Archive for March, 2008

Am I a cynic?

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Am I a cynic, or am I a realist? Maybe I’m both. Yesterday, shortly after posting my, admittedly, rant filled proclamation of how I’d left Metro Detroit, I got a comment stating that I was contributing to the exact thing I detested about the area. I claimed that “Metro Detroit area is a black hole of despair and self-pity, and full of people who refuse to acknowledge, or can’t see, the basic problems…” I think the main point I wanted to make was that people refuse to acknowledge the underlying problems. It’s not that Detroit sucks. It does. It’s not that Detroit’s dangerous. It is. It’s not that the city lacks basic services. It does. And it’s not that the area is almost entirely reliant on a dying industry. It is. It’s that no one wants to make the necessary changes. They want to go on with their lives as if the same old rules apply today that applied in Metro Detroit’s hey day.

The whole state needs to invest in the future. Michigan wants to provide money to companies to start up in Michigan, but they put a limit on what industries they can be in. Michigan needs to encourage any viable business to start up in Michigan. Michigan, and Metro Detroit in particular needs to realize they are in competition for the 18-35 demographics, with cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., etc. If you are a highly educated 18-35 year old, looking for a great place to live, and begin, or develop your career or business, why would you choose Metro Detroit? There are very few reasons. One of the few reasons to head to, or stay in, Michigan is for the automotive industry. Unfortunately Michigan’s lock on the auto industry is slipping. Southern California’s quickly becoming the new car design center, and other states have a lower per worker cost than Michigan for manufacturing. With a global economy there are many fewer reasons to locate your automotive company in Michigan. Even the big three are seeing more growth outside our country than in. One less reason to expand in Michigan.

So what does Michigan do to invest in the future, and attract highly educated and highly skilled workers? Not much. Michigan spends more on prisons than on education. Which of these two things will help Michigan to prepare for the future? Maybe Michigan can become the “Prison State,” and house prisoners from around the country. That’s sure to attract the kind of people Michigan needs. I continue to hear on the street, and on t.v., and on the radio, calls from the citizens to their politicians, to bring a big corporation in to Michigan to save the day. It’s not going to happen. Why? Why go to Michigan, when the people you need for your big corporation to be competitive are leaving in droves? What Michigan needs to do is invest in, and encourage, entrepreneurial activity. Everyone likes to point to companies like Google, and say that we need to bring a company like that to Michigan. Of course not to long ago Google was a two person start up. Google not going to relocate to Michigan. They may bring a few thousand jobs, but that’s small consolation considering the enormous job losses Michigan has had in the past five years.

The second thing Michigan needs to do is invest in the quality of life. Yes, there are beautiful things and places in Michigan, but compare Metro Detroit to other major cities around the country. Detroit’s got an amazing asset in Belle Isle, but head out to Belle Isle on a week day evening and marvel at the burned out buildings, or the trash in the parking lots. Portland, Seattle, San Fransisco, Chicago, New York, and D.C., all have incredible public assets, that attract the kind of people that Michigan needs. Parks, museums, culture, and public transportation (Seattle’s just so, so) , are all things that are neglected in Michigan as being frivolous, non-essential, expenditures, when the reality is these are the things that the very people Michigan is losing, and failing to attract, want to have access to. It’s relatively easy to move around our country, and that makes all major metropolitan areas in competition for the same highly prized workers, entrepreneurs, and businesses.

Trying to attract a business to Michigan is no easy task. As I mentioned before, why would anyone relocate their business to Michigan? There are very few reasons to do so. Tax policies alone are usually not enough. Relocating a business can be very expensive, and many things must be taken into account when making the decision. Will your workers relocate as well? If not, does the area you’re looking at have enough of the workers you need? What’s the quality of life like where you are considering moving the business to? Business owners generally have to live in the area as well.

So, the question is, am I a cynic, a realist or both? I guess I’m both. I’m very realistic in my assessment of Metro Detroit. I’m also cynical about the chances of any kind of turn around any time soon. When politicians like L. Brooks Patterson make statements like, “I love sprawl. I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it” or “we can’t afford to spend a dime on an experiment like mass transit…” it’s hard not to be. L Brooks Patterson also cut funding to Ferndale’s downtown (one of the few to make an incredible turn around in Michigan) because he didn’t like their position on his spending on roads and views on suburban sprawl. Suburban sprawl is questionable in good times, but now that the population is declining, and sprawl has been encouraged (and achieved), how is the infrastructure going to be maintained? How’s it going to be paid for? And by whom?

Long commutes, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of cultural resources, no mass transit, an over reliance on a single industry, and barely a plan in place to do anything about any of it. Sure there are plenty of individuals, and non-profit groups working to change things, but it takes real political might, and plenty of dollars to enact so much as a plan. Even an investigation into what Michigan needs (if it’s not obvious enough already) would be a start.

When the collective attitudes, and desires change, and the politicians of Michigan start to push for change, maybe things will change, and if it’s not to late, maybe some of us will come back.

We left Detroit…

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Why? Because the whole Metro Detroit area is a black hole of despair and self-pity, and full of people who refuse to acknowledge, or can’t see, the basic problems (hint: Kwame is only a small part of the problem). The whole state has a lot of problems, including but not limited to, a city that leads the nation in crime, poverty, and stds, is in the top five for obesity, and for being sedentary, and trails the nation in high school graduation rates. Furthermore, Michigan is one of only two states to lose population in 2007, an exodus made up in large part by the highly educated and highly desirable 18-35 year old demographic. The Metro area has a dismal public transportation system. The state ranks 39th in terms of education level, is the worst for job hunting, has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, has an over dependence on one industry (that just happens to be on a steep decline), is last in the nation in entrepreneurial activity, and my own personal peeve, an inability to get a smoking ban in place. The list could go on and on.

I’m constantly told, “you’re just the kind of person we need here…” Of course, but so are most of the people who are leaving. That’s because anyone with an education, any ambition, and a desire to live in a healthy, livable community either has left, will leave, or wants to leave. Michigan’s going to end up with exactly what it wants, an unmotivated, dependent, overweight, undereducated, lazy, aging, and largely unhealthy population. I want no part of that.

I’m also told, Michigan, and Detroit in particular will “turn around.” Uh…when? I’m in my mid 30’s. How much time do you think I have? Detroit’s had many “renaissances,” and guess what, it’s just as bad off, if not worse than it was 20 years ago. The Renaissance Center opened in 1981, at just the start of the previously worst downturn in the state’s economic history. “Detroit’s not bad,” I’m constantly being told. Sure, start reading this from the top again, and then go drive south on Livernois from the northern end of Detroit, and then head back north on Schaeffer. Tell me Detroit’s not that bad. Maybe that tiny area near the stadiums and the Fox theater is not that bad, but Detroit’s a really big rotten donut.

Michigan’s still largely dependent on the auto industry. Even though we’ve known for more than 20 years that manufacturing was on the decline in this country, we continued to rely almost solely on one of the most precariously positions manufacturing companies in the world for our economic well being. We were content to sit around and take what we could while we could. Instead we should have been looking to the future. Anyone who thought that line workers making upwards of $100,000 a year, or laid off workers being paid 95% of their income or, being paid to “search for jobs, or be retrained,” was actually a sustainable way to run a business had their head in sand. If the Big 3 survive, they’ll be much different. The workers will be paid less, and there will be less workers. The worst for Michigan is probably still to be felt. The transition to whatever comes next is going to be painful for Michigan.

Detroit, and Michigan have some hard times ahead. So does the rest of the country, but Michigan’s been leading the pack on the way down, and never seems to lead on the way up. Michigan’s not investing much in the future, and instead continues to dwell on the past. It’d be easy to blame the state’s leadership, but of course, they’re elected by the populace.

It’s been easier to get offers for high paying, quality jobs out of the state than in it. According to Richard Florida, amongst others, the new economy jobs and workers have been and continue to migrate to the centers of the new economy. Just as workers migrated to Detroit to work on the assembly lines of the then burgeoning auto industry, workers are heading to cities, and regions, around the world that provide them with what they need, namely opportunities. Michigan and Detroit just don’t offer those opportunities, at least not in large enough numbers.

So we left. What else could we do? It’s not that we loved the area. The only thing keeping us in town was family, friends, and our work. Well, family and friends don’t pay the mortgage, put money in savings, or provide to many opportunities, and the work was slowing down dramatically. Seems everyone with a job was just hanging on for dear life, and the employers knew it. Low pay, long hours, and a miserable work life. It just isn’t worth it.

A Sunday morning in Detroit

A variety of shots from Detroit’s west side, from this Sunday morning.