BANKRUPTCY, INTELLECTUAL AND OTHERWISE

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.

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27 Responses to “BANKRUPTCY, INTELLECTUAL AND OTHERWISE”

  1. jon Says:

    I know that metaphors aren't always my strong suit, but Phoenix is a pretty poor model to emulate. That city is pretty much a Detroit with better sports teams and a less-stable tax base.

  2. Stephen Says:

    I'm not positive, but think the reference was to the mythical bird and the lament that said name was already in use elsewhere .

  3. Aslan Maskhadov Says:

    So I guess Robocop is looking a lot like a prophetic vision now, eh?

  4. mtraven Says:

    I dunno. Cities can decline, as can countries and civilizations. Just because we've been on an economic upswing for the last couple hundred years (broadly speaking) doesn't mean that's going to be the rule forever. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair, etc. Our institutions of collective action are decayed even further than Detroit's physical plant. As for failure of collective action, we have worse cases than not rescuing Detroit. There's the small matter of reducing CO2 before we fry ourselves, for instance.

  5. Dan Says:

    I'm going to be trite here and note that you didn't bother to even venture a guess as to what kind of collective action could save Detroit.

  6. ts46064 Says:

    @ Dan
    The same collective action that rebuilt New Orleans. Oh shit…

  7. round.crow Says:

    Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, you know. Kind of a depressing city motto, don't you think?

    As a former (yes, former) Metro Detroiter, I think the city's been demonized to the point where there's not a lot of political will to put it back together (and by political will, I mean interest from white people with money). The level of terror and contempt that I was inculcated with as a child regarding the city, despite the fact that both of my parents grew up there, makes me doubt. There's very little nostalgia for the place, at least in the suburban enclave I was raised in.

  8. Misterben Says:

    Another former Metro Detroiter here.

    Precious notions of locally-sourced produce aside, I'm not entirely opposed to the Hantz plan. My initial reaction to it was loathing – I believe cities should be cities, towns should be towns, the countryside should be the countryside, and the suburbs should be dismantled – but the more I thought about it, the more I grudgingly accepted the idea.

    There really are vast areas of Detroit that are essentially unpopulated. Ideally, the city should contract inward and become denser, more urban, more walkable. But they've had 50 years to make that happen and there's no sign it ever will. So instead, let's allow Hantz to convert abandoned blocks of burned-out houses into densely-used farmland. At least that will employ SOME people. At least that will generate SOME economic activity. Maybe the Hantz farms manage to inject enough life into the local economy to spur a few people to open their own stores and restaurants – who knows?

    I guess my attitude towards the Hantz plan can be summed up as "anything is better than nothing". Though I do have massive reservations about it.

  9. Keith Says:

    Desperate move, or a necessary one? The city needs economic activity if it is to have any future, and a tree farm might be its best option. Better than waste incinerators or some other industrial blight.

  10. Kulkuri Says:

    I can see using vacant lots to grow veggies, but a tree farm?? That's about pure stupid. The only good that could come of that is a huge tax writeoff.

    The last thing you would want to do is grow a forest for a merry band of robbers to hide in.

  11. Nan Says:

    Christmas tree farms would be pure stupid, but orchards wouldn't be a bad idea. Detroit's population has been shrinking, and turning vacant land into farmland makes more sense than just abandoning it completely.

  12. Mike Says:

    While shrinking the area to a more livable density would probably encourage safety and commerce it is also exceedingly expensive to do. If they are honestly considering shrinking city boundaries and facing the prospect of swapping thousands of private properties, bulldozing others and moving families it might just be simpler to fork over checks and wish people well in a life outside of Detroit. A buyout might cost only a few tens of billions of dollars to just start over.

  13. Susan of Texas Says:

    Towns can't live without a means of support and the country is not going to provide a lot more jobs anytime soon. A lot of people from Michigan moved to Texas in the 80s when plants started closing. We grew and they shrank becasue people must have jobs.

  14. chautauqua Says:

    Speaking as a former urban field geologist familiar with the area and its heavily contaminated soils, I would think that any plan of growing anything – even evergreens – is misguided fantasy.

  15. jeneria Says:

    I was in South Louisiana when Katrina and Rita did their thing and believe me, if it wasn't for the French Quarter and some nostalgia, that city wouldn't be what it is now. Which isn't much, but God do I love that city!

    All this to say, Detroit doesn't have that center of attraction to make us care. It has history, but it doesn't have much for tourism.

  16. Parrotlover77 Says:

    As mentioned by another poster above, sometimes cities/civilizations decline. It just happens. Nostalgia is apparently very strong with you, Ed, and that's fine. Detroit was once a pretty damn awesome city.

    Although I agree that turning Detriot into a christmas tree farm will do little to nothing to "save" the city, I don't see a problem with turning urban land green again, even if it's just green until its chopped down to hang cheap plastic made-in-china ornaments on.

    Urban sprawl is absolutely destroying our planet. Pardon me if I don't shed a tear to see a large city get eaten by the prarie and farm land it previously ate.

    Not to come off as an asshole to the residents, I do think we need to help them as I imagine quite a few simply cannot afford to uproot their lives, get retrained and relocate. But I don't know that spending a shit ton of money to resurrect the dying city specifically is the best course of action. I don't know what your idea might be, but I don't really see any idea coming cheap.

    Made in Detroit trees? Why not?

  17. choada777 Says:

    Growing Christmas trees and pumpkins does seem like an inconsistent idea for a cash crop. Maybe they should grow decorative gourds as well. Seriously though, the Hantz Farms website does mention that vegetables and summer produce would also be grown.

    I'm also pretty cynical of what HantzGroup is trying to accomplish since it is just another corporation with a profit motive. It looks like they've created their 'Hantz Farms' division for the sole purpose of converting Detroit's urban decay.

    It'd be nice if the city and state offices could seize the property and provide incentives or subsidies to its citizens to cultivate the land…but then again you've that's a pretty dubious idea in itself.

  18. moonbat Says:

    I don't know the details, but providing land for city people to grow food (which differs from the Christmas tree scheme) is a good thing. We had a large urban garden in South Central Los Angeles for quite a few years which did a lot of folks a lot of good. I'm sure other locales (the Bronx NYC) have similar stories.

    A little off topic, I read in (in Rolling Stone) in connection with the possible upcoming legalization of pot in California, that respectable numbers of unemployed people in Michigan are learning a new, lucrative trade: growing pot.

  19. Matt L Says:

    I am startled to see that eds larger point was lost on many of the commenters here. Ed seemed to be criticizing the "sh!t happens" school of historiography. Its not like Detroit was wiped out by some tidal wave from Lake Eire or something. There were specific policies, pursued by the auto companies, local government, and the Federal Goverment that made Detroit what it is today. Its not an accident that happened. Specific people gained from these decisions and other people lost. And it seems like the tree farm scheme is another racket in a series of rackets that impoverished the city of Detroit.

    And another thing, the rest of South East Michigan was doing OK until the recent downturn. Not great, not a boomtown, but still OK. Thats been the case for the last thirty years. There are ups and downs, but the suburban region around Detroit is not half bad. Why is that so? Is is just 'good sh!t happens' or were there policies that governments, corporations and voters pursued to make it that way? Thats the point Ed is making about collective action. It goes both ways. People collectively decided to screw Detroit up and they can collectively make other decisions. As a region South East Michigan told metro Detroit to "Go Screw Yourselves" and a few Detroit Mayors (one of whose initials are KK) obliged them.

    As long as Detroit is regarded by its residents, suburban neighbors, and the nation as something that just happened, like an auto accident, then no, nothing can be done to save it. People just rubber neck, look at the blood, and drive away slowly leaving the wreckage in their rear-view mirror vacuously mumbling, "there but for the grace of god go I." But if people ask, who did this to Detroit? why? and what do we need to do to change this? Then something might be done.

  20. Ed Says:

    Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

  21. Deidre Says:

    There are some efforts at collective solutions:

    http://bit.ly/cnXq4E
    http://www.ussf2010.org/

    But as long as our media situation remains what it is and we allow money to drive our politics, people will be distracted, angry, and divided over things that don't matter. We'll be unable to unite long enough to save ourselves.

  22. Prudence Says:

    I agree with you, Matt L, but what if the impetus (or lack thereof) behind Detroit's dire straits were the oft touted "free market". To me, the "if something is worth saving, it'll save itself" reasoning is just fucking stupid, but I hear it a lot in America, as if "popular" equals "good".

  23. Crazy for Urban Planning Says:

    A couple of months ago I saw a great PBS show on infrastructure that looked at Detroit's history. It started as the shipping hub for industrial goods to New York and the Atlantic – early on Detroit was viewed as a model city with a wonderful core full of good transportation and dense neighborhoods. Eventually, once Ford and GM selected Detroit as the "Motor City," they abandoned all of that. They wanted Detroit to be the new model community – white flight went into hyper drive.

    Parrotlover77 and Misterben have said what I wanted to, but just to add one nice story about Detroit's short/medium term future, they did receive a significant TIGER grant to begin the process of re-building their urban infrastructure with a trolley line.

  24. moonbat Says:

    Did Detroit ever have more than a company town mentality? When it came time to downsize the auto companies – thru their own incompetence, intense competion from abroad, whatever – it seems the town obligingly downsized with it.

  25. Susan of Texas Says:

    Of course Detroit's problems are the result of someone's actions. That's why it is not being rebuilt. Corporations moved overseas. People moved to the suburbs, starving the city. Michael Moore made Roger and Me in '89–Michigan's problems have been discussed for a long time. And Detroit did try to rebuild and failed–no jobs, no businesses, no money.

    When we let ourselves think about it, we know perfectly well that we can do nothing to control corporations or the government and we are at their mercy. Which they don't have. We also know that sitting in all the banks of the country (and in the treasury, now) are billions of dollars in bad loans that have not gone away. Detroit will not be the last American city to die.

    Maybe peak oil will end globalization and we'll start manufacturing something besides armaments. Maybe we'll just get poorer until our wages are as low or nearly as low as India and China, and global companies will start using American labor again. Nobody knows what's going to happen–nobody. That's pretty damn scary. Detroit is a canary in the coal mine. You don't worry about the canary–you worry about the gases that killed it.

  26. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Matt L / Ed – Christ, is there any argument by anybody that Detroit was not systematically destroyed by the auto industry and the bought and paid for politicians? Broader point? Really? This is like talking about the shapes of clouds and saying the broader point is "the sky is blue." Man, there is no argument on WHY Detroit sucks now. GM/Ford fucked it up. This is news?

    And even if you know why, that doesn't change the fact that historically great places (cities to states to countries) DO decline. It's a fact.

    The only argument now is 'where do we go from here?' I take a pragmatic approach that the time/money/resources should be wisely spent, even if that means the eventual complete death of the city altogether (nostalgia is not a good urban planning strategy). I am not an expert, so maybe on the other hand it may make sense to pump cash and change policies to inflate it into an industrial giant again — I don't know. But I'm guessing it's somewhere inbetween dead and inflated, where it is 'contracted' and grown inwards as Misterben says.

  27. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Oh, and plants and wildlife infiltrating and taking over a former metropolis makes me smile…… At least until I see a starving kid or something. Sigh.