Michael Poris - Post 3: Back to the Future of Detroit
Only yesterday, Detroit was arguably the tech and design center of the world. Here, Henry Ford brought the mass-production automobile into being, followed by Harley Earl and the aesthetic and engineering bravura of General Motors, including the large-finned Cadillacs and the racy Corvettes of the '50s. For the better part of a century, if it was powerful or stylish, then it was designed and made in Detroit, from cars, to locomotives, to refrigerators and planes. Detroit was the arsenal of democracy in World War II. Later, Motown music sprung from the African-American middle class of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, funded by well-paying jobs in the auto factories.
The heritage and the landmarks from our glory days are here. The good news is that we still have the local engineering, the design talent, and the culture to capture greatness again, and we have excellent schools of design and engineering. So why not greatness again? To a large extent, today we are flummoxed by ourselves.
Certainly, Michigan is no longer a high-cost state in which to do business. While regulations and taxes on businesses could and should be mitigated, factory rents and prices are but one-third to one-half that of a Los Angeles, and union wages have been in long retreat.
The price of doing business here is not what is holding us back. It is government holding us back.
We must present functioning, responsive government to business and the world. We must present safe streets, good schools, adequate city services, and a sense that the city and region embrace business as a positive, not a cow to be milked.
To some extent, the Detroit City Council, elected at-large, is part of the problem. Detroit's 800,000 remaining residents have no way to effectively vote their concerns—no council member is responsible to a particular neighborhood. Contrast this to Chicago's ward system, in which 50 wards serve a city of 2.8 million, or about 57,000 people per alderperson. It is possible for a Chicago resident to believe his alderperson knows his name, the block on which he lives, his employer's concerns, and whether the street lights work on his street.
In previous blogs, I advocated a move to regional government for development and infrastructural issues, to streamline the alphabet soup of agencies we have today. Now, I call for a city council elected by district as a solution for everyday city services. Police services, garbage pick-up, street lighting, snow plowing, rapid treatment of abandoned lots—all of these issues would be better handled if voters had an accountable councilmember or alderperson to approach, and for whom they could vote up or down come election time.
Small housing-oriented redevelopment agencies—such as the Greater Corktown Redevelopment Corp.—should work hand-in-hand with councilmembers or alders to salvage decent housing stock, and create better neighborhoods.
A cleaner, safer city with better schools is what is needed to slow the decline and attract the growth and entrepreneurial companies necessary for Detroit's revival.
Government is nearly always best when easy to understand—if residents know their first stop is the councilperson's or alderperson's office, and that's where decisions and solutions lie, then government will be better.
It is worth considering that when Ford started tinkering with the Model A, Detroit was already a manufacturing center, known for producing boat engines and stoves. Ford's incredible creativity, coupled with the existing industries, led to a century-long boom fueled by a new industry.
That scenario may never play out again. But is it too much to dream that smaller businesses started today could blossom into larger industries, in directions we today do not yet foresee?
While free traders may proselytize about the virtues of international trade, few can see the benefits in Detroit. Yet, at long last, the worst may be over. Many economists contend the dollar will weaken, given our chronic trade debts and federal deficits. Separate from that, manufacturing costs overseas will eventually rise—witness Japan and Europe, already pricier places to make goods than the United States. In a generation, perhaps less, China will follow in their footsteps, hastened by a cheap dollar and rising middle-class wages. Additionally, some expect rising energy costs to increase the bills for transportation. Local production may become favored, as a result.
The world will be running out of cheap and effective manufacturing platforms, at least of the scale that can produce for global markets. As a result, the "Made in America" label may become commercially viable again.
If we have a government working in sync with the knowledge, creative, and manufacturing industries, Detroit may indeed boom again. Indeed, I think in Detroit we may have a special advantage due to our manufacturing heritage.
Seemingly every U.S. city—a Portland or an Austin, for example—speaks about attracting high-tech and knowledge industries. Perhaps we sing a little off-key when we echo the siren call of so many other regions. Our heritage is design for real manufacturing.
Anyway, as a nation, we cannot all sit by our computers and trade information—the perfect knowledge economy envisioned by television shows and Wall Street.
In the real world, somebody actually has to make stuff, as well. People will still want cars, houses, refrigerators, widescreen TVs. We can make these goods, we can make them well, and we can make them in Detroit.