Thursday, March 07, 2013

[Detroit] Fluff Among the Ruins

Fluff Among the Ruins: For whatever reason, Detroit has popped up in the news cycle again. A new book by Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, and Governor Rick Snyder's attempt to appoint an emergency financial manager for the city probably have a lot to do with it. And as usual, the popular press gets a hold of the stories and passes them off couched in a superficial narrative. I feel the need, once again, to disabuse folks of a few notions that may be encountered.

1) Don't confuse Detroit with the Detroit suburbs, all of which are boring, but some are doing well and quite nice to live in. Don't confuse Detroit with nearby cities such as Ann Arbor or Flint. Ann Arbor is doing quite well, thanks. And Flint is...well, you are forgiven for confusing Detroit and Flint. Lastly, don't confuse Detroit with the whole of Michigan. Michigan is an astoundingly beautiful place that you should count yourself lucky to see. Detroit is Detroit and only Detroit.

2) Detroit is not in the midst of a renaissance. Have some artists taken up residence? Yes, but they are using Detroit as a gimmick, a way to attract attention. They are not building an artist's culture. If any of them hit the big time, they will boot for one of the coasts faster than you can chug a Vernors. This is not Tribeca of thirty years back. Of course, there's the urban farming that is going to make up for the fact that there isn't a single grocery store in the city, right? There's a reason why grocery stores were developed in cities. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why local farming cannot sustain a city. Urban farming is another gimmick, a romantic hobby for folks of a certain stripe. What about all the movies being filmed in the city? The production companies are getting tax breaks; they are getting paid to film in Detroit. If Gary, IN or Peoria, IL decides to pay them more, they'll go there. Business relocations? Every sizable business that has moved to Detroit has been bribed. No small businessman in his right mind would start-up in the city. New Stadiums? There is a mass of literature about how new stadiums don't pay off. You can tell this by all the boarded up windows and dilapidated buildings next to Comerica Park and Ford Field after all these years. Casino gambling? Detroit's single lifeline to actual revenue is the three casinos, there will be no more. Whatever you are getting from them each year is your annual income. Forever.

3) Detroit's troubles did not start with UAW strikes or the '68 race riots. Detroit's troubles did not start with the oil crisis and higher quality imported autos. Detroit's troubles did not start when Coleman Young chased out all the shiny, happy white people. Detroit has been dying for the entirety of my life. Anyone who has living memory of Detroit in ascendency is looking seventy in the teeth or the rear view mirror. Detroit is not just down on its luck. These are deeply-ingrained, multi-generational dysfunctions. They will not go away by any plans made in the City Council or bills from the State Legislature or handouts from Obama. Detroit is a goner. It will hit absolute rock bottom, die and become something else, something other than Detroit (a federally controlled charter city? a Road Warrior-style wasteland? who knows what?). How close we are to absolute rock bottom I don't know.

4) Detroit is not a universal cautionary tale. The latest trope goes something like "We had better fix Detroit because Detroit is the future of our cities." Bollocks. Detroit is not New York City is not Austin is not Salt Lake City is not New Orleans is not Chattanooga is not Spokane is not Chicago. Each city varies in geography, financial resources, history -- all the way down to the psycho-social makeup of it residents and leaders. Many old mill towns from the previous century have pretty much disappeared. Many pioneer and gold rush cities are now ghost towns. And, two words: Machu Picchu. Cities fall and vanish without taking the whole world with them.

Although I hear Machu Picchu is currently undergoing a renaissance thanks to the tourist industry.