Friday, July 10, 2009

Restoring Detroit from the bottom up

Certainly, there is a committed corps of bright, dedicated business people who wear themselves out trying to fix Detroit's problems. But they're too few in number, and too few of them can be called giants. The erosion of Detroit's industrial base has left it without the concentration of wealth and power that produces world-class leadership ... But leadership of the Ford/Fisher caliber is what it will take to save Detroit.
- Nolan Finley, Editorial Page Editor of the Detroit News
In his column published yesterday, Finley laments the diminished power of Detroit's business titans. Once upon a time, he writes, big names like Henry Ford II and Max Fisher had the clout to raise millions of dollars and build city-saving institutions like the Renaissance Center. Without leaders like those today -- super rich and super powerful -- the city will never turn around.

What he ignores, of course, is that the city fell apart on their watch. Since the 1950s, one "city-saving" project after another has been pushed by the region's business elite. Highways, museums, stadiums, hotels, casinos, the Renaissance Center -- each new project was heralded as the key to the city's revival. And each one, in its way, failed. Even as downtown has improved, the neighborhoods have kept declining, rapidly. And even downtown the pace of demolition has exceeded the pace of development. And go figure. With a few praiseworthy exceptions, the movers and shakers Finley expects to save the city have almost uniformly abandoned it. They might bankroll the cultural institutions (and deserve gratitude for that), but most of them long ago moved their own homes, their offices, and their factories outside the city's borders, draining it of the one resource it needs most: jobs.

So pardon me if I don't sit around waiting for a handful of wealthy patrons to save the city. They have a role to play, certainly. The new light rail line being built from downtown to New Center is a great example of what private philanthropy can do, and there are some pretty big names behind all the region's major foundations, which have funded great, publicly-oriented projects like the RiverFront and the expansion of the DIA. But if the city's neighborhoods ever turn around, it'll be thanks to the small businesses, non-profits, and community activists that are planting trees, building community gardens, opening businesses, restoring historic buildings, fighting government corruption, and otherwise committing themselves to the city's restoration on a day-to-day basis. A few business titans, acting alone, can't save us. A community can.

1 comment:

Jane said...

What Nolan Finley ignores, of course, is reality.

(But this is neither new nor surprising.)