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Howes: Detroit’s narrative arc bending upward, finally

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Looking east up The Detroit River.

For way too long, the Detroit narrative arced only one way — downward.

It’s the nation’s poorest city. It’s home to “ruin porn,” a uniquely American affliction so fascinating to condescending Europeans. And economic revival of this moribund municipality was considered about as likely as peace in the Middle East.

Or so conventional wisdom long said, proving how little wisdom there can be in so much conventional thinking. In Detroit, this year started to show just how badly wrong convention can be. Ain’t it sweet?

Recall the dark days of 2008, when automakers teetering on the edge of uncontrolled collapse shook Washington and terrified the ancestral home of the American auto industry. In the Great Recession, property values plunged. Unemployment soared. Redevelopment stopped. Population declined.

And the city that put America on wheels, that helped build the modern middle class with rising wages and improving standards of living, looked as if its defining industry finally could be reaching the end of the road.

It wasn’t. Credit enormous financial challenges that made bankruptcy and change inevitable. Credit American taxpayers and a new cadre of leadership willing to make the kind of decisions their predecessors would not because it would be too hard, too disconnected from a self-image of infallibility.

I reprise this history not to dampen holiday spirit or to wallow in the past. It’s to remind — how far Detroit and its corner of Michigan have come, how much stronger and more realistic its auto industry is, how vibrant its core city is becoming thanks to billions in private-sector investment changing the reality behind a narrative of resilience.

With apologies to my friends at the Detroit Regional Chamber, that’s no chamber sales pitch. It’s true, and the pace of change is only likely to accelerate in the New Year on the strength of strong equity markets, accelerating GDP and good ol’ momentum.

It’s true the Ilitch family’s billion-dollar District Detroit development, anchored by Little Caesars Arena, is open and just beginning to transform the area connecting downtown to Midtown. It’s true that Dan Gilbert’s real estate makeover is creating a kind of buzz this town hasn’t seen in decades. It’s true that construction is beginning on the J.L. Hudson site nearly a generation after the city imploded the iconic building.

It’s true The New York Times is calling Detroit “the most exciting city in America” — the journalistic equivalent of hell freezing over. It’s true that entrepreneurship, the spirit that helped build industrial Detroit roughly a century ago, is experiencing a renaissance inside the city. It’s also true the exodus of college grads from Michigan is reversing, and one of the reasons is the opportunity a place like Detroit offers.

None of this, however, is guaranteed to be permanent. No town should understand that better than this one, given its history of conflict, mediocrity and willful self-delusion born of last century’s affluence.

Look, Detroit also is legendary for two things: confrontation, and a unique brand of self-loathing that makes Metro Detroiters some of the region’s worst enemies. But as this year turns into next, it’s important to acknowledge how far this town has come in such a comparatively short time.

Just three years ago this month, Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. It shed $7 billion in debt, refinanced another $3 billion, rationalized its services and reached contracts with all of its unions for the first time in at least 20 years.

Wayne County appeared to be next in line, thanks to the hapless leadership of its last county executive. But the new boss, Warren Evans, did what a smart CEO should when facing serious financial reckoning: He chose competence over partisanship to assemble a crack workout team that delivered improved credit ratings and reduced state oversight.

For way too long, very little of that happened around here. Petty politicking trumped smart politics. Developers talked big but did less. Regional squabbles, often tinged with race, complicated efforts at cooperation and finding common interest. And journos guided by stereotypes amplified caricatures that mostly served to bolster ample superiority complexes.

That’s changing. Business and political leaders, philanthropy and government bureaucracies, are more aligned around common interest and forward progress than any time in years. A Republican governor uses levers of power to benefit urban constituencies even as Detroit’s Democratic mayor hustles for business investment large and small.

When Democrat Evans, the Wayne County executive, needed a municipal finance whiz for his turnaround team, he asked his Oakland County counterpart, Republican L. Brooks Patterson, for help. Specifically, he wanted (and got) Bob Daddow, a deputy county executive with a sharp intellect and a blunt style.

And when Amazon.com Inc. opened its sweepstakes for its “HQ2,” a second headquarters in North America, Mayor Mike Duggan tapped Gilbert to lead the regional effort and asked Patterson to join the effort. He did, ordering (as one person close to the situation told me this fall) his staff to fully cooperate in preparing the regional bid.

None of this is an accident, folks. Detroit hasn’t come this far in its reinvention because taxpayers bailed out General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC. Or because the state Legislature partnered with the private sector to fund the bankruptcy’s “grand bargain.”

Yes, that helped. But the reason for so much success after so much failure is in people — average people who finally understood the futility of mistrust and entitlement, leaders at so many levels in business and politics who summoned the courage to break with the past, to move in a new direction, to finally say, “Enough.”

That’s winning, and winning never gets old.


(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.