Richard Florida's Detroit Is Still Bankrupt, But Also Fantastic In Every Way

July 24, 2013, 6:40 AM

Jane Jacobs was to urbanism what St. Thomas Aquinas was to theology. Jacobs provided urbanism, just as Aquinas did for Catholicism, a fresh intellectual rigor. Her work gave the world the idea that cities are the fundamental economic and social construct of civilization. 

With that comparison in mind, Richard Florida is to Jacobs as Robert Tilton (aka "the farting preacher") is to Aquinas. Florida preaches feel-good urbanism, a prosperity hustle for materially comfortable, city-dwelling believers seeking validation for their worldview. 

Florida's column about Detroit's bankruptcy for Atlantic Cities surely won't disappoint the faithful.

He starts by dismissing national concern -- called "panic" -- over Detroit's situation by assigning such feelings to polemic ideologues like Charles Krauthammer and Michael Moore. Reasonable, serious participants in the Schlesingerian vital center -- thoughtful academics and progressive businessmen -- understand the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is nothing to panic over. 

At which point, Florida explains the inevitability of Detroit's bankruptcy with a reasonably fair historical analysis that paints a picture of Detroit that should cause concern. However, the reader is lead to believe, such history doesn't alarm Richard Florida. 

Yoo Hoo, Don't Forget the Comeback 

The real problem isn't the insolvent city government that can't provide basic services, it's the more important story about a comeback the bankruptcy story ignores.

Atlantic Cities: Detroit's problems surely run deep. But beneath its fiscal problems, and all the hemming and hawing about them, lie the seeds of rebirth for the city and the broader metro region. Since the economic crisis, and perhaps somewhat before it, the first signs of recovery and revitalization, modest as they may be, are finally starting to surface.

As I've written here on Cities, Detroit's downtown urban core is seeing more investment, economic activity and an influx of talent than it has in decades. This revitalization is concentrated and spotty and it is far from inclusive, but it is certainly something positive, generating jobs, revenue and much-needed hope and optimism that provide a foundation to build upon. 

Get that? If you're worried about Detroit's nearly one-hour police response time or that the only way to improve service could involve gutting retiree pensions, then you're "hemming and hawing" instead of helping sow the seeds of rebirth!

This trope about rebirth, often explained by the title of minor Dickens popular in schools, is purely magical thinking. The dollars and man hours just aren't there. According to the Free Press' Susan Tompor, metro Detroit lost 300,000 jobs in the last recession. As of March, we've reclaimed only about 75,000. 

That Ain't Happening, Dick

What's the best-case scenario for Detroit's entrepreneurial scene? Another Facebook-type company? Currently that paragon of tech success employs 4,900 people. Even if an equally robust success locally was in Detroit, and even if we assumed it would generate enough economic activity to indirectly create an additional 50,000 jobs, this fancifully rosy scenario still leaves us short 170,000 jobs.

Are we hoping for like five Facebooks? Cause that ain't happening, Dick.

And, by the way, that's ok. No one can fault tech entrepreneurs for looking to make their thing happen, even if the solutionist ethos can be grating. The problem lays with the rest of us expecting small-scale entrepreneurs to revive this massive economy, previously built around muscle labor, as if by magic.

So we have some tech entrepreneurs now. Fine. We also need like ten other things, things that Sarah Lacey and her friends don't care about. A functional, solvent local government also.

But let's not get lost in the weeds of "reality." Not when there is a narrative to be advanced about bankruptcy as a turning-point for Detroit. Bankruptcy may well be that, but Detroit should actually go through the process before hoisting a Mission Accomplished banner on an aircraft carrier.

Detroit is not the first city on the verge bankruptcy, nor will it be the last. New York's suffered near-bankruptcy in 1975 and has recovered in ways few could have imagined at the time. Orange County, California, also recovered after suffering the nation's third-largest municipal bankruptcy to date in 1994.

Again With The Creative Class

Despite New York City's and Orange County's financial troubles, they were still New York City and Orange County.

New York's finance and banking industry produces growing amounts of wealth for the people in them. Detroit's former wealth production engine, the manufacturing economy, hasn't been adequately replaced.

Orange County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the country, went through bankruptcy because its treasurer made some loopy investments. The O.C. (don't call it that) never had the underlying issues like depopulation, structural unemployment and the concentration of poverty Detroit is facing.

There are substantial concentrations of talent: about 34.5 percent of the entire metro area's workers are members of the creative class, slightly above the national average. Its older suburbs like Birmingham, Royal Oak and Ferndale – which stand as textbook examples of mixed-used walkable communities – have concentrations of of talent and human capital that rival creative centers like San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Boston.

Birmingham, Royal Oak and Ferndale (combined population just under 100,000 or about 2% of metro Detroit) have concentrations of "talent and human capital" rivaling San Francisco (population 812,000) or Boston (population 625,000)? Really?

It's like, let's pretend the only things that exist or matter in Metro Detroit are BirmOakDale and MidCorkDown. Sure, that effectively leave a MSA of under 150,000 people but it will be so perfect and glorious and creative classish -- a living J. Crew catalog, but with way more entrepreneurial-ness -- that no one will mind!

Atlantic: Investment in the central business district is important, but it cannot succeed as essentially a gated city – a cluster of advantage and reinvestment walled off from adjacent areas of disadvantage, decline and despair. Bankruptcy makes it impossible to continue to ignore the widening gulf between the city's haves and have-nots, its areas of concentrated advantage and concentrated disadvantage.

Well, that's what I'm talking about. Tell me Richard Florida, how do we address these issues?

Atlantic: The region is already taking some steps in this direction. The Kresge Foundation's $150 million Detroit Future City initiative provides a broad strategic framework to strengthen and rebuild disadvantaged neighborhoods, create jobs and spur a new model of development across the city. 

Oh dear God in heaven, Detroit Future City. Seriously? We may as well try some miracle anointing oil.

No offense to the fine folks at Kresge. No doubt they'll spend that $150M in productive ways to help the city, but the endeavor formally known as the Detroit Works Project is . . . well, here's what it isn't: The comprehensive re-imagining of the city's land-use strategy initially promised. Given what's it's become and the way it's perceived by so many Detroiters, it's hard to believe DFC will be the model for a "new urban compact" Florida believes is so vital to building a new and better urban tomorrow.

Also, Detroiters don't really need a new urban compact. Detroiters need stable neighborhoods, effective policing, and efficient bus systems provided by a competent local government. The only people who need new urban compacts are the consultants who draft them and the art directors lay them out in tasteful booklets with elegant fonts. 

Of course, who do you think is likely reading Richard Florida's stuff? The consultant/designer set or Detroiters?


Can I get an amen!

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