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What Went Wrong in Detroit?

5 August 2009 5 Comments

David Frum of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has written an interesting (albeit pessimistic) account of what went wrong in Detroit (everyone’s favorite topic).

In his National Post article “What Killed Detroit,” Frum argues that poisonous race relations and an insufficient commitment to arts and culture sealed the city’s fate long before the auto giants crumbled.

Frum, giving us his best thoughtful face.

Frum, giving us his best thoughtful face.

“The collapse of the automobile industry seems the obvious answer. But is it a sufficient answer?,” he wonders. “The departure of meatpacking did not kill Chicago. Pittsburgh has staggered forward from the demise of steelmaking. New York has lost one industry after another: shipping, garment-manufacture, printing, and how many more?”

Whether it’s fair to compare Detroit to Chicago and New York is one question. Those cities always had more diversified economies. New York had Wall Street; Chicago the Mercantile Exchange. And Cleveland, well, Cleveland isn’t entirely out of the woods, by any means. But for argument’s sake, we’ll allow that it is entirely different.

I do think his theory has some merit for the purpose of discussion, although it’s probably oversimplified.

His point about race relations is legitimate, I think. I would add to the discussion the culprit of poorly conceived housing and transportation policies, which were, of course, shaped overwhelmingly by racial tensions.

The part about arts and culture is a little more of a stretch.

“Pittsburgh has Carnegie-Mellon,” he argues. “Cleveland has Case Western Reserve University. Chicago has the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and a campus of the University of Illinois. Detroit has… Wayne State.”

Again, Cleveland’s Case Western is a school of 10,000 that boasts a $1 billion impact on the Cleveland economy annually. It’s important, but I’m not sure it’s a game changer. Furthermore, it’s an accident of fate, really, that Detroit sent it’s scholars to Ann Arbor. But for the sake of argument, we’ll allow that too.

Frum goes further to compare each city’s symphony, which, I really think may be more important symbolically, than a economic panacea. But his point is that the city isn’t dedicated enough to the arts.

At this point, the liberal in me wonders: is this the conservative right’s way of saying Detroit deserves what it’s getting because people there are glibly ignorant and, by the way, racist?

Here’s something else he says that I like though:

“My friend, it’s relevant to mention, is the son of an Irish cop, ardently Catholic and defiantly conservative. Why did Chicago recover and Detroit fail, I asked. What doomed the city? He thought for a moment. ‘Not enough gays.’”

I hate to generalize, but I think he’s on to something there. In Columbus, Ohio the gay population is single-handily revitalizing downtown neighborhood after downtown neighborhood. Columbus is able to attract gays and they have done a lot for the city. In Cleveland, not so much.

(For its sake, Cleveland is working to bring The Gay Games to the city in 2014 and I have my fingers crossed.)

Anyway, I’ve really thought about it and I think it still comes down to the auto industry for Detroit.

Frum goes to great lengths to describe the city’s finer points during its heyday.

“The Detroit of 1930 had rebuilt itself as a grand metropolis of skyscrapers, mansions, movie palaces and frame cottages spreading northward beyond the line of sight, exceeding Philadelphia and St. Louis, rivaling Chicago and New York.”

There weren’t fine academic institutions in the city in those days either and the symphony probably wasn’t all that much better. So what’s changed?

Detroit is hurting, surely, but that could be expected in any city that was suffering sudden loss of its major industry.

And despite what Frum says, it’s not necessarily too late for Detroit. Pittsburgh did it, he points out, but it’s been 30 years since Pittsburgh lost steel and it’s just now recovering. Even in New York and Chicago, I’m sure major transitions in the economy weren’t without their pain and adjustment periods.

There still a lot of valuable capital in Detroit and I’ve read reports of different manufacturers vying for shuttered plants.

It still remains to be seen how Detroit will transition from auto dominance. But one thing is sure, Detroit isn’t going to “die.” The city will carry on and it will change, for better or worse, lousy symphony and all.

  • Special K

    Angie, thanks for this thoughtful response to the article.

    I was honestly pretty surprised how much I agreed with some this piece, given Frum’s conservative credentials (fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, former Bush administration official, etc.)

    His points about race relations and lack of strong cultural institutions are good ones, but I also agree with your assertion that the sudden loss of a major industry is a serious blow no matter what – and that putting Detroit up against Chicago and New York isn’t really a valid comparison.

    As for the lack universities and other cultural institutions hurting a city, I think one only has to compare Pittsburgh with some of the smaller Mon Valley mill towns that had no large hospitals, universities, etc. to see the impact of those institutions.

    I liked that he ended the story with a glimmer of hope:

    “Detroit confirms the lessons taught by Jane Jacobs and Russell Kirk. Preservation is as vital to urban health as renovation. Indeed, they are inseparable. The preservation of the old incubates the new.

    It’s a lesson with application not only to Detroit’s past, but its future. The great factory complexes along the Detroit River have shuttered. America no longer manufactures here. Some will want to rip the factories down. Leave them be — leave them for now as monuments and memorials of the achievements of the past; leave them for the future, when somebody will want them. Want them for what? Who can say? Who in 1950 could ever have imagined London’s Docklands converted into condominiums? Who would have guessed that New York’s emptied toolshops would provide some of the city’s most coveted office space? The 22nd century will put the artifacts of the 20th to equally unsurmisable uses, if only we permit it. Cities can molder for a century or more, and then reawaken to a new era that rediscovers something of value in the detritus of an earlier time. Brooklyn did. So did Miami Beach. Ditto Boston and Charleston — and even more spectacularly, Dublin and Prague. The promise of renaissance may yet come true, even for the ghost city of Detroit.”

  • HHF

    I might be a bit biased on this front, but I think Case is more of a “game changer” than you give it credit… or at least they are working to become more of a “game changer.”

  • schmange

    I thought I might get some flack for that. I don’t know if it’s the same as Carnegie Mellon or Northwestern. Maybe I’m baised because I’m from Columbus.

  • Sarah Hartley

    I was 13 and lived in nearby Toledo, OH when the race riots of 1967 broke out and white people were scared. I just “Googled” “Detroit Riots 1960s” and read an account of what led up to them. I never realized how much racial profiling and housing discrimination people of color faced back then. After 5 days of riots and fires — 43 people dead, 1189 injured and fear that the riots might spread — I will always think about those riots when I hear the word “Detroit.” Anyway, I learned on-line that blacks were discriminated against for auto jobs and, of course, the auto industry suffered beginning in the 1970s, the city experienced major “white flight” and some established black neighborhoods were demolished for construction projects. It’s no wonder there was a great deal of racial tension that lingered for a long time.

    I believe that most people with any conscience know that all people are equals and deserve equal treatment and opportunity. But I think that the stuggling auto industry and lingering racial tension have been a double whammy for Detroit — not to mention our new Recession. I do think the attraction of people interested in the arts and historic buildings, including gays, would be helpful. In Columbus, the mayor just renovated the old Lincoln Theatre near downtown which was once the seat of “negro” performance/culture. Many African American and white people alike are excited about this wonderful venue and it is a testimony to how race relations should be. I’m a volunteer usher so I witness it. In my usher orientation class there was an African American woman slighter older than I am. It was embarassing when she said that she used to attend the theatre at Columbus’ Great Southern Hotel as a child, but that she was only allowed to sit in the balcony. That was not THAT long ago.

  • http://blog.robpitingolo.org Rob

    Based on my personal experience with Case (and without any data) the student population seems to have a lot of apathy toward both the school and toward Cleveland. I was once surprised to find that there are hundreds of people who don’t even bother to pick up the unlimited-ride RTA pass that their tuition pays for or who rarely venture outside of the blocks around University Circle. There are simply way too many students that are anxious to bail after four years (or however long they are around). Whether or not the finger can be pointed at the school or the city or local businesses or anyone else for failing to retain some of these people, I don’t know. But I think it makes a big difference and it could really change the dynamics and appeal of Cleveland.