A nice little reality check

30 11 2011

For a city that has become a sort of Mecca for post-industrial ruin pornographers, Detroit has weathered its storms fairly well. I mean, it’s still there. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

But the doom and gloom seems especially heavy these days. Of course, the city’s rapidly approaching day of financial reckoning isn’t helping–Detroit is just about out of money and has little hope of maintaining its financial obligations, public services, or rampant corruption as cash dwindles.

Detroit’s uncertain future presents a tremendous opportunity for reinvention, but only if we learn from the mistakes that laid the mighty Motor City low. Over at the Michigan View, contributor Dan Calabrese has posted a piece that does just that. It doesn’t propose any concrete, actionable solutions, but it does reflect on the city’s origin, its purpose–something politicians don’t like to talk about.

The Guardian Building: the "Cathedral of Finance"

An excerpt:

See all those buildings downtown? They weren’t built by idiots. They were built by people who understood that they were investing in a city teeming with life and ready with the market necessary to fill office space and hotel rooms, and to put more than enough dollars in the coffers of downtown retailers. Back then, you didn’t hope that a “good corporate citizen” like Mike Ilitch or Dan Gilbert would invest in the city. People invested in the city not out of pity – but because it made them money.

This is a subject I’d like to approach at length at some point. A city shouldn’t depend on the generosity of idealistic millionaires. Nor should it need festivals, arts, or sports stadiums to lure ideas, entrepreneurs, and capital. Those lovely cultural institutions are the fruits of success, not success’ catalyst. We seem to have forgotten the type of man and woman that gave Detroit (and the crumbling American cities just like it) a reason to exist in the first place.

Their industriousness provided millions with stable employment and the highest standard of life in the world. They endowed the world-class cultural institutions–the symphonies, the museums–that now seem oddly out of place in the ruins of Detroit. They didn’t do these things because they were “socially responsible;” they did them because they could.

Perhaps they aren’t convenient, or politically correct, in these times. I suppose they might even be condemned as part of the devious One Percent. Yet they remain a crucial part of Detroit’s heritage, and until we sweep aside the institutional paralysis and devastating corruption that has scared their modern-day counterparts away, don’t expect things to get any better.

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3 responses

30 11 2011
Gary Knowles

Well reasoned and well said Mr.Kozak. My fear is that we are approaching the wasteland with a wagontrain loaded with different pioneers this time. The first folks in had little but saw great opportunity to build something for themselves – and we all gained by it. This modern caravan is pretty well loaded with passengers who don’t care to build anything but would rather inquire if those doing the handing-out have given enough. Rather than seize the opportunity to create and let the surplus benefit everyone, they see the opportunity to seize the surplus. I’m sad to say, I don’t envision a turnaround anytime soon. Nonetheless, cheers.

30 11 2011
Graham Kozak

Thanks for the thoughts! I may take a cynical stance on most political matters, but I am actually pretty optimistic about the future–in the long run, at least.

Perhaps it’s only because I have been fortunate enough to meet and surround myself with individuals who are eager to go forth and create, but I get the feeling that there is a lot of pent-up energy and potential in my generation. Great things will happen if it is allowed to find an outlet.

The question, then, is not whether we can find individuals with potential; rather, it is if there are enough of them–and if society as a whole is prepared to permit them to do what they do best, unhindered.

We’ll have to see how it plays out, but I have no choice but to be positive.

3 12 2011
Gary Knowles

I like your optimisim and hope you’re right!

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