December 31, 2009 at 8:07 pm

2000-2009: Decade In Review

Shaken to the core: The bad times kept on coming

GM CEO Fritz Henderson announces the automaker's bankruptcy filing on June 1, 2009. The company emerged from bankruptcy July 10. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

We were worried on New Year's Eve 1999, just like today.

Back then, Y2K threatened to shut down the world's computers. But we went to parties, watched the ball drop on TV, and airplanes didn't fall from the sky. Clunky home computers still fired up to track bulging stock portfolios. Corks popped, and our fears disappeared.

That won't happen tonight.

The jitters we feel at 11:59 p.m. will still be there when cheers fade in Times Square. Tomorrow we'll wake up, and the gates will still be locked at the Wixom Ford plant. Those of us who have jobs will still have to put off retirement. We'll still have empty seats at New Year's brunch for family members fighting in two wars.

We may say good riddance to this dismal decade, but we're not close to being rid of it.

From airplanes crashing into buildings to the auto industry collapsing, a series of tragic events has shaken Metro Detroit to its core, leaving us humbled and hobbled.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a SWAT team spent the day on the roof of Livonia City Hall. In some ways, that SWAT team never came down.

The attack on the World Trade Centers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., shattered our sense of security. Trips across the river to Windsor became two-hour ordeals. Nail clippers and shampoo bottles were confiscated at Metro Airport. The attack led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with 175 Michigan soldiers killed so far.

Fear of more attacks -- like the Christmas Day attempt to explode an airliner over Detroit -- led to changes that would have seemed unthinkable on Sept. 10; government monitoring of some communication; imprisonment with no trial or charges; torture.

More than eight years after the attack, our "values, attitude and lifestyles (are) influenced by that event," said New York-based marketing expert Ann Fishman. "Expect a generation that will never know a carefree America."

A decade that began with a robust auto industry and a thriving Michigan economy ended with both in shambles. In a recession since 2000, the state lost 800,000 jobs in the decade, the equivalent of an auto assembly plant closing every two weeks for 10 years.

Unemployment reached 15 percent -- the highest in the nation -- and almost 30 percent in Detroit. Foreclosures, fueled in part by lost jobs and in part by mortgage scams, broke records throughout the state, driving down property values.

Michigan became a poor state this decade. The median income of Michigan residents ranked 20th in 2000; by 2008, the latest year statistics are available, Michigan had dropped to 37th, and "is on its way to at least 40th," said economist Don Grimes.

"That's an unprecedented drop in relative affluence," Grimes said. "There's been a ton of pain."

Much of that pain can be traced back to the collapse of the auto industry, says Sean McAlinden, executive vice president at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

"All our warnings about the auto industry's problems, like the warnings about the levees in New Orleans, came true," said McAlinden. "We had our hurricane, and I don't know that we can fix it."

General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy within weeks of each other. The U.S. government now owns a controlling stake of GM.

If Sept. 11 was a loss of innocence for the nation, GM's bankruptcy was a loss of innocence for Michigan, McAlinden said.

Generations had grown up believing that an auto job was a birthright. Even though auto jobs had declined for several decades, many Michigan residents believed they would come back.

After this decade, "that sense of entitlement is gone," McAlinden said. "We were living a pipe dream, and I don't think we're going to see fat times like that again."

Just as hundreds of thousands streamed in to Michigan at the beginning of the 20th century to work in auto plants, economic refugees fled the state at the beginning of the 21st century. More than 100,000 Michigan residents left in 2008. Those who left -- the young and well-educated -- were the people Michigan needed most to rebuild.

"We got the lumps we deserved," McAlinden said. "Now, survival alone will be a major accomplishment."

The new decade begins at an unnerving moment in the history of Michigan, where so much seems uncertain. If GM can go from one of the most powerful companies in the world to bankruptcy court in the last decade, what can happen next?

"This place has taken a beating," said Jerry Herron, dean of the honors college at Wayne State University and author of "Afterculture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History."

"We've had as much bad stuff as can possibly happen."

Yet Herron sees hope for a region used to being knocked down and used to picking itself up. What would you expect from a city with a flag that says, in Latin, "it will rise from the ashes."

"The people of Detroit have always been hopeful and resilient," said Herron.

They'll need both as they enter a decade sure to bring more change.

rfrench@detnews.com">rfrench@detnews.com (313) 222-2175

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