At a dinner party last weekend, I had occasion to meet a businesswoman who, by the sound of things, considered herself a Detroiter. She’d lived in the city, but doesn’t anymore, in part because she tired of defending the indefensible. Would Detroit ever revive in a meaningful way? Could it? Or is the scale of the challenge too great for any mayor, any City Council, any governor or clique of CEOs secretly conspiring to make Detroit into something it hasn’t been for decades — a working major city with people living downtown?
Don’t think she found my cautiously optimistic answers to be persuasive. Was it the triumph of her experience over hope? Partly. Cynicism? Certainly. Evidence of yet another long-time Detroiter looking at the prospects of revival through the cloudy lens of the past? Yes — and that’s what could make the lurches toward revival this time different than the others.
Consider: Downtown businesses aren’t just offering employees incentives (or bribes, if it makes you feel superior to describe it that way) to buy or rent property and move into the central business district. They’re actually doing it, evidence that the same ol’ arguments about why Detroit can’t work don’t have the same kind of traction they had with folks (and business leaders) a generation or two younger. Which is a very welcome change.
Consider: Demand for Class-A residential property in Midtown and Woodward corridors is outstripping supply, a sign that real private-sector market economics might actually be poised to replace government-subsidized development. To the extent that begins to happen and keeps happening, that would be evidence of a true turning of the corner.
Consider: Widespread evidence of political and financial drift across the nation is, by implication, suggesting that ol’ DTW isn’t as alone in its dysfunction as so many assumed. More, the city and its early-movers — among them, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert — can make the case that their town is the next new-new thing, not the overpriced, oversold and gentrified zip codes of New York or Chicago, to name two.
Consider: The city’s biggest private-sector players, starting with General Motors Co., Compuware Corp. and Gilbert’s Quicken, are leaning into Detroit and what it has to offer, not walking backwards. Gilbert is on a buying spree of downtown buildings; GM’s Dan Akerson owns a condo in the city, personally supports Detroit causes and is positioning GM-North America boss Mark Reuss to become GM’s face in Detroit.
Bottom line: Things are moving in the right direction, thanks to a confluence of mutually supportive conditions. To wit: difficult economic conditions have driven down the cost of assets, including homes and condos; new political leadership generally is focused on the real nuts-and-old financial challenges facing the city; the state government is forcing change in Detroit’s public schools; a new generation of business leadership has moved beyond the shadow of the post-1967 generation and into a posture that asks — what’s possible and why not do it in Detroit?
The biggest mistake long-timers make, so far as I can see, is to assume that the halting revitalization efforts of the past are preludes to the present and future. Really? Not when things change as fundamentally as they’re changing in Detroit. For growing numbers of people, the city’s stress spells opportunity and that’s the kind of proposition a city like Detroit desperately needs.