Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Don’t forget the Motor City: further musings on Detroit

About a year ago, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a solution for Detroit’s woes. Why not, pitched Bloomberg, give green cards to immigrants if they agreed to live and work in Detroit for, say, five years? Immigrants work hard, …

Tue, Mar 27, 2012, 08:35


About a year ago, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a solution for Detroit’s woes. Why not, pitched Bloomberg, give green cards to immigrants if they agreed to live and work in Detroit for, say, five years? Immigrants work hard, bring new ideas with them and always start up lots and lots of new businesses.

I remember at the time thinking that it was an interesting idea, but didn’t really get what Bloomberg was on about. After spending time in the Motor City, I’m hearing exactly where the New Yorker is coming from. Detroit needs people. That’s the solution to the city’s woes in one word: people. Two words? More people. Three words? Lots of people. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a major league city which is so densely underpopulated. I wrote on Friday that the downtown area was sparse and quiet at night, but you can apply the same description to nearly every area of the city. Detroit needs people.

Yes, it also needs a lot of building and infrastructural work. As we know from the Ruins Of Detroit exhibition and tons of ruin-porn articles, parts of the city are in ruins. But “parts” is the operative word. For every gaping hole in a city block or large building torn and ripped asunder, there are plenty of other gaffs on the same block with people getting on with life. For every horrendous story you read about life in a lawless town (a story which makes you think about Danny Brown’s narrative on “Scrap Or Die” in a whole new light), there are fancy restaurants doing upscale dining and making cash. Like a ton of other cities across America, from Memphis to New Orleans, it’s a story of the haves and the have-nots.

There was a great piece in the New York Times at the weekend about New Orleans (it pinpoints some interesting developments in that city as nature takes over in the Lower Ninth ward from urban blight and strife) which produced a startling statistic about Detroit: during the last 60 years, the city has lost 1.1 million people, roughly the population of Dallas. The city hasn’t shrunk as those people have moved away, but there’s just not enough people to keep the infrastructure in use as was once the case. As a result, everything from the roads (there are potholes on Michigan Avenue which look like moon craters) to public transport (you’ll look at Dublin Bus in a whole new light) have been hit and hit hard. A city without people will always go to rack and ruin.

All last week in Detroit, the local media were full of stories about the city’s financial mess. There’s a massive budget deficit, the city is out of cash, services can’t be funded and a state of emergency is nigh with the state about to take over the running of the city. Life may continue on as the City Hall fandango plays itself out – life always plays itself out on the streets as these local government games go on – but it’s a strong indication of Detroit’s fall from grace because these favours and funds will have to be repaid.

There are, of course, others besides Bloomberg pitching it with ideas and plans. Like every city worldwide, there’s a couple of start-up hubs in place to tap into any new tech ideas in the city which have the world the motor industry and Motown. But it takes more than just having the means in place for a culture to take hold. There was a very interesting discussion on The Craig Fahle Show on WDET last week about why the city is so bad when it comes to entrepreneurship, with one speaker putting it down to historical reasons. Out in San Francisco and on the west coast, there’s a tradition of wanting to do it yourself and start a business in your garage; in Detroit, the tradition has always been to go work for one of the big companies in town like your daddy and his daddy before him. As we’ve seen with the closure of Dell in Limerick and well-intentioned but wrongheaded hopes that laid-off workers would start lots of small businesses in the area, it’s hard to foist new traditions on a workforce.

Detroit’s biggest advantage right now are the people who are still there who want to make a go of their hometown. They don’t want to see the city continue in the state it’s in or be a place where stories about crimes, deprevation and decay are what dominate the news agenda. They want the city to be a place to be reckoned with again, a place which can stand tall again, a place they’re proud to call home again. There might be a feeling elsewhere that America has moved on and has forgotten those places like Detroit and New Orleans, but there are plenty of people not prepared to let that happen. Because people are what make the world go round, they’re the ones who will have the final say in how this one goes down.