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Monday, March 28, 2011

Why is Detroit So Down in the Dumps?! Maybe It's Time to Teach an Old Dog Some New Tricks!

The latest census information shows that the population of Detroit has decreased 25-percent over the last 10 years.  The city lost some 237,500 people – a 25-percent drop – the largest drop in history for a city with a population over 100,000.  The most surprising thing about that story is that the decrease wasn’t even steeper.  A friend of mine, Dr. Rachel Zaturian, has a practice in Detroit and I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions.  If there is a more depressing urban landscape in the country, I’ve yet to run across it.  The Motor City’s problems have been well documented, especially since the city has seemingly been in decline since the late-1960’s.

One lesson that can be learned from this is that if you’re going to have a historically corrupt local government from top to bottom, your city better have some major geographic or financial advantage that can compensate for the grift (see: Chicago).  For years and years, Detroit and, really most of the state of Michigan, held firm for the belief that the U.S. auto industry would always be relevant and would always be the city’s bedrock. The thought seemed to be that the Big Three auto makers would always keep Detroit from slipping too far.  Of course, 30 years ago a number of economists were questioning the business practices of the auto industry, with its bloated labor costs, stodgy engineering and slowness in responding to changes in the marketplace.

At the same time, there were proponents that wanted Detroit and the state of Michigan to start enacting legislature to entice other industries, ones not tied to heavy manufacturing, to move into the region, working off models of other states that had lured banking or distribution centers with favorable business tax plans. (The fact that most of those states are financially bereft now as well, speaks more to the combined idiocy of elected officials mismanaging things than to the plan itself).  Instead, the local and state governments handling Detroit continued to only pay attention to the steadily declining auto industry, at the exclusion of doing anything to stave off the economic disaster that quickly went from prediction to reality.

By the time Michigan’s state government was finally forced to admit that the Big Three really were in trouble – which came slightly before the federal government’s moronic plans to prop up the industry – it was already too late.  The half-hearted efforts to change the economic reality of the state came well after too many other states had already aggressively pursued every industry with a chance of growth.  So, now – despite Eminem’s protestations otherwise – Detroit sits in limbo, still furiously clinging to the city’s model that had given the city its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, while trying to figure out what to do with the continuing exodus of people looking for a better place to live.

The odd thing – which was detailed nicely in a TIME magazine article earlier this year – is that in some ways when I’ve been there over the last few years, the city actually has improved.  There are pockets here and there of bright spots.  A couple of neighborhoods that have come back to life and things like that.  However, even when there’s been good – like the introduction of new sports stadiums in the downtown area – the city doesn’t seem to know how to capitalize.  For example, while other cities have helped build up the areas around sports complexes to become a thriving bazaar of restaurants and retail shops, Detroit ’s efforts in that area are disjointed and sparse.  A nice eatery might be on one corner, while the next similar business could be two streets over.

There is no clear direction on how to fix the city, and the influence of the auto industry is still too strongly felt. There seems to be groups with interesting ideas on ways to revitalize Detroit , but there is no strong leadership to pick a plan and stick to it. Instead, the city still suffers from too many elected officials and civil workers that are used to getting a free ride and a little extra off the top. The city’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is currently in federal prison and still has several federal charges in the pipeline, and he was just the last in a long line of shysters helping to kill the city.  What’s to become of Detroit then? It would be nice to think that the populace would eventually be willing to insist on direction and honesty from its elected officials, but you have to wonder if after so many years of corruption they aren’t suffering for a bit of Helsinki Syndrome.

After asking around a little bit in writing this, it seems that Motown might only need to look to the Western side of its own state to find some answers.  With what have largely been more conservative leadership and more willingness to grow new businesses outside of the manufacturing sector, Michigan ’s Lake Michigan side seems to be experiencing economic growth. Funny how a little thing like encouraging people who want to make money, instead of people that want to steal money, can go a long way.  Meanwhile, the plight of Detroit , really, should be smelling salts to every other city, state or region that wants to cling to economic ideals that fell by the wayside long ago.

If you can’t change and adapt – if you can’t imagine the future as being different than the past – there’s going to be a very tough road ahead.  Stop the Al Bundy "I'm still a star on the High School football team" mentality, and grow up already!


What do you call a Filipino walking a dog?

A vegetarian.

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