What Went Wrong in Detroit?
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.
“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.