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.