Haven’t you heard? The reinvention of Detroit, its bellwether auto industry, even the region they define, are feel-good stories masking the end of civilization as we know it.
Forget the downtown business rebound, or the record profits at General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. The residential boom rippling from the city center can’t last because there are only so many hipsters willing to rent, and the fitful efforts to repair the damage of Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis are figments of boosters’ imagination.
They’re all fake Potemkin villages designed to deceive, each an aberration that cannot last. Connecting each is our uniquely backward-looking, entitlement-fueled culture that will revert to the mean and ensure it all vaporizes when the next downturn comes — because this is Detroit.
You’re just too deluded by the triumph of hope over experience to know it yet. Too ignorant of history and how it informs the future. Too naive to think new leadership in City Hall, in the business community, in the automakers, in philanthropy can turn downward spirals into upward arcs without intimidation from federal judges in black robes.
I ask whether you’ve heard because the more evidence of progress piles up, imperfect as it may be, the more I’m struck by average folks insisting the whole thing is an elaborate farce perpetrated by a few local Wizards of Oz and their dutiful scribes in chambers of commerce, civic organizations and, of course, the media.
“Flint is a failed piece of civilization,” Brian R., a longtime reader, wrote Thursday in response to my column. “What a joke. What a sad, sorry joke from start to finish. Nobody of any import at all gives a tinker’s damn about water in Flint. The best they can do is pretend to care, and even that is wearing pretty thin.”
Detroiters dissing Detroit (or Flint) and its automakers, their accomplishments or not, is hardly new. It’s a time-honored tradition here, an attitude afflicting city neighborhoods, the suburbs and stretching from the coastal smart set to members of the sprawling Detroit diaspora.
There’s the Ford retiree who tells me the first thing he did upon retiring was to buy a Honda. There are the suburban wags who take to comments sections, or call into talk radio, to trash what’s happening downtown before confessing they haven’t been there in years. There’s the Birmingham money manager who insists Detroit’s reinvention has too few ingredients to be sustainable:
“Without jobs moving into the city from elsewhere, the demand for housing will be limited to young, unattached hipsters. Who rent,” he wrote me. “In the end, economics matter, and while the young, unattached millennials without a wife, children and economic sensibilities find the city exciting ... long-term sustainment requires middle and upper middle class families. That is likely decades off.”
Maybe so, if the goal is to turn the city into a manicured, tightly controlled downtown like you find in the suburbs. But transforming 139 square miles into, say, Birmingham is not the goal; reclaiming and reinventing Detroit for residents, for business and for visitors is — and that process will take time, disciplined leadership and luck.
Detroit hasn’t produced much of those over, what, the past generation or more. But things change; leaders step down, and others step up. Folks tired of empty promises and mismanagement embrace alternatives because doing the same thing and expecting different results ain’t working. And economics almost always find their level, as Detroit learned the hard way.
Rank cynicism is, of course, a sign of our times. How could it not be when this fall’s campaign for the presidency of the United States pits one self-important fabulist against another? Or when governmental institutions at all levels repeatedly demonstrate their inability to serve the people who fund said institutions?
How could it not be when a place like Detroit, once the nation’s undisputed economic engine, accrued such a dismal record of denial and failure that it culminated in the epic bankruptcies of two hometown automakers and the city itself? Hardly a sterling legacy that screams rebirth.
And yet, hard facts matter, too, however much the Merchants of Dystopia find them inconvenient. To wit: Michigan’s leadership in creating manufacturing jobs since the end of the Great Recession, the fact that its GDP growth is outpacing the nation, are comparatively meaningless.
Why? Because the epicenter of the industrial heartland is still hundreds of thousands of jobs shy of the mark in 2000 or the year after Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law. Yes, but the decade following delivered years of retrenchment and failure, most of it attributable to labor and management in denial.
Dan Gilbert’s multi-billion dollar investment in downtown is real. Ask his accountant, or your own eyes. The Ilitch family’s $1.2 billion District Detroit is real; look for yourself. City Hall’s finances are in better shape; ask the ratings agencies. Profit-sharing checks at GM and Ford are clearing; ask someone who works there.
None of this is any more guaranteed than was Detroit’s heyday in the 1960s, of course. That’s a harsh reminder that cynics have a point: success can be fleeting. But failure is not predetermined.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.