The End of Detroit?


Just having returned to the mountains of North Carolina from Detroit, where I spent the last ten days over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have to say that I am greatly saddened. It's not that Thanksgiving wasn't a great holiday and it's not that I didn't get to see so many friends and family and share great times and make new memories; because I did. What saddens me is the state of the city of Detroit, the surrounding suburbs, and what it means for the future of the city where I was born and for the state of Michigan.

Forty-four years ago I was born in Harper Hospital in Downtown Detroit. My whole life has revolved around the city, and it's been a very vibrant life thus far. But shortly after I was born, race riots erupted and hit Detroit hard and I don't think the city has ever recovered. White flight began. People moved into the suburbs. Businesses moved into the suburbs. Shopping malls moved into the suburbs. When Northland opened in 1954, it was the first major shopping mall outside of a central city. Of course, as home to the auto industry, Michigan can cite many firsts regarding freeways--their construction, their spread, the number of lanes and the number of miles they covered. So it seemed that when the race riots happened in 1967, the infrastructure was already in place for the exodus. Back in the 1950s, Detroit's population approached 2 million and it was an economic and political giant. Now, only fifty years later, the city's population is barely 900,000 and it's a city of urban decay and blight. There are pockets of renewal and the Lions have returned to the city, but still the Pistons stay far away. And perhaps for good reason. Detroit is the city where Nancy Kerrigan got whacked by Tanya Harding's thugs. Figures, right?

But it isn't just the white flight and the city's decay. It's the false hope and promises and corruption. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's conviction is just the latest in the string of many. When the Renaissance Center opened in 1977, the gleaming hotel tower and the million square feet of office space surrounding it was supposed to be a symbol of a cultural and economic turn around in the city. Thirty years later, there's been little to applaud as the Detroit City Council continues to waste money and corruption has run rampant. For the last thirty years, despite every new mayor, every new police chief, every new project such as the Casino District, the People Mover, Comerica Park, Ford Field, the renovations of Wayne State University, the Science Center and the IMAX theater and the Detroit Institute of Arts renovations...the city has continued to slide because it can't seem to unbury itself from crooked politics and deep corruption. The city is ill And it's been sick for a long time.

That being said, even though I've never lived inside the city of Detroit, but rather I called the suburbs home for my first 35 years, my whole life has revolved around the city and the auto industry. Many of my father's clients were dependent on the vibrancy of the City of Detroit and the health of the auto-industry. So goes the auto-industry, so goes the economy of metro-Detroit and for the most part Michigan. My family was not alone. Between the auto industry and parts suppliers and robotics and engineers and construction firms and retail shopping and entertainment and restaurants....the health of virtually every industry and every family in Detroit is dependent on the auto-industry, its financial success and the trickle down of economic benefits when money is available to spend.

Last week, the day after Thanksgiving in Detroit, the highways were empty. There was no traffic anywhere. Restaurants were empty. Stores were empty. Movie theaters were empty. Parking lots were empty. Driving around the suburbs, for-sale signs were everywhere. I spent the Monday after Thanksgiving at one of my friend's home. I was informed it was recently appraised at over seven figures, but even if my friends wanted to, they couldn't sell it for even 1/5 its value. My friends are not alone. Even brand new homes that were built at the end of the last construction boom sit empty, having never been lived in even after 3 years on the market.

Several years ago there was a man, in the middle of winter, that somehow was standing in the middle of the Niagara River just a few feet upstream of the brink of Niagara Falls. He was there for hours before a helicopter was finally able to rescue him. It seems to me, that the whole city of Detroit and the State of Michigan are on that brink above Niagara Falls.

I am not a fan of any Congressional Bailout. I phoned and screamed at my US Representative and Senators to vote "NO" on the bailout. I am certainly not a fan of money being given to AIG or Citibank or anyone else, including the Detroit automakers. But I feel that loan guarantees should and must be given to the these companies. At the same time I want Congress to tie their hands and screw-in deadbolts with iron-clad conditions on the loan guarantees and a firm repayment plan. But in this case, if the billions of dollars requested are not given to the automakers, I see it as the collapse of the economy in Detroit and Michigan and I see the city falling over the brink of Niagara Falls. If this happens, I don't know how Michigan will ever recover. Not that there are any guarantees that this won't happen even with the loan guarantees the auto companies are asking for--it might just be a postponement of the city's ultimate fate.

Right now, there's little to keep young people in Michigan. Unemployment is among the highest in the country. Cities have lost major revenue streams. As more and more homes are foreclosed on and people lose their jobs, tax revenues go away. City and government workers get laid off. Restaurants and small retailers won't be able to survive. School programs will need to be cut. Many might attend the awesome educational programs at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, but then they'll look for jobs elsewhere.

The mood of Detroiters is somber--far from the happiness and feelings of hope and excitement when the Renaissance Center opened thirty-one years ago this March 15th. I've always called the city of Detroit home, and I always will. And it's devastating to see that home, even though I've moved away, crack at the seems and crumble to the ground.

Thanks for reading.

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Margaret said...

It is a shame that so much is going to decay and ruin. We have allowed these corrupt politicos ruin our entire country.

I hope the first thing we change are those things that allow them to flourish unchecked.


December 06, 2008 8:31 PM
ImitationAngel said...

Very interesting post. I have to say that most times I won't admit that I was born let alone still live in Michigan. Although the whole state will suffer, I believe that both Detroit and Flint (my home unfortunately) will suffer the most because those were the main operating cities for General Motors.

For some reason I just cannot believe that the "Big 3" are in financial trouble. I really think that they want money from the government because they see that the mortgage companies are getting help.

December 07, 2008 12:27 AM
Anna said...

I live in NE Ohio and the same is happening here and for the same reasons. We have the auto plants here too, that are cutting shifts and shutting down. My friend's husband is in management with one of them and will be looking for a new job soon as they are cutting his position. What is considered the "heartland" is dying a slow and painful death.

December 07, 2008 12:00 PM
Ken Armstrong said...

You are describing the world, Matt, although I have no doubt that Michigan is on the hard edge of what is happening.

The only light is that these things have always been cyclical and it astounds me how people cannot see the bottom when it is at the top and (as at the moment) vice versa.

No easy answers, we have to weather the storm that, one feels, is still only rolling in...

December 07, 2008 12:33 PM
John Tedder said...

Wow. Great story. I hope that Detroit can somehow come back. I think that GM, Ford and Chrysler should get some government assistance, but with conditions as you suggest.

I hope Detroit and the car companies don't go over the falls. I often say, "We put men on the moon. We can do anything if we put our minds to it." That includes making the most reliable, efficient vehicles on the planet.

I am originally from the Trenton, NJ area. There is a railroad bridge there that has a large neon sign on it that says, "Trenton Makes The World Takes." That was from the days when Trenton was famous for pottery and rubber and the John Roebling steel that made the Brooklyn Bridge. We have to start making things in this country again.

By the way, I can't remember why, but Detroit's Al Kaline was the first baseball player that I ever liked.

December 07, 2008 1:42 PM
tashabud said...

It would be a shame if America loses its automakers. The auto industry, for the most part, defines our country to the rest of the world. We may not be in the depression, yet, here in Wyoming, but if the downslide course of the economy continues, we'll eventually get there ourselves. So sad to read about the state of Michigan, especially Detroit. I am proud to say that our families are proud owners of GM and Ford vehicles. I plan to buy Ford Escape when the time comes to buy a new one.

This is an excellent post, Matt. Do you think Union workers may have contributed to the demise? Do I understand that union members are the highest paid and well endowed with extra benifits and bonuses among all workers in the nation? The Executives could afford to cut their pay, bonuses, lavish corporate lifestyles until their businesses improve again.


December 07, 2008 2:06 PM
The Fitness Diva said...

That's really sad to know. I'm sure that Detroit is not the only major city that's going through this in the country right now.
It's hard to even see how any of this can turn around anytime soon.

A shame also, because I've never been to Detroit, and will never get to see it in its former glory, much like New Orleans.

December 08, 2008 12:15 PM
Jena Isle said...

That's very sad. I hope there is some way it could recover. God bless your city.

December 09, 2008 12:59 PM said...

So what is the answer?

Detroit is one of only a handful of cities that has all four major sports - football, basketball, baseball an hockey.

It seems to me that bureaucracy, in the government as well as in the Big 3, is to blame.

Sometimes, you have to hit bottom before you can start to the climb back towards the top again.

December 09, 2008 7:29 PM
Roxy's Best Of... said...

Sad to hear about your trip, Matt. I have had similar experiences, particularly on "road trips" where you see a lot more of America than you do from an airplane.

I live only about a half hour from where I went to high school in Somerville, New Jersey. Rex and the girls and I were there the other night for dinner at Alfonso's, my old pizza stomping grounds, and drove by what used to be the shopping center where high school kids hung out.

The local government used eminent domain to drive out the retailers and replace them with "upscale condos." Well, Somerville isn't an "upscale condo" kind of town, and the developer ran out of money before the wrecking ball even got halfway through. So the whole area is a giant pit with a chain link fence around it. Sad.

Anyway, it got me thinking that when I have more time, maybe in the Spring, I'd like to write about eminent domain for your government blog.

As Howard Jones once said, "Things can only get better."


December 09, 2008 10:52 PM
schizoshrink said...

not yet not yet.. let it not be destroyed.. i still have to get there before i die!

December 10, 2008 10:18 PM
Josie said...

I was opposed to the original bailout and am in theory opposed to this one as well. BUT since the money is already on the table, I do not understand why some get it and others won't. If they are already handing out the money, why not give it to an industry that supports a large sect of American workers. It isn't just the CEOs and direct factory workers who are going to be effected- it is everyone from the parts counter guy at the dealership to the night secretary. I just don't understand why AIG can get the money and others can't. It is not reasonable.

December 11, 2008 7:45 PM
Thomas said...

While I think it is sad for the employees and people of Detroit, I don't want any money going to these companies. I think that Detroit and MI will come back in time, but they have to adapt through education. And if people choose to leave, that's their choice.

December 12, 2008 5:21 PM
pamibe said...

Excellent post; I dugg it.

December 13, 2008 7:17 AM
Goliath0825 said...

Excellent piece Matt, The city just needs a new leadership, one that can transform the city into different industries, not saying to auto industry should go away but saying that there should be more industries for any major city and not rely mostly upon one type of industry. A new leader could change everything....I would run for mayor but I gotta to many other mountains to climb.

December 13, 2008 8:42 PM
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