I’m privileged to have Crain’s Chicago Business post an op-ed comparing and contrasting Chicago and Detroit in today’s web edition. To all those who found this site through Crain’s, welcome and feel free to stay awhile and come back often.
Postscript: Without a doubt the announcement of Detroit’s bankruptcy has struck a nerve with many across the country. Indeed, nearly anything written about Detroit cuts deep into the American psyche. But one thing I’m finding is that so much discussion seems to focus on a couple points: 1) how did this happen to Detroit? 2) Can it happen to us? No one really seems to have adequate answers for either. And few have plausible visions of what Detroit’s future could be.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that Detroit’s failure is a social and cultural failure first and foremost, and an economic/racial/political failure only after that. Detroit was ill-prepared to take on the super-sized growth that hit it in the early 20th century, and it’s been paying the price ever since.
What do I mean by ill-prepared? Detroit circa 1890 was a Great Lakes shipbuilding and trading port, with just more than 200,000 people. It was at the time the 15th largest city in the nation, a midsize city similar in size to Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Buffalo. Just 40 years later Detroit was the nation’s fourth largest city, a boomtown with 1.6 million people. It was more than double the size of its previous cohort cities.
But did its social and civic institutions keep pace with its population growth? I’d argue they did not. The Super Detroit that emerged after 1900 was largely founded by industrialists who, like Henry Ford, loathed the city and did not invest in its long-term future. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are noted for having corporate and philanthropic investments, like top-notch universities and medical centers, that have stood the test of time. Detroit did not get those investments, only the social strife that grows when those institutions are lacking.
Had there never been an auto industry founded in Detroit, it likely would’ve had the same growth profile and trajectory as its previous cohort cities. In fact, my guess is that its twin would be Milwaukee.
Whatever. It’s time for me to move on from the “how” on Detroit to “what’s next”. This is crucially important because Detroit is the laboratory for Rust Belt revitalization, and other cities will implement its successful strategies.
It’s essential that Detroit gets its future right.