and Design. As an Architect and CM I have worked upon a number of projects in and around the City. One of my clients was the Ford Family Attorney who conceived of RenCen.

    When in College it was said one of the main culprits of the destruction of the cities was the automobile. And that certainly is true of Detroit. The technological brainchild of our City has risen up to become something of "The monster brain child that ate Detroit". While one of the two first parking structures in America still survives here it was the lack of parking and ease of getting in and out of Downton that forced the abandonment. There was absolutely no effort by the City to provide for ease of circulation, parking, and the wonderful street cars were ripped up by Sloan in his devious effort to sell busses.

    Michigan Anthropologists have long said that technology is the fundamental determinant of Culture.

    And the Car Culture here has been both wonderful and great and terrible and destructive. Henry showed us the wonders of mobility and that mobility redesigned the City. Frank Lloyd Wright panned the city saying that it was a small town, and indeed it is compared to Shanghai and Beijing. This could easily be Broadacre City revisited.

    But other cities made the effort to provide intelligent circulation and parking and some of that happened here as well. You can go back to the first paved street and the first expressway in America here, but it took generations to get parking downtown, and it was the Casinos and the Ballparks and Rencen, and the Opera House that made that happen.

    Pierre Heftler asked me to look at the model of his project as it was about to commence and I told him that it was a disaster, that it turned it's back upon the City and that there was not enough adequate parking. Portman was a second rate architect and simply did not understand rivers either. Pete later, after the project was complete, lamented that it was not placed on the other side of Jefferson. But City planning left to Lawyers and Undertakers will always be rife with incompetence and devoid of creativity.

    Detroit is a huge spread out area with many wonderful things which came about do to personal mobility.
    To focus on the City proper as "the problem" is to ignore what is great about the city as a whole... the Metropolitan Area which now extends out to include Ann Arbor.

    And now the evolution of the automobile is a reflection of the evolution of technology. It is similar to the evolution of Farming brought on by "Scientific Agriculture" of the Land Grant colleges that Lincoln set up. One could easily argue that the contributions of Michigan State far outweigh those of the University of Michigan.

    The percentage of people working in Agriculture at the founding of our Country and for centuries prior was in the high 60's. Now it is down to less than 2%. The evolution of people working in manufacturing is following the same curve and recent announcements of more layoff's and buyouts is a refelection of the increasingly mechanized and robotic worlds where people have exponentially increasing marginal uitility.

    So the wonderful, budding 20th Century World where Henry had to employ thousands of people to produce automobiles and his egalitarian attitude towards work led to the migration of black people north and their ultimate rise into near equality. To be sure there still people imbuing their friends and children with negative and disparing attitudes about race and the constant evolution of technology seems to be reversing that long term trend of balancing things out. Let us pray not so.

    So the ultimate question becomes. If less and less people are required to produce more and more goods and services where does it end? Surely we would not welcome a Ludditic reincarnation. And surely there are lots of things that need to be taken care of... there is lots of undone work out there.

    So what are we going to do? Are extended unemployment checks the answer? It's reminiscent of the days when farmers were paid to leave their lands fallow.

    Clearly the Government will have to step in and be the employer of last resort. It's absurd to hand out money for doing nothing. Those unemployed people need to be throughtlfully put to work. And the Government will have to face up and sharpen up as to what should be done.

    The WPA produced many wonderful things. And they even employed artists and architects. (When an architect draws up a project... lots of people have to be employed to make it come into being.)

    So this afternoon I am going to visit the wonderful Detroit Institute of Arts to see an exhibit on WPA art, which I suspect ignores some of the wonderful art by Detroit artists at that time. And I hope that I'm wrong on that one. Ignoring Edgar Yaeger would be a travesty.

    And as to the "Green Revolution" Lord please save us from the low efficiency 3 bladed fans littering the countryside. A retired Detroit Automotive Engineer created 60% efficient fans 20 years ago. Ignoring his work is dufus, a travesty, and a tragedy in the making.

    BTW, the way to pronounce it is: DihTROIT with the quick and forceful accent on the last syllable with pride.


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