Nothing grows to the sky. Trends do end. Case in point: The decades-long decline of Detroit is finally over. But a “Comeback City?” A strong case can be made in its favor.
I came to town in 1984 as a Wall Street Journal reporter and was appalled by the neglect, polarization, blight and irresponsible leadership that characterized the city and the region. I once had to step over a dead rat – a suicide? – on the sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse. Wrongly, I assumed that things couldn’t get much worse.
Thirty years went by. Things did get much worse. Today, the city is broke. A big chunk of the population has fled. Those who’ve remained are sick to death of the racism, race-baiting, crime, political gridlock, labor strife, municipal corruption and other self-defeating behaviors. The Detroit-based auto industry has been humbled.
As a professor of mine used to say: Nothing is stronger than the reversion to the mean. Once you’ve flipped a coin and it comes up tails ten times in a row, chances are still 50 percent that the next flip will be tails. But you wouldn’t be smart to bet that way. Conditions in Detroit finally feel primed for a reversal, a return to what it means to be a normal U.S. city.
The two headline events are Gov. Rick Snyder’s courageous appointment of an Emergency Financial Manager, leading to the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing – and the arrival of Quicken Loans and its 12,000 new jobs downtown. Bankruptcy will wipe the city’s balance sheet clean, allowing Detroit once again to borrow to finance its operations. Once the bankruptcy is settled, the city’s credit worthiness will be one of the strongest in the industrial Midwest.
Quicken, and its founder Dan Gilbert, provide a major engine of economic
growth that draws attention to the opportunity present for anyone who dares to come to city and set up shop. Many deserve credit for helping to set the downtown stage for Gilbert, including Compuware and Mike Ilitch. But Gilbert’s move – no less significant than Henry Ford’s a century earlier – draws worldwide attention to the simple reality that Detroit’s value has sunk so low that smart buyers will notice and start to replace the sellers.
A close third, in terms of important factors, is the election of Mike Duggan as mayor. (If Gilbert is a potential savior for downtown, Duggan is one for the neighborhoods.) While it’s too soon to know how successful the new mayor will be, his mere election ratifies the fact that city residents are ready for change. The election of a white man by a black majority electorate also signifies that preferences and qualifications based on race have run their course. Who would have wagered ten years ago that the country would have a black president and Detroit a white mayor?
Repopulating Detroit is the biggest challenge. The young urban pioneers at Quicken and so many other new places of employment are gravitating toward the authentic urban experience that the city provides. They hold different tastes in music and dress than their parents, they have different attitudes about race and gender – let’s hope that they hold their political leaders to higher standards than their parents did.
Lots can still go wrong. The terms of the bankruptcy are far from settled. Businesses will fail, politicians will disappoint. But the reversion to the mean is happening. Detroit’s comeback feels as though it’s growing stronger every day.