BANKRUPTCY, INTELLECTUAL AND OTHERWISE

Posted in Rants on April 26th, 2010 by Ed

Much has been said about the brutally slow exsanguination of Detroit over the last thirty years and even more about how much its death spiral has intensified in the last five. From gloating anti-labor hacks to gloating anti-auto industry hacks to "urban explorers" treating the city like a fire-gutted shopping mall (albeit one with 950,000 remaining residents) to Williamsburg hipster types getting off on the squalor of it all, few have passed up the opportunity to kick the former Motor City while it's down. Calling it "down" might be unfair, however, as it implies that the current state of affairs is a nadir from which the city will gradually recover. In reality, given the fact that redevelopment policy now consists of bulldozing city blocks and letting the prairie move in it's entirely possible, bordering on likely, that there is and will be no recovery.

As is typical in post-Reagan America, we (and the media) tend to tell this story one of two ways. Some talk about it like the weather; it's just this thing that happens, entirely beyond our control, and at best we can deal with its effects after the fact. Others see it as another example of greedy, selfish (unions/CEOs/shiftless brown people/etc) getting what they deserve. There appears to be unanimous consent on one point, though: there's nothing that can be done about it. Detroit is screwed.

And that is why we see desperate city officials promoting schemes that would have been considered ridiculous if not outright insane in better times. Foremost among them is developer John Hantz's plan to level 70,000 acres of the city to create a farm. Among the crops he has proposed growing is Christmas trees. When the best policy our political system can concoct is to bulldoze half of what was among the three or four wealthiest cities on the planet 50 years ago and plant a Christmas tree farm, it's a pretty good indication that Detroit's municipal government isn't the only thing that is bankrupt these days.

Don't fall for the arguments about "green space" or the irresistible allure to progressives of words like "local", "organic", or anything about the environment. If this farm produces any crop other than Federal agricultural subsidies or tax write-off losses for Hantz's other businesses it will be a certified miracle. It stands a far greater chance of becoming a factory-farmed soybean field than a place for Detroiters to get local goodies, assuming they don't have a taste for locally-grown biomass intended for heavily subsidized ethanol production.

That such a harebrained idea could even be considered illustrates two of the most disturbing trends in our public discourse: the complete rejection of the possibility of collective solutions and the selfish desire to deal with social problems by simply getting rid of them. On the first point, the idea of reversing Detroit's decline is patronized as if it is a small child's plan to build a rocket ship out of his tricycle. How could "we" do anything? The government sucks, corporations suck, the people of Detroit suck, and so on until it becomes clear that even a well-intentioned effort to address the problem would fail on account of how awful, greedy, and deserving of failure are the actors in this situation. Can't help people who won't help themselves! Second, we just want things to go away so we don't have to be saddened by them. Half of this country would probably prefer to fix Detroit by dropping a tactical nuke over the Renaissance Center. Just make all the bad ugly things go away. We don't care about the consequences because anything is preferable to the consequences of inaction, namely the derelict hulk of a city serving as a visual reminder of the failures of the post-industrial economy. And as we hate funerals because they remind us of our own mortality, we hate and fear Detroit because it reminds us of what will become of our own cities in the near future.

Then again, maybe if we all insist on a "made in Detroit" label on our Christmas trees the beleaguered city will rise from the ashes like a Phoenix. Given how badly Detroit could use a re-branding and a name change, it's too bad that one is already taken.