Detroit and the future of America

John Reed writes a long and compassionate piece about Detroit in the Financial Times, suggesting that it has many lessons to learn for America as many other industries fail and the cities built around them have to figure out how to survive. Refreshingly, he puts some effort into puncturing the myth of the greedy auto-worker as the author of Detroit's destruction.

I was at Confusion, a science fiction convention in the Detroit area recently, and I got to thinking that Detroit may be the most science fictional city in the world -- if sf is about the way that technology changes society (and vice-versa), then Detroit, the first New World, world-class city built around a high-tech industry that collapsed, is about as science fictional as it gets.

Detroit may be the archetypal down-and-out rust-belt city, but to call it “dying” masks a more complex reality. Greater Detroit still has three to four million residents, a world-class university next door in Ann Arbor and the bone structure of a great city, as a car-industry consultant with the ear of a poet put it over lunch one day. Why, then, the relentless focus on its failings? Nearly everyone you meet is either weary or angry at seeing their home town made the butt of jokes on late-night television and the subject of anguished political commentary. But no one denies that the region’s property market is abysmal, its finances a mess and its industrial base shrinking at an alarming rate.

Instead, Michiganders, despite being self-deprecating to a fault, make a point their countrymen won’t want to hear: Detroit is no longer the nation’s worst-case scenario, but on its leading edge, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. “It’s like the rest of the country is getting to where Detroit has been,” said Peter De Lorenzo, who writes the acerbic and very funny blog. That means that smug mock-horror is no longer the appropriate reaction to the frozen corpse. Instead, get ready for a shock of recognition...

Moreover, many Michiganders – whose parents had been able to send them to college thanks to the middle-class salaries of assembly-line work – felt the Republicans had made United Auto Workers members into hate figures on a par with the “welfare queens” conjured up by Reagan-era Republicans. National newspaper and television reports mostly followed rightwing Washington’s cartoonishly simple version of what ails the American auto industry. “Labour is totally under attack,” said Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. “And who is it under attack from? The supposedly leftwing media.”

Smith, a former mechanic and self-described “working stiff” turned librarian, is clearly an interested party, but he may have a point. In January, Ford followed GM and Chrysler in eliminating one of the UAW’s most jealously guarded perks, the “jobs bank”, which allows workers whose services are not needed to receive pay by doing course work, community service or – in some cases – just showing up and watching TV. I duly recorded this in a story for this newspaper, and found myself silently cheering the move, one of the conditions of the bail-out. Then I tuned into the news on Detroit’s local Channel 4 station, and listened to an auto-worker pointing out that many people at his shuttered plant were paying their grocery bills and mortgages from their jobs bank money, and did not know how they would replace the income.

The travails of Detroit (via Beyond the Beyond)

(Image: Detroit Disgrace, a Creative Commons Attribution photo from Extremeezine's Flickr stream, courtesy


  1. Having spent half my life in the city and surrounding suburbs of Detroit, I can tell you that this article gets a lot of things wrong. It’s easy to forgive a foreigner for not seeing how many of the trends he’s identifying have been around for decades. The article insinuates that the exodus of middle-class black families is a recent occurrence. Not from what I experienced. Ambivalence to violence and crime is also a old, old problem at this point the game. I don’t think I would have flinched at the news story about the human hockey net if I was still living there, watching local TV.

    If Detroit is the canary in the coal mine for America’s cities, then one only has to look to Mexico to see the egg that canary hatched from. Rampant government corruption and a citizenry cursed with toxic narcissism are at the heart of many of Detroit’s current problems.

    Those trying to do good and save the city are the true minority in Detroit. A very real tragedy.

  2. It’s not the archetypal “greedy auto worker” people are upset about. It’s that unions made many things less efficient, by, say, prohibiting robots in auto factories. It was fine in boom times, but when people don’t have the surplus cash to pay for the premium associated with American goods manufactured inefficiently, it fails. People are ticked off that the unions ran the city for decades, and what do we have to show for it? A defunct industry asking for tons in bailouts, failing schools, and corrupt cities.

  3. we do not have to drive vehicles, we choose to drive them.

    Make all the excuses you like, bottom line is you do not NEED to drive.

  4. I’ve often wondered what proportion of the costs of an automobile come from labor — in steel, at its US unionized heyday, cost of labor contributed something like 5% of the total cost of the product (and that was paying high middle-class wages and providing pensions and benefits that were the pride of the nation). That means the wages could have gone up a further 20% and that the steel would only have cost 1% more to make up for it.

    I’ve heard similar things about unionized trades in the film industry, who are often characterized as earning unrealistically high wages. In your typical $100MM-$200MM movie, what fraction of the total costs come from labor?

    It reminds me of the debate over fairtrade coffee. Making a Starbucks coffee fairtrade changes the cost of selling it by less than a cent, because the cost of labor for the coffee pickers is a nearly invisible proportion of the total cost of the coffee by the time it gets into your hands.

    When we debate about wages and goods, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for many categories of high tech or heavily processed goods, labor — even well-compensated labor — hardly contributes to the overall cost of the product or service.

  5. who are we kidding – the problems are corruption and tremendous mismanagement.

    All things usually go well – bad people are just very good at fucking things up.

  6. @#3

    We need to drive – unless you want to break up our western urbanized living into village sized farming communities then yes – we have to drive.

    Try telling someone who lives in Prince George B.C that he doesn’t need to drive to get goods.

    What we need are cars we can still fix in our own garages.

  7. Lets see:

    Abusive income and property taxes : check
    Insulting legislation : check
    Sissy fight between unions and companies : check
    Out of control crime rate (well before everyone left): check
    Apologists that refuse to see the damage done by the protectionist policies of both the Unions AND the Companies.

    Union workers that either won’t or can’t re-train.: check. There is no excuse for this. NONE.
    I’m re-training out of the dead IT admin industry (getting tired of only being paid $9 – $12 /hour to fix servers with no over time and no benefits and being completely expendable as soon as the economy goes to crap).

    Manufacturing dead in America? Has your industry moved to countries where slave labor is normal? Do something else, anything else. Mop floors, fix cars, learn to be a male nurse, male OBGYN, ambulance driver (please don’t drink and drive as that seems to be a chronic problem in Charleston, SC), and well anything else. Can’t drive to college, try online colleges. Can’t pay for college, try financial aid (college loans, re-training scholarships). Go to the financial aid office in any college and find out when the deadlines are (do this at least a semester in advance as its usually 6 months before the semester starts).

  8. Yeah, I saw Robocop.

    Detroit has stood as an flagship for American destructability since the 80’s.

  9. Re: Myself
    Though there is parallelism in there — one team painting fenders while another assembles engines, for example. Probably the better calculation is to divide total number of cars produced/year by number of workers.

  10. I really enjoyed the article. I have friends from Detroit who are still trying to make a difference there, one of whom has had to declare bankruptcy because of the housing market fiasco. Giving up hope is the surest way to guarantee that you won’t accomplish anything.

    Of course, any article that mentions Hamtramck (see The Stars My Destination for pronunciation help) gets major points in my book.

    I hope I will get to see what Detroit looks like in 20 years. It may surprise some of the cynics here. You can always come up with a story that blames some group of fuckers who is not you for the bad things that have happened. It doesn’t matter – what matters is what you do now.

  11. I know nothing about Detroit, but it is obvious that nobody wants to fix the problem, or even cares what the problem is. Everybody just wants to restore their source of income. Some people don’t even know what the source of their income was. “Rust belt” is a good name; Detroit is not dying in a crash, it’s falling apart one flake at a time.

  12. Rivethead is a great description and memoir of life on the line in good times and bad. Remarkable and honest. Management don’t come out of it well, but neither do the line workers and unions. (I see from Wikipedia that the author went on to work with Michael Moore, which is interesting; it’s 15 years since I read the book, but I don’t recall any Moore-style, uh, didacticism. )

  13. Refreshingly, he puts some effort into puncturing the myth of the greedy auto-worker as the author of Detroit’s destruction.

    I thought the author of Detroit’s destruction was the fact that they could not build a decent, reliable, economic car to save their lives.

  14. Whenever I think of Detroit, I’m reminded of the subtext of Orwell’s 1984. If you live in Detroit, you are not vulnerable to a certain type of ‘pride’ which is really just smug misattribution. You know the city is the butt of jokes, you know everyone thinks it’s the dirtiest, most crime-ridden place on earth, and so ultimately you don’t care. In a weird sort of way, this frees you from the shackles of ‘appearances’ so you can do your own thing.

    New music is always coming from Detroit, and the rest of their arts community is strong too. So are you sure you want to be a (republican) party member, or would you rather be a prole(tariat)?

  15. I’ve often wondered what proportion of the costs of an automobile come from labor — in steel, at its US unionized heyday, cost of labor contributed something like 5% of the total cost of the product (and that was paying high middle-class wages and providing pensions and benefits that were the pride of the nation). That means the wages could have gone up a further 20% and that the steel would only have cost 1% more to make up for it.

    When we debate about wages and goods, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for many categories of high tech or heavily processed goods, labor — even well-compensated labor — hardly contributes to the overall cost of the product or service.

    I’m skeptical of this claim by considering the question this way: What percentage of a firm’s operating cost does payroll consist of?

    A quick googling turned up this 1997 Economic Census:

    Retail Trade:
    Payroll in the retail industry made up 46 percent of operating expenses in 1997, with an additional 8 percent for fringe benefits, 9 percent for rent and 6 percent for advertising services.

    Merchant Wholesale:
    Payroll made up 45 percent of all 1997 expenses, fringe benefits, 8 percent, rent and depreciation, about 5 percent each.

    Service Industries:
    Payroll comprised 51 percent of their total expenses; fringe benefits, 10 percent; and depreciation, 4 percent.

    Clearly this isn’t directly comparable, but there’s also something fishy about couching labor as only 5% of the cost of the product. My hunch is either that’s leaving out a lot of “labor” (the aforementioned design, sales, management, accounting, etc.), or 5% only sounds like a small number because cars are so expensive*. (e.g. 3% genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees)

  16. It always amazes me that people are willing to chime in on topics that they’ve spent no more than a fleeting moment thinking about, let alone researching.

    So since this isn’t a serious discussion:

    “prohibiting robots in auto factories” – yes, cars manufactured by GM, Ford and Chrysler are all hand built.

    “Robocop” – largely filmed in Dallas (intro helicopter title scene was Detroit)

    “I know nothing about Detroit” – you should have stopped there

    To the remainder of the blame throwing – Go back to high school economics. You can’t pin the current situation on one group, or event. And it’s not all bad without good. But then you’d know that if you knew anything about Detroit.

    Thanks Cory

  17. Make all the excuses you like, bottom line is you do not NEED to drive.

    You also don’t need to use a computer, a device whose manufacture and three year lifespan will consume 2.66 barrels of oil, and whose disposal will create toxic waste.

    And yet, here you are on the internet. What excuse for using a computer would you be making that comes off as superior to any excuse a person would make for driving a car?

  18. It’s a good story. Wrong in some ways, as noted above, but still, at least an attempt to be balanced.

    I live here. I find it very odd to compare the ‘truth’ I was raised on as an anti-union conservative to the ‘reality’ of the situation here.

    People who want to see the US automotive industry fail need to check themselves – their hated is personal, and personal isn’t going to do any of us any good.

    I think that most people who want to see GM, Ford, and Chrysler fail are simply mad at the 1973 Chevy Vega they bought back in the day.

  19. Last year I had to move to the East Coast after spending my life in the Detroit area.
    The article is correct when it states that the rest of the country is now experiencing what has been going on since 2001.
    In the past few years Michigan and Mississippi have been trading spots for the highest unemployment rate.
    I didn’t work in the auto industry, I worked at the HQ for Kmart in Troy, MI. The crooked CEO bankrupted a weak company. The 3500 jobs vanished in a flash and were sent to Chicago when Sears took over.
    The auto suppliers are dropping like flies. Stephenson Hwy. is a graveyard of empty shops and office buildings.
    In the city, bad news has been coming for decades. I give credit to the business owners that are surviving, I know a few. They are smarter than I am. I had to file for bankrupcty in 2006 and then move out of state to feed myself and not become homeless.
    As I tell people: It took a long time to get to this point and it will take a long time to get back.

    Oh, Hamtramck is pronounced just as it looks ham-tram-ik. He was a revolutionary war general.
    The heart of the rock music scene is in Hamtramck.

  20. Detroit earned it’s reputation in the 70’s and 80’s, but it’s not the same city as then. That’s both good and bad.

    Detroit’s population has plummeted, but they’re actually all still there. Everyone lives in the suburbs now. We’re talking monstrous suburbs here. Non-Detroiters don’t realize this; they just see the population fall and doom photos on the net. What they don’t see are cities that were doing quite well before the economy collapsed. Cities like Troy, Shelby, Rochester, Sterling Heights. These are fairly large cities, and you will see about 5 of them on CNN Money’s top 100 places to live in the U.S., with Troy at #22.

    Though these residents may live in Troy or wherever, they generally just say they are from Detroit. I guess what I’m saying is that the metro area is still pretty frickin large, and it’s not all doom and gloom like the city of Detroit is.

    Anyways, Detroit’s Mayor from 1974 to 1993 was Coleman Young, and he bred racial hatred. The infamous 8 Mile Road separated Detroit from the inner suburbs and was labeled by locals as Coleman Young Way; because he wanted all the whites out of his city. And he got what he wanted: whites moved out of the city in droves.

    When Coleman Young was finally replaced as mayor, Detroit had some hope. Dennis Archer came in and started to make a difference. Now, you can’t turn a city around in a few years, and he wasn’t perfect, but he made a considerable effort to make the changes.

    I saw the good Archer did first hand. He began cleaning up the city, both literally and figuratively. Many downtown areas were cleaned up and redone. Museum districts got facelifts. Everyone was excited because they thought the city was going in a new, and prosperous direction.

    Instead of spending time spreading hate, he made the effort to mend the relationship of the city and the suburbs.

    When his term was up in 2001, Kwame Kilpatrick was voted in as Mayor. Touted as the first hip-hop mayor, he tore the city apart. I’m sure most of you have heard of him due to the troubles he had last year. But his troubles started the year he was in office when he threw a party at the mayors office that includes strippers (long story short, a stripper that his wife attacked out of jealously was later found murdered).

    Detroit’s first hip-hop mayor destroyed everything that Archer started. He had a chance to finish the job and make Detroit a great city, but spent it on entourages, strippers and partying at the taxpayers expense.

    And the worst offense that I still can not comprehend: he was voted in for a second term.

    It’s really a sad story.

    I wish people knew more about this city than just “Robocop took place in Detroit” and “Stupid auto companies and unions.”

    It really was a great interesting city at one point. And hopefully it will be again.

    Sorry for a not-so-complete recent history from just a local, but you would feel sad to if this happened to the city you once loved.

  21. As a lifelong Michigan resident and a 14-year metro-area resident, I can attest to the same things others in/from the area are saying. This area has suffered from a declining/changing industry for a long time (a lot longer than 10 years, I dare say) and although some things are helping (Compuware moving downtown, Casino and Riverwalk development, Henry Ford Hospitals, Karmanos Cancer Institute, Comerica Park and Ford Field) there needs to be a lot more. Detroit still lacks a truly compelling downtown to draw/keep residents in the city (and this has been the case for at least 20 years — more like 40). The worst hit areas in this crisis appear to me to be actually outside the city — the ‘wealthy’ suburbs that prospered from the flight from downtown and the industries that followed the flight. From a loss of jobs point of view, the auto-supplier industry (which has its own myriad problems outside of just labor) is probably the most directly affected (based on the number of friends/acquaintances out of work). Note that this isn’t just union labor either, a lot of these people are BS- and MS-holding engineers.

  22. Detroit’s fate has nothing to do with the auto industry and everything to do with the racism. When both primary races in a city are determined to destroy it, it doesn’t have much chance.

  23. Detroit is hardly unique, although it’s the most current.

    I grew up in Kingston, NY. For over a hundred years, it’s been a boom-bust town. First it was the cement industry. Then the brick. Then it was IBM’s town. Then IBM left. That was the bust I grew up during, and really- the town went to hell. It’s just working its way back up, but this time the boom is retail- Kingston’s now surrounded by miles of strip malls and shopping plazas. I predict another bust will arrive soon.

    The first apartment I got on my own was in Troy, NY. Troy is a quaint little post-Victorian economic apocalypse. The city was all but owned by GE at one point. They had company housing where the employees could live, all that stuff. And then GE left, and Troy collapsed into a 30 year decline that they’re just starting to recover from.

    Years later, I move to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s still on the upward swing from the collapse of the steel industry. Pittsburgh, more than any place else, is one potential future for Detroit. There’s no “boom” it Pittsburgh- we mostly missed the housing boom (house prices have dropped a few percent, but they never got ridiculously inflated, the number of foreclosures has spiked, but again- it’s not a lot). There’s a bit of a banking boom, but they’re mostly smaller banks. Bit of a health care boom, but… well, people always need health care. My employer (a Pittsburgh institution) is doing the desert flower routine while the economy goes to crap and keeps sending out emails along the lines of, “Hey, we’ve done this before. Lots of times. So relax, hold on, and let’s see how we can avoid layoffs.”

  24. It really was a great interesting city at one point. And hopefully it will be again.

    What about the cities that no one has ever heard of yet, because they haven’t been built, because they’re the future site for biotech, or nanotech, or some other futuretech?

    Just because a city was important in the past, why should it be forever onward? Why not strive to bring back the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan? Or the Mayan city states? Or the ancient Sumerian cities?

    Maybe cities such as Detroit and New Orleans should die, as relics of the past that are no longer relevant.

    1. it’s called infrastructure. it doesn’t make sense to make a new city in the desert (although Las Vegas did it this way).

  25. And maybe Zuzu, in the dying, there is a future of sorts for them as nature reclaims them and as-yet-unknown ecologies form. I’d love to visit what was once a thriving 20th century manufacturing town 50 years after the last citizens left and the animals and plants have begun to creep back in.

  26. #3 you are wrong. Maybe if a large metro city you can choose to not drive but the way American and its cities are laid out does force people to drive.

    No one thing cause the crap in Detroit. White Flight caused part, Relying too much on one business sector didn’t help. Corruption and Fear would be the things I’d say cause the problem Detroit is in.

    Look at “Roger and Me” that city has been in a bad way for a long long time. Cleveland has been able to fix itself up somehow Detroit could if they had the right people in charge and sought improvement for the city before what they they could get for themeselves.

  27. Manufacturing dead in America? Has your industry moved to countries where slave labor is normal? Do something else, anything else. Mop floors, fix cars, learn to be a male nurse, male OBGYN, ambulance driver (please don’t drink and drive as that seems to be a chronic problem in Charleston, SC), and well anything else.

    I would certainly avoid the healthcare industry at this point – the healthcare bubble will be the next huge bubble to burst, and it won’t be pretty. In the U.P., which has been economically depressed since about 1910, all the big new buildings are hospitals and medical centers. All built on money earned (or future earnings anticipated) from doctors prescribing MRIs for head colds.

    The healthcare industry in the US is even less sustainable than all of us buying overpriced crap cars.

    ‘Course, you won’t hear about the healthcare bubble on TV until it gets really bad.

  28. Perhaps you have never seen Asbury Park, NJ. It was deserted while Detroit was still alive. The downtown was pretty much destroyed/abandoned in the late 1960’s, and it became a ghost town and squatter haven, which is not something one expects from oceanfront real estate.

  29. when it comes down to it, all costs are either someone’s wages or profits — for someone.

    Raw materials are wrenched from the ground by labor, turned into steel and plastics and ceramics by labor, using machines made by labor, and so on.

    While we make a great deal about the various costs of goods, just remember: somewhere, those costs are ultimately either paying someone’s salary, or going into someone’s pockets.

    I think a lot of what’s going on is yet another cycle of labor realizing that the majority of cash is going into the pockets of the rent-seeking upper class, and we’re experiencing the fallout as the upper class slashes jobs, undermines the political system, and in short does everything it can to increase its advantage while putting off for as long as possible the backlash.

  30. You can say what you want about the fall of Big Industry but from those ashes are rising some amazing creative communities.

    The best example is the Russell Industrial Center. It was built in the 20’s and has been a hulk for the last 20 years but it has morphed into the hub of a rapidly growing arts community. Everything from Small foundry casting to woodworking, recording studios, and a video production community involved in the promotion or urban farming.

    This is what should rise from industrial decay. It should work like compost in a garden to provide resources for fertile minds.

    Check out their site <>

  31. I live in downtown Detroit and am pleased to report that the future doesn’t have to be as bad as it looks. The people in my neighborhood live here on purpose because they’re passionate or stubborn, and it makes for a great eclectic community against the “sci-fi” backdrop.

    Most of the bad stuff written about the city is true. The population will continue to decline and the physical environment will continue to vanish. And I don’t blame a soul for wanting to move away. But the city is rewarding in many subtle and unexpected ways once one has some time to explore and make some connections in it. I think there are many, many people living here who work to make it “come back”, even though it will never come back as a measure of what it was half a century ago.

    My neighborhood is at the very earliest stages of returning to farming, believe it or not, which is what it was in the 1800s anyway. Now I can buy produce or eggs from my neighbors, and get an incredible salad half-composed of city-grown vegetables at the local cafe. The reputation of higher crime in the city causes people on my street to be nosier and watch out for one another, which has the remarkable benefit of making the neighborhood more humane than the suburban neighborhoods I’ve lived in before.

    The downside of the slope can be as enjoyable as the upside. Keep that in mind, Rest of America, when the mall closes and there’s no money to repair the roads and half of the houses on your street must be torn down. None of this really matters as long as you’re happy.

  32. Yeah blackanvil, someone should write a book about the exploitation of Labor by Capital and how it leads to an inevitable crash.

  33. @TinaB, Actually last time I was in asbury park it was on the upswing. I heard a lot of younger gay couples were moving into it and classing the place up. The same thing happened in Ocean Grove NJ, and now that place is really nice.

  34. Detroit is relevant for how it got to this point (mismanagement, poor land use, excessive automotive focus, racism, etc. as outlined above).

    But it’s more interesting as a case for what happens NEXT.

    Detroit has been in a down cycle for 27 years (since the Reagan-era recession) and in a steep decline for 8.

    Here are some areas that people here are messing with in a very sci-fi time of experimentation and figuring out as you go:

    * land use. The metro area has vast stretches of abandoned space. Artists usually take up low income areas, but here we’re talking about *square miles* of abandonment. Urban forests, massive squatting, and city gardening are already happening.

    * planning. When things are really bad, you can get people into conversations that wouldn’t happen before. Unlike most sane places, Detroit-area governments all have their own budgets so have rarely cooperated on big ticket items. Now’s a good time to cut deals on water (Detroit has the largest public water system in the world – to serve its giant breadth.)

    * art. You can build a big art project that would be impossible in any other city. (See and others) Detroit still has a better music scene than even the most coolest cities… check out You can film really cool sci-fi movies here on no budget.

  35. The last time I was in Detroit (my aunt-in-law lives there), it struck me that a big difference between Detroit and my home town Ã…rhus in Denmark is whether it is a monoculture or there is a healthy undergrowth of small companies. A number of big cities in the US have bent over a lot to get the big companies to come to town, including giving them tax cuts and special allowances. This leaves them very vulnerable to the death/moving of such companies. In Ã…rhus, there are many small companies in many fields, and progressively fewer large companies, and I doubt any single company makes up more than 5% of the total company taxes of the city. Very resilient to changes.

    I wish I could say the same of my company, alas we get a significant chunk of our income from one customer. Dangerous.

    As for having to drive: You only “have to drive” because you made your cities that way. Around here, cars are optional for everyday living, as everything can be accessed by public transit or by bike, even from the suburbs. We don’t have a car, but occasionally borrows one if we are to go far or have to schlep stuff. I like it that way, and being like that would be a top priority for where I would want to live if we were to move back to the US.

  36. #18–I’m laughing at the “1973 Chevy Vega” remark, as my Dad–who had an unerring ability to choose bogus technology–proudly bought a Vega that turned out to have an aluminum engine (if I’m remembering right) which went south in a hurry.

    Now my partner and I drive Hondas, and I’m guessing that the Vega experience has something to do with it. Unfortunately, I really doubt there’s anything that could get me to buy an American car; it would certainly take consistent excellence.

  37. I was really pleased to see the “greedy auto worker” myth addressed on BB, as well as the reality-check on the percentage of cost that labor comprises. I thought that the heavily-spun “$72/hour wage” figure being trumpeted in the MSM was a despicable attempt to lay a disproportionate amount of blame for the auto industry’s predicament on the working class. We have a running joke on our automotive forums about how the “fatcat” union workers are to blame for all of life’s woes.

    Great closing paragraph, Hunchentoot :)

  38. I’d love to see any one of you anti-union savants try a full 8 hour shift at a plant. I bet you wouldn’t last the day let alone a week. Where do you think the concepts of a safe working environment, the 40 hour work week, the weekend, and company-paid health care came from? It came from our fathers and mothers standing on the line and standing up for their rights and benefits which became your rights and benefits. Until you’ve stood on the line you have no idea what you’re talking about. Until you have obtained a degree in business and economics specializing in international supply chain manufacturing, you have no idea what you’re talking about. STFU.

    At least you can no longer say it is the union bringing down the Detroit companies, right? I mean it was the UAW that put Toyota in the worst financial position in 70+ years? What, No? STFU.

  39. #4 Cory: If you’re still looking for that answer, 10 – 11% of car manufacturing cost is labor. This according to a UAW guy I heard interviewed on the radio couple months ago.

  40. I just spent a bunch of money (mostly on beer) at the Hamtramck Blowout this weekend. Four days, two hundred bands. There’s a huge music/art scene in the Detroit area, and lots of great popular venues. The bars we went to were packed. I overheard someone comment that there were “way more people than last year.”

    You have the Electronic Music Festival (aka Movement) in May which attracts people from all over the world.

    There’s the Comerica Cityfest over the Fourth of July weekend, where the streets in the New Center area are closed off and four stages host a bunch of bands. Local restaurants set up tents where you can sample their foods (for a price, of course).

    Pontiac has a similar festival (Arts, Beats, and Eats) over Labor Day Weekend.

    Sure, Detroit may be in decay, but there are lots of young people here who like art, music, and alcohol, and have the money to spend. I encourage those of you who have never been to come experience the city during one of these festivals. You’ll see a different side of Detroit from what you normally see in the headlines.

    On a side note, for those of you interested in this sort of thing, I’ve spent hours and hours scouring the pictures on They document a lot of the major abandoned buildings and those that have since been demolished. Great website.

  41. This is not new. Detroit’s been in this shape for longer than I’ve been alive. A lot of people spend a lot of time pointing fingers of blame at who or what allowed this city to be turned into the laughing stock / post-apocalyptic wasteland that it is. A smaller number of smarter people are looking at buildings and land which are there for the taking and are actually doing things.

    General Motors didn’t build Detroit, Detroit built General Motors.

  42. I’d say ‘innovate or die’ is a pretty good summary for both Detroit and the Auto Industry.

  43. A friend of mine in Detroit was recently laid-off from his job at GM. He has three teenage kids to support, and doesn’t know where he’ll find another job.

    @3 – You’re probably just trolling, but I can’t see something that banal and not respond to it.

    How do you suppose ~98% of everything you own came to be within your grasp? What about emergency services and their response times? What about making it easier to expand society’s borders, feed everyone and gather the supplies to build adequate homes at a reasonable pace?

    Yes, we do need to drive. If you still don’t get it, then do us all a favor and move out to the Canadian wilderness for a few years. Show us how it’s done, man. Come on.

  44. I’d like to place a bid for Liverpool being an earlier example of this – a city that was built entirely on the back of an industry because it was in the right place, but now has no real purpose; if you wanted to build a city today, you wouldn’t put it there.

    The problem is that Liverpool has also had its cultural renaissance as well, so it doesn’t even have that to look forward to :)

    And now it is gradually settling down to become a city of maybe two-thirds to half of the size it once was. But the process has been (and still is) intensely traumatic.

  45. Try googling “the fabulous ruins of detroit”

    I remember being fascinated by this 9 years ago.

  46. My dude and I have made several overnight trips to Detroit from Toronto; just for kicks! It really is an experience one should take in. We first stayed down town in a hotel directly across from an abandonned sky scraper. We were in awe of the ghostly buildings that surronded us, but were pleased to see that the suburbanites were out in droves in the downtown club district.

    When there you MUST have BBQ at the best place for BBQ North of the South. It’s called “Slows” and its just across from the abandonned Michigan Central station (featured in a chase scene in the Transformers movie).

    There really is a long list of things to see and do in Detroit as a visitor:

    -Henry Ford Museum
    -Punk Rock Bowling at “The Stick”
    -White Castle! (OK not for everyone tastes, we’re sort of fast food connoisseurs)
    -Mexico Town
    -Heidleburg Project
    -The People Mover
    -and probably a host of other things that only Locals would be able to tell you about. So, make some friends while your there! When we tell folks were there to see their city, usually they respond witha big smile of disbelief.

    (Just be sure you have a car.)

  47. @52 : The People Mover?

    I hope you’re joking.

    For those who don’t know, The People Mover is a little joke of a train that goes in a circle so small that you can walk to where you’re going faster than the people mover can take you there. They built it in 1984 or thereabouts and about a hundred people have ridden it since opening day. The only maintenance ever pulled on The People Mover is to put giant ads on the cars because the city loses a small fortune every day because no one rides it. Since there hasn’t been any maintenance on it in 20 years or so it sounds like Nazgul riding over downtown and shakes so much that it would loosen any surgical screws you might have in your body.

    That being said, I’m glad that you like Detroit enough to leave Toronto to visit. The other things you mentioned are quite nice. If you’re a fast-food connoisseur then next time check out the Coney Island on Grand River just NW of MLK & Trumbull. They serve a “fish dog”, which is a fish stick in a bun with tartar sauce on it. MMMMMMM.

  48. I almost never read all of the comments to an article but this thread was worth the time.
    Thank you, Cory. And thanks for those who have stood up for our city. You’ll find a lot of things in Detroit, but very little attitude. Nice, humble people who work hard for their success and appreciate what they have. Maybe the rest of the country would benefit from some of that.

  49. @#32,

    Come around more often, Blackanvil — you’ve got long eyes.


    Why so snide, Noen? Go argue with Zuzu.

  50. There’s something weirdly amusing about the stories of people slumming in detroit or east/west coast journalists being airlifted in to “report” as if it were a war zone. Um, hello! People do actually live in Detroit. Literate ones, even. :-)

    Also, it’s true–Ann Arbor is not next door. Ann Arbor is not a Detroit suburb. Ann Arbor can not save Detroit. Ann Arbor can barely save itself.

    Also agreed that corruption is the biggest problem for Detroit (which should not be conflated with the auto industry). Just recently the Detroit school system had to return millions of dollars in grant money from the federal government, because it was “use or lose” and they…forgot to use it. The school board is notoriously corrupt. The city council is notoriously corrupt (and consists nearly entirely of “at large” council members all from Detroit’s *one* nice neighborhood.

    A surprising growth industry for Detroit may be agrictulture. Detroit is built on top of one of the most fertile regions of the US. The soil and climate in the Detroit area are suitable for growing a wide variety of crops. Of course, reclaiming the land for agriculture will come at the cost of remediation for lead and other toxins.

    Other Michigan cities are also hit very hard by the recession. Lansing may be even worse off. I would like to see government bailouts for Michigan and for Detroit, NOT necessarily for the auto industry. Money going into the auto industry does not necessarily come home to Detroit. In fact, it’s a good bet that most of it doesn’t. What could we have done in Michigan with a $37 bn bailout? Amazing things!

  51. Why so snide, Noen? Go argue with Zuzu.

    What most readers may not know is that Noen and I hate-fuck after each argument, like James Carville and Mary Matalin. ;)

  52. It is ludicrous to think that collective bargaining made work less efficient for the giant automakers. Since when is dealing with hundreds of thousands of employees more efficient than deal with the single union that represents them all? By the way, Germany, Japan, and Korea are all heavily unionized.

  53. General Motors didn’t build Detroit, Detroit built General Motors.

    General Motors is the one going bankrupt, right?

  54. Okay ROBULUS, now how do you manage to type > and < without having them thrown out as bad HTML?

  55. As people above have noted (eg Pittsburgh), this is nothing new. Detroit is just the latest example. America has always been fairly good at coping with these upheavals. People fill the U-Haul move across the country and start again. It’s traumatic, sometimes painful, people get hurt but the process of decay and re-generation can be extraordinarily productive.

    But I do wonder what happens when large regions fail (think crop belt dust storms) and significant populations go on the move in this day and age where there’s less room to move into. There’s really no frontier bad lands any more to colonise. So, what happens if the water shortage in the SW gets *really* bad, say? Can the USA actually cope with 50-100 million moving 2000 miles to find a better place to live?

  56. I am an Australian, and I somehow understand that US auto workers have achieved some very comprehensive “health plan” benefits.

    These benefits are obviously factored into the “labour cost” breakdown and are a liability in terms of the global auto market.

    This liability could be easily addressed if the US would just implement a universal heath care system.

  57. It’s true that labor makes up a very small percentage of the cost of a car. The data from decade to decade is conclusive in this. The rest of the cost comes from fixed sources mainly outside the car company: raw materials and parts from contractors. The difference is the UAW wages are the only cost that has some flexibility, so it’s an easy target to come back to over and over.

    The US Auto companies have problems with priorities. They don’t value design and engineering and it shows. There is real competition for engineering jobs in the world, and the Auto companies chose not to play. Also, having worked on both sides of the blue/white collar world at the those companies, I can tell you that the management of American auto companies is more interested in waging war on it’s employees than the competition. Easier to point the finger at anonymous line workers who you’ve spent decades vilifying in the media, than to own up to mistakes in product or realistically evaluating yourself against a Toyota. Because that would point back to strategic management mistakes, and management won’t tolerate that. Now they have the problem of taking government money and certain Senators that have a financial interest in seeing them fail will merrily walk them down the road of the Auto companies’ own rhetoric to failure.

  58. This liability could be easily addressed if the US would just implement a universal heath care system.

    Which then becomes every taxpayor’s liability?
    (The problem is that insurance companies — i.e. banks — have distorted the prices of the medical-industrial complex so that medical cost inflation completely detached price signals from reality. In other words, healthcare is overpriced and thus unaffordable for those of us who actually earn money rather than merely print it.)

    I’m willing to let GM, Chrysler, and Ford fail instead. There’s still Toyota, Honda, VW, BMW, Kia, Volvo, etc. It’s not like the world is running out of car companies; there’s no shortage of cars.

  59. I’ve come to the increasing realization that many of our political and economic problems are the result of our failing to address the decline of the industrial Midwest over the last 30 years. This is a national problem, but largely, we’ve left people to their own devices. And, while we may be talking about Detroit as an example of what is going on in one of the larger cities, things are even worse in the small towns.

    While there are isolated signs of progress in places like Pittsburgh. This is usually the result of folks figuring it out for themselves. This is a national problem that calls for a national response. But, the prevailing ideology for the last 30 years has been to let the region rot and let the people fend for themselves.

    Still, there are signs of progress. Yesterday, the NY Times had an encouraging op-ed about folks taking advantage of the cheap real estate in Detroit to build new communities. Here in Austin, 25 years ago, cheap real estate resulting from the 80s oil bust helped to incubate a now vibrant music and cultural scene and a more diverse economy. There is a chance for something like this to happen in parts of the Midwest. Cleveland might be a good candidate.

  60. I know it was mentioned it the article, but I believe it needs to be highlighted again. $1500 is tacked onto the price of every GM vehicle to cover health care costs for retirees. GM is paying for health care for 3x more people than they currently have on payroll. Should we demonize the Big 3 or unions for trying to take care of their own.

    Foreign auto makers simply don’t have to deal with this problem. Their workers have health insurance as a national birth right. It still amazes me how people love to say “America is the greatest nation in the world”, yet have no answer when you ask them how they could let their fellow citizens die or fall into bankruptcy because they got sick. We have the technology and the capacity to help, but we don’t because “We don’t want the government interfering with my health care”. I simply can’t agree that we’re the greatest nation in the world when we neglect those of us who need the most help.

    Back to the point…Without comprehensive health care reform in this country these companies(and many others not in the auto industry) will fail, with or without a bail out. When industry has to subsidize an entire nations health care, and they have to pass that cost on to consumers, there is NO way to compete in a global economy against others who don’t have this problem. The only companies that will be able to compete are ones who aren’t burdened with health care obligations.

    These $72/hr union worker numbers you here pushed around in the media are a joke. That number includes the cost of retiree health care. Let the nation as a whole carry the burden of the cost of health care, instead of bankrupting the families and companies that USED to be able to afford it.

  61. I’m willing to let GM, Chrysler, and Ford fail instead. There’s still Toyota, Honda, VW, BMW, Kia, Volvo, etc. It’s not like the world is running out of car companies; there’s no shortage of cars.

    Can’t let that one pass, ZUZU. That’s harsh, cold hearted and unnecessary.

  62. RE: People Mover

    What you may find embarrassing about it is sort of what we found fascinating. The bonus was that it was only 50 cents a ride.

  63. @#9 about 16-30 hours labor to assemble a car. Average wage is about $30/hr. So percentage of the price that pays the folks on the assembly line isn’t huge.

    That’s not how you calculate cost of labor, especially in this context. First, doesn’t prorate worker salary against utilization (noone works 100% of the time, but they still get paid for that). Doesn’t cover loaded costs like benefits. Doesn’t cover overhead expenses like managers and administration. And, for union shops, doesn’t count the cost of the kick-ins that the company has to pay in to support the unions (shop stewards and no work “job banks” don’t pay for themselves).

    That’s not to say labor is a majority of the cost of the finished goods, but it’s a lot higher than implied here.

  64. People need to stop talking about an industry they don’t understand. The auto industry or any manufacturing industry in America can not and should not be compared to foreign industries. Our CEO, managers, etc.. don’t give a damn about they’re company. Foreign work take pride in their companies. Foreign work also don’t get paid as much and the foreign governments help their industries more America is forced to work in markets that are not friendly to it’s products. We as American allow anybody to sell us stuff just as long as it’s cheap. Also no industry in America is allow to say another industry is corrupt or mismanage or screwing themselves up because kettle is calling the pot black. Wall showed us even upper class people fuck up shit too. Just when they fuck up they take as many people with them as they can.

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