Detroit, also known as Motown, and the Motor City, has taken a beating lately. So it seems, anyway. Actually Detroit has, in many ways, been in decline since the 1940’s. The automobile, roads, highways, and jobs, among other things, led to growth of the suburbs, and, unfortunately, the decline of the city. Peaking at around 2 million, Detroit’s population declined almost 50% between 1950 and 2000.
While Detroit suffered, the northwest suburbs grew, being fueled initially by the infamous “white flight.” The suburbs continued to grow as citizens of Detroit began seeking larger homes, less crime and congestion, and better schools.
Eventually Detroit became known for it’s crime rate (particularly it’s murder rate) , Devil’s Night fires, abandoned houses and buildings.
It wasn’t always this way. Between 1901 and the late 1940’s Detroit’s population grew from less than 300,000 to almost 2 million, as the auto industry attracted both money and people from around the world. Buildings such as the Guardian Building, the Penobscot building, the Fisher building, the Book-Cadillac Hotel (at the time, the world’s largest hotel) and the Detroit Institute of Arts were constructed, and the Ambassador Bridge (the longest bridge in the world at the time) was built across the Detroit river to Canada.
Detroit also brought us the first concrete mile (for better, or worse), stop signs, traffic lane marking lines, Motown music, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Detroit Techno, and probably a few other things that spread around the globe.
Metropolitan Detroit, like many other cities and regions, became (overly) dependent on one industry. In this case it was the “Big Three” and it’s suppliers. Working in the auto industry almost guaranteed one an upper-middle class lifestyle at least. Many saw the assembly line as a better opportunity than college, and often it was, at least in pay and benefits. Entrepreneurship, and risk taking, two qualities that got the industry started seemed to be forgotten in favor of playing it safe and using muscle to get your way. Politicians avoided upping fuel economy standards, for fear of upsetting less than competitive U.S. auto makers and the union auto workers, as well as upper management, were promised bankruptcy inducing benefits.
As the “Big Three” gave away the automobile market to the Asian companies, they survived the booming 1990’s by focusing on SUVs which were profitable due to tariffs on foreign produced lite trucks. What must have seemed at the time to be a smart move, in reality, made the American auto producers less competitive for a future global market place. Innovation has been sorely lacking, and foresight virtually non-existent. The “Big Three” have struggled for more than the last 30 years, losing market share at an increasingly rapid rate. Chrysler has narrowly avoided bankruptcy twice, once requiring a $1.5 billion dollar government bailout, and the other still ongoing. Ford has announced layoffs of 90,000 U.S. workers, and has announced record losses. While GM has made improvements, they were outsold, globally, by Toyota in the first quarter of 2007.
Those fleeing to the suburbs thought they could outrun Detroit’s problems, the “Big Three” were led by leaders who didn’t care much beyond the next quarterly profit report, and the unions were equally led by those who didn’t have the best long term interest of their constituents in mind. Detroit leads the nation if home foreclosures, poverty rates, unemployment, and many other nation leading “worsts”. Only 66% of Michigan’s high school students will graduate this year, less will go to college. The state is last in the nation for new start up businesses, the politicians fight about how to attract business, and retain highly trained workers, most notably, the highly prized 18-35 year old demographic.
Detroit’s got problems. That’s not new. The question is how to tap into the potential, if any, that remains. How can Detroit, and Michigan, bring out the best in our creative, highly trained and skilled workers, stem the population loss, convince our students to get an education, and make a change from a largely industrial economy, into something else? Detroit’s had a “renaissances” at least twice in the past. One in the late 70’s, hence the Renaissance Center, and again in the late 90’s, when condos and lofts began to pop up all over the city. When will Detroit’s real renaissance occur? And how can we make it happen faster?