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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Detroit: A Biography out in paperback with a new Afterword

So I arrived home yesterday after the long slog on the train from Los Angeles and found a box delivered to the house. Part of the contents is pictured at left.

Yes, that’s the paperback edition of Detroit: A Biography, shipping now and available in stores (I hope; if your local is a smaller shop you might need to have them owner order it). It looks very nice – they kept the design from the hardcover, which is that great metallic-sheen finish over the 1929 photo of Detroit from Windsor, across the river.

The book also has a new Afterword, my attempt to wrap my arms around all the developments since I finished writing Detroit: A Biography in late 2011 (it was published in April 2012, nearly two years ago). I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs of the new Afterword below to give you a sense of it.

Overall, for all of Detroit’s troubles, strong flickers of life remain there that deserve nurturing, and hundreds of thousands of Detroiters need help from their fellow citizens.

As for the bankruptcy, I find myself in a lot of discussions about that. One recurring point: Pensioners and investors should not be on equal footing. The workers did their jobs for wages and promises of future support, and the city – bankrupt or not – has a moral obligation to them. The bondholders invested knowing – it’s the nature of investing – that there was risk, and many bond buyers received inflated interest rates reflecting Detroit’s shaky financial underpinnings. I have problems at a fundamental level with much of capitalism, but if people are going to play to play the investment game knowing they are putting assets at risk, they don’t have much room to cry for special consideration when they lose the gamble. Keep the pensions whole; let the gamblers ruminate on their losses.


October 2013

Seats on the second tier of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, offer an impressive view of the downtown Detroit skyline. Tall buildings shoulder their way skyward beyond the center field fence. Some have the clean lines of modern architecture, but most are much older, dating back to the 1920s, and have been dirtied by time, with a patina of gray covering ornate cornices and other architectural details that exude a sense of history. And despite a surge in purchases in recent years, many remain shuttered and empty.

This is the cradle for the potential rebirth of Detroit, which ... has endured continued troubles since Detroit: A Biography was first published in April 2012. A lot has changed since then, not the least of which was Governor Rick Snyder’s decision to install an emergency manager for the city, effectively trumping local democracy. But much remains unchanged, particularly the quality of daily life for most of Detroit’s dwindling population.

As I write this, the emergency manager, bankruptcy expert Kevyn Orr, has already filed for federal bankruptcy protection for the city government—the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history—as he recalibrates its finances and debt. It’s difficult for now to say much about his ultimate plans, which still evolve as I write this. But the solutions Orr has been contemplating include slashing pension payouts for the city’s retired workers, possibly selling off some artwork from the collection of the world-renowned Detroit Institute of Arts (there are legal questions about whether the city has that authority), and the privatization of some city services. Since that narrative remains without an end at this point, I’ll leave the specifics alone, other than to point out that cutting the pension payments to city retirees—many of whom still live in the city—will only exacerbate Detroit’s problems by further reducing the money flowing through the local economy. And there’s something inherently unfair in a scenario in which employees who worked hard over the years, with commitments in hand to an eventual pension, would take a backseat to investors, who, by definition, know they are taking a risk when they invest.

The most important thing to note is that even if Orr manages to balance the city budget, he will have done little to improve the broad circumstances of life in Detroit. As I mentioned earlier in this book, the collapse of the city education system is a function, not a cause, of the city’s problems. And the same goes for the city government. Governments are not places; they are institutions that reflect the economic vitality of the place they govern. And without stabilizing neighborhoods and getting people jobs, Detroit’s problems will remain.

Still, there are positive developments. In the two years since Detroit: A Biography was published, more middle-class housing—most in the form of converted lofts—have opened in the midtown area, between the Wayne State University/medical center complexes and downtown, about a two-mile stretch along Woodward Avenue. Despite the bankruptcy filing, a quasigovernmental development agency announced plans this summer for a new hockey arena north of Interstate 75 for the Detroit Red Wings franchise. If it’s built—and there is no reason to think it won’t, given the public/private partnership at work—that will mean three of the city’s four major professional sports franchises will play their home games within walking distance of each other and downtown and within close proximity to some already gentrifying neighborhoods. Usually new sports stadiums don’t have much impact on a neighborhood’s vitality, in part because of the relative light usage. Ford Field, for instance, hosts only eight professional football games a year. But with professional hockey, baseball, and football stadiums drawing people to the same general neighborhood, the opportunity for a critical mass of retail and residential development becomes much stronger. Among the three teams, there will be 130 home games over the course of a year. Even if most of the primarily suburban (and white) audience doesn’t patronize nearby retail businesses, those who do will provide a lot of economic drive.

It’s not a solution. It’s one part of what must become a broad mix of developments. …
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