The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Detroit’s Future — Redemption

Rendering of the M-1 Rail streetcar project in Detroit, currently under construction.  Source:
Daniel Howes of the Detroit News wrote an interesting column about Detroit’s resurgence last week, and while the revitalization he talks about occurring in Detroit may seem like small potatoes to others, to Detroiters it seems like the city has reclaimed its place among living cities:

“The hits keep coming here in Motown.

Mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert’s prodigious wallet acquired 70 buildings, invested $1.2 billion in downtown real estate and is finalizing plans for a blockbuster project on the historic Hudson’s site. The Ilitch family’s plan for a massive arena complex is moving forward, augmented by businesses clamoring for office space.

Municipal bankruptcy cut or refinanced $10 billion of the city’s $18 billion debt load. It mostly rescued public pensions, protected the assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts, rallied state politicians of both parties and freed cash to improve service delivery.
The hometown automakers’ booming production and sharply lower break-even points are delivering sustainable profits from the U.S. market. That’s not been seen consistently here in the past 50 years, a feat that is changing market perception of the automakers and their ability to compete.”

It’s true that Detroit has experienced many improvements over the last 50 years that have been heralded as critical turning points, only to be disappointed.  The construction and opening of the Renaissance Center in 1977 was supposed to lead to further downtown construction.  The bounce-back of the auto industry in the ’80s and ’90s were supposed to provide the economic catalyst for the city to reclaim its economic position.  Even the development of casinos in the city were supposed to bring casino and tourism revenue back into the city.

Those did not work out.

Today, however, there does seem to be something different about Detroit’s rebound.  This time it seems to be happening with a recognition that the city needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, or the inside out.  The city’s downtown needed to reclaim its place as the dominant economic center in southeast Michigan, and it’s in the process of doing that.  It’s as if the economic collapse, political corruption and scandal, and eventual bankruptcy eventually humbled the city’s leaders enough to realize that patches would not bring Detroit back.  It needed a complete overhaul.

Howes sees how what’s happening today is different from earlier efforts, and notes the difference:

“A new Detroit narrative is emerging. The reckoning that weighed heavily on a generation and pushed this town’s cornerstone institutions to the brink of collapse, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, is giving way to a new tune: With apologies to Aretha Franklin, it’s called R-E-D-E-M-P-T-I-O-N…

There are no guarantees that Mayor Mike Duggan and City Council won’t descend into the petty, non-productive squabbles of yore; that the leadership of the automakers and the United Auto Workers won’t squander their competitive position; that Gilbert’s empire building, and the activity it spawns, will not stall; that the bipartisan cooperation between Detroit and Lansing will continue.

But the arc of change is moving upward, not down. Optimism that intractable problems — corruption, political dysfunction, managerial incompetence, business indifference — are not so intractable outweighs pessimism because the evidence of positive movement is too hard to ignore.”

Nearly 2 1/2 years ago I wrote a piece for the Urbanophile in which I said that one of Detroit’s biggest obstacles to revitalization is that its position as the nation’s “whipping boy” was preventing it from moving forward:

“I imagine a nation pointing its collective finger at Detroit and saying its situation is the result of its own bad decisions. Shame on Detroit, they say, for going all in on auto manufacturing. Shame on Detroit for aligning itself so closely with labor unions. Or the Big Three. Shame on Detroit for not dealing with its racial matters. Shame on Detroit for its political failures and corruption. And I imagine this being said without the slightest bit of irony by the American people. We are not you, they say, because we made better choices. But the truth is dozens of cities made the same choices but escaped a similar impact, or had other physical or economic assets that could conceal the negatives. This is a conceit that prevents not only Detroit’s revitalization, but that of former industrial cities around the nation.

Detroit needs a reprieve. It needs a second chance. Motown needs our nation to let go of its past and allow it to move on into the future. There are millions of people who have had troubled lives in the past, but do we continually hold that against them? There are corporations that betray the public trust, but we go back to buying their products. There are Hollywood actors who make atrocious movies, but we go back to see their latest flick. There are politicians who’ve been disgraced out of office, and even they are able to come back. Detroit needs to be allowed to move into its next act.”

I’m glad to see the Detroit narrative changing.  It gives hope not only to the other Rust Belt cities that have suffered economic and social decline, but to all the other cities that have so far avoided similar fates.  What they may not realize yet is that similar decline could come to them, and they will need a model for recovery.  Detroit may not be the best model to emulate, but its recovery could provide the hope necessary for others to move forward.

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