The New York Times
Excerpt from "When The Lights Go Down In The City"
I’ve lived all over the country, and the idea that Detroit is somehow different, that what has happened there can’t happen anywhere else, seems faulty at best. Drive the bumpy streets of Los Angeles, wait for a subway in New York or pay income tax in Chicago, and you learn that there are budget problems everywhere. The troubles in Detroit seem worse simply because Detroit has fallen so far.
Once the center of American industrial might and economic power, Detroit was, from 1920 to 1950, the country’s fourth most populous city. It called itself, without irony, the Paris of the Midwest. When I was a kid, my dad worked in steel and then as a Ford buyer, a midlevel job that provided a decent living, free medical care and, of course, cars. My stepfather had been temporarily paralyzed in a kamikaze attack at the end of World War II, but he recovered, put on a suit and went into the steel business. “You couldn’t help but make money,” he told me. “It must have been like selling drugs today.”s
The exact causes of Detroit’s decline are still open to debate, but suffice it to say mismanagement within the auto industry, racial strife and bad, often confrontational and sometimes corrupt government played major roles. When General Motors and Chrysler finally succumbed to bankruptcy, it was the result of excessive debt and promises to retirees that could not be met. That may sound like someplace else, but our federal government is running an annual deficit of over a trillion dollars, and will have around $40 trillion in unfunded retiree liabilities. Detroit is not someplace else; it’s America.s
Are we doomed? Hardly. But to go forward we might do well to look at, well, Detroit. The city simply has no time left to dither or filibuster or ignore a problem because the solution is unpleasant. If Detroit needs to turn off the lights, they’re going off. If it needs to raze decrepit buildings, it will fire up the bulldozers. This is a city where, once, I met a Ford man who had just turned down a lucrative job with a management consulting company. “I can’t work for a company that doesn’t make something,” he explained.s
Detroit is a city used to the hard work of creation. It reminds us that necessity is the mother not only of invention, but of hope. And hope is necessary for action.s
And Detroit is moving forward. There’s a long way to go, but the city’s efforts have already brought an influx of young artists and entrepreneurs drawn by cheap rent and programs that provide start-up capital. A lot of brainpower is being deployed to imagine the Detroit of the future. Crime is down overall. Even the auto business is coming back to life, as witnessed by the excitement at this year’s Detroit auto show.s
Detroit has been in dire straits before. In 1805, roughly a century before Henry Ford built his first assembly line, a huge fire burned the city to the ground. This gave rise to Detroit’s Latin motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” — “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”
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