All-American Detroit

By James Fallows

A reader who grew up on the East Coast, went to college at U Michigan, and now lives on the West Coast writes about the Detroit bankruptcy news:

My only connection to Detroit was as a student in Ann Arbor - 40 miles west of the city, and attending school with a lot of kids who had grown up in its suburbs, and some who had grown up in the city itself. And because of that, I grew to love the city. I was aware of the urban blight, but it wasn't as in my face as for those who'd grown up with it. Instead my experiences were were heading downtown for a festival, a ballgame or a show. I saw the autoshow. I partied in Greektown. I saw Belle Isle during the day. Once we did a service trip to the Gratiot corridor to teach some kids about STEM and make it "cool" for them. And that's about it.
 
So I'm not a Detroiter. But I can't help but love Detroit. Part of that is that I've always loved cars, and Detroit will always be the Motor City. But also, it does feel like an exaggeration of America - from its beginnings as a frontier outpost, to its rise as a very provincial, western city in the Gilded Age, to its explosion as the Motor City and the birthplace of the industrial middle class in the early 20th century, to its long, sad, slow racially-charged decline during the Cold War that saw its suburbs prosper, and its inability to change with the new world order over the last decade that saw its urban renewal feel like - well the perfect caricature of our new Gilded Age.
 
And yet, there is hope. Detroit has begun to reinvent itself, both in the city and in the metro area as a whole. SE Michigan does have a ton of engineers and a high level of R&D dollars being spent. While the bankruptcy is sad, just as GM's bankruptcy on 1 Jun 2009 was, it'll be far sadder if Detroit can't continue to reinvent itself as it has from the darkest days of 2008-9. The bankruptcy is payment for the sins of the past - but this purgatory should lead Detroit on a path to success. There's no reason that Detroit can't mirror what North Carolina's Research Triangle did in the '90s and '00s. And considering how much Detroit has made America look at herself over its history - I think we should all be rooting for the Motor City to rocket forward from here.
 
Not only can I not help but love Detroit - I can't help but believe in that city too.

The "always darkest before the dawn" / "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" creed of plucky bounceback can be overdone. Sometimes what doesn't kill you still cripples you or leaves you doomed and weak. But our national saga has often enough included stories of setback, grit, and recovery that this is a plausible response to the news -- and certainly is a more useful response than despair. "Detroit" the metonym,* which was all but counted out four years ago, now is in much better shape. It is useful to assume that Detroit the physical city could recover too.

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* Ie, as reference for the U.S. auto industry. For explanation of this little inside joke, see the first few paragraphs of my article on Jerry Brown.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/all-american-detroit/277973/