It's Time to Rewrite the Story of Detroit's Decline
‘Debt spiraling out of control, government on the brink of bankruptcy, state intervention and bailout is required’ Does this headline sound familiar? The current Economic and Eurozone Crisis has sharpened the focus of the 2012 Transatlantic US and European Marshall Memorial Fellowship Cohort. We travel in interesting times, and the last few years have made us all too aware of the impact of debt and financial restructuring at local and national levels. Our future is unknown and we can neither embrace the unknown nor bury our heads in the sand. New norms of working and collaborating are being discovered. We may need to reassess how we deliver basic and advanced services for ourselves, our communities, and our world. Our social nets have had to be tightened in recent years and months due to the effects of austerity measures. We may not be able to rely on the state to intervene to provide the breadth of service we expect for ourselves and our fellow citizens into the 21st century. This narrative is not new for Detroit. Time Magazine and others have written off Detroit a number of times, citing the ”Fall of Detroit.” Over the last five decades, Detroit has been struggling with a shrinking economy, the restructuring of its major industries, and the problem of increasing debt. The city of Detroit has shrunk from a population of almost 2 million people to 0.7 million today. The city’s debt now stands at more than $12 billion and counting. The city is on the verge of bankruptcy. Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. Unlike many other cities, Detroit is not following the script. Detroit’s future is being rewritten by tens of thousands of heroic non-state actors working in collaborative models that many of us should consider emulating. The level of ambition, energy, focus, and drive of local organisers, entrepreneurs, business-men, civic groups, and non-profits in collaborating to re-imagine and re-invent Detroit for the 21st Century is truly inspirational. Detroiters have been wrestling with the same set of issues and concepts at a micro-level since the middle of the 20th century, questions the rest of the world are now having to deal with at the macro-level: issues such as how do we stimulate job creation? How do we act when government powers are waning? What is the role of the individual and the community in the 21st century society? With the knowledge of Detroit’s problems in mind, six of us Marshall Fellows—veritable ambassadors for Europe, Germany, the Czech Republic, Albania, Turkey, Italy, and the UK—arrived in Detroit, crammed ourselves into our Ford Explorer and prepared for the worst. Little did we know what was going to be in store for us: the energy of the city, of its civic leadership, and its action in spite of government intransigence. Models of collaboration included:
- Cross-sector and foundation support for strategic envisioning and leadership. Here foundations are working with community and civic organizations around a number of key themed areas including energy, environment, the arts, entrepreneurship, redeveloping neighbourhoods, and even funding and planning to construct a local city tram system to connect areas across mid and down-town Detroit
- University police forces working in combination with the city police to safeguard the streets.
- The entire arts community collaborating to deliver the city’s first lighting spectacular: “Dlectricity.”
- Local communities and entrepreneurs in action to create non-profit groups, urban farming, and the Eastern Market.
- Volunteerism from civic organizers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, and civic groups at an unprecedented scale.
Americans and Europeans may have different views regarding the appropriate role of the state. What we learned, however, is that the spirit of a city is not defined by its GDP, its debt-levels, its industry, or its size. The spirit and heartbeat of a city is defined by its humanity. In Detroit, the heartbeat of the city is running at 180 beats per minute. The race is not flashy, there is no hero akin to Usain Bolt. The problems of Detroit will not be solved in under 10 seconds. The issues are complex and the concerns are real. This race is a marathon. It is the race of the tens of thousands from differing backgrounds, working together in unity each day to raise Detroit to new heights one step at a time. Detroiters wish to re-write history, and in so doing, become a model for cities and communities everywhere. As Europeans, we should actively seek to learn from the Detroits of the world, as examples of individual and community leadership in interesting times.
Akira Kirton, of BP Corporate Ventures, is a 2012 European Marshall Memorial Fellow from the United Kingdom.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.