Tag Archives: Ann Arbor

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.

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.


Filed under Art, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Headline, Race Relations, U.S. Auto Industry

Guest Blogger Nick Helmholdt on Blight, Pessimism and Fear

This editorial was contributed by Nick Helmholdt, a guest blogger and Ann Arbor, Michigan resident.

In a recent Youtube jam session, my brother Tony directed my attention to the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video“. My fiancee said that I should take it down from my website. I can see how she came to this opinion: as a recent graduate who is searching for jobs in the rust belt, the video lampoons the persistent and ugly problems that many people associate with the region. It also slams it’s neighbor with the final sales pitch, “We’re Not Detroit!”

But I have no plans to remove the video. After two years of graduate school, I met a considerable number of people with origins outside the much belittled industrial belt. Although some cartographers may put Ithaca in the rust belt, the perceptions of its more “cosmopolitan” student population are not indigenous to the area. Over the course of dozens of discussions about economic development, foreclosure, and the plight of my home state, I am convinced that the dominant emotion is not pity. It’s fear.

The physical manifestation of this fear might be summarized by the image of the abandoned home. These buildings are enormous red flags to any visitor that the neighborhood is not worth the owner’s time, money, and attention. A part of the fear these neighborhoods induce can also be understood through the “broken windows” theory. Overt signals that disorderly conduct is tolerated in the area become a notorious self-fulfilling prophesy. Various studies have examined how the pattern of disinvestment and abandonment become contagious across the urban landscape. Onlookers fear that this kind of community-wide devastation could befall non-rustbelt metropolises.

There is one other thing that the Cleveland faux-tourism video exposes: pessimism. The already-defeated attitude of the filmmaker may be humorous, but it’s not helpful for the future of the rust belt region. Cleveland is not alone in losing jobs, population, and optimism. Nevertheless, as long as the enduring physical symbols of neglect are allowed to litter rust belt neighborhoods in their dilapidated state, this sense of despair will remain.

Knowing this vicious psychological cycle exists throughout de-industrialized Northeastern and Midwestern cities may help us to see the ways to escape it. Rustwire (and similar websites) can help citizens and civic leaders realize that they are not alone in their challenges. While the problems of Detroit and Buffalo are well publicized, dozens of smaller cities are facing similar challenges. Building this meta-community as a place to discuss the obstacles and opportunities should help rust belt cities get beyond cynicism and start controlling their own destinies.

A clear first step is to gain control of the physical infrastructure that reinforces this sense of cynicism. Land banking appears to be a promising way for county governments to do this. The pressure of low market demand for homes in rust belt cities combined with the need for immediate cash flow make it difficult for cities to resist the simple sheriff sale model of property dispersal. Land banking can allow county governments to introduce much needed stability and influence the future of distressed neighborhoods.

Beyond this it is hard to say what lies in store for cities in the rust belt. If we can break the pessimism that is so pervasive in the current discourse, then I believe that a huge variety of options can become available. I am keeping track of proposed and current uses for vacant land and derelict structures on my website. It is hard to imagine that agriculture, energy, and other creative uses will not be near the top of the list of ways to re-utilize vacant land. Once rust belt cities gain control of these conspicuous beacons of blight they may begin to re-chart their course to building resilient neighborhoods.

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Filed under the environment, The Housing Crisis

Toledo: Boosting the Economy from Within

By Angie Schmitt

Part of the impetus for Toledo Choose Local came from a University of Toledo study on the economic impact of locally owned bookstore verses a national chain.

Researchers found that money spent at the mom-and-pop bookseller would snowball as it traveled through the local economy, generating an overall economic return of about $5 million for the city. Meanwhile, the chain —with its distant headquarters and suppliers – would add only about $1 million to Toledo’s economic pie.

Twenty-three-year-old Stacy Jurich, a recent graduate of Ohio State University and a native of the Toledo suburbs, was searching for a way to boost Toledo’s appeal to international businesses about one year ago. She began Toledo Choose Local with an inquiry letter to 50 local businesses.

One year later, the organization that developed is a registered nonprofit with a coalition of nearly 100 locally owned businesses. Toledo Choose Local promotes its member businesses through its advertising campaigns about the benefits of choosing local, networking events and an annual local business directory.tcl_logo_color1

“We haven’t conducted any impact studies,” Jurich said. “But based on word of mouth, we can tell we’re having an impact.”

The message is resonating more than ever in these troubled economic times, Stacy said. The organization has lost five businesses in the last year as a result of the downturn.

“We really try to encourage our members to incorporate their localness into their advertising,” Jurich said. “I think that’s really important to consumers as of late.”

“The money that a consumer spends at a locally owned business is going to continue to multiply within the local economy. When you spend at a local businesses, the buck kinda stops there.” 

In the future, Jurich would like to see the mission expanded to implore local institutions — universities, schools and government entities — to choose local suppliers. It’s that kind of targeted investment that could lead to the creation of new local businesses and jobs in Toledo as manufacturing jobs continue to dry up.

She’d also like to see more coordination between member businesses, partnering on advertising campaigns, or to purchase items in bulk — activities that could make member business more profitable.

More than 50 cities across the country have adopted choose local first campaigns. Toledo Choose Local was modeled after one such organization operating in Ann Arbor, Mich.

To read more about buy local first campaigns visit livingeconomies.org or amiba.org.

Stacy, incidentally, is traveling across the country in a 1984 Mercedes-Benz, powered by discarded vegetable oil from fast-food restaurants. (I had to get a plug in.) Read about it at vegipowerseesamerica.com.



Filed under Economic Development