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