A Detroit business man with immensely deep pockets and an equally deep love for his town, has taken it upon himself to rebuild the blighted heart of that tragic city. Dan Gilbert is putting his money where his heart is, but his project, called Opportunity Detroit, raises both hope and questions.
Does a city without a vibrant center have a future? But is a vibrant center enough to revive a virtually moribund city? What is the relation between the business-dominated core of a city and the largely working class people outside it? More to the point, can even Dan Gilbert save Detroit?
Gilbert is the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, and his story was told in a two-page spread in the New York Times. Basically, it says he’s already pumped $1 billion into buying buildings and other real estate, has a light rail system and other projects in mind and is funding a host of start-ups through his own venture capital firm, all with an aim of bringing business, people and life to the two-square-mile area that is (or was) downtown Detroit.
There are several things to be said about this. First, he’s both fabulously wealthy and fabulously dedicated. This kind of well-heeled focus can make a difference, as we’re seeing in some other recovering cities, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the philanthropic drive of the Van Andel and DeVos families have revived the center of an admittedly much smaller and less damaged city.
Second, city centers do count. Cities can exist with a blighted center: many, such as Cleveland, ticks along on the residual commerce from suburbs. But a truly vibrant city needs a vibrant center, a place where the best minds and biggest money from the urban area – and, increasingly, from around the globe – can come together to build the core of a future. Suburbs, for all their malls and lawns, have never filled this gap.
So good luck to Gilbert. If he succeeds in his two-square-mile project, he will have taken a first step toward bringing Detroit back from the dead.
But only the first step. Detroit needs more, much more. And if Gilbert has any idea where he goes from here, he’s not saying.
As everybody knows, there’s more to Detroit’s plight than an empty downtown. Its one big industry, car-making, has mostly gone away. Its official unemployment rate is over 18%: the unofficial rate is probably two to three times as high. Only one-fourth of the boys in its high schools graduate in four years.
Five to eight thousand homes are abandoned every year: the figure would be higher except the city continues to attract people – the poorest, least educated and most unskilled – because it’s such a cheap place to live.
The latest news from Detroit is the appointment by the state of an emergency manager to run the city. The city’s finances are so far out of control that its democratic-elected government has been stripped of much of its power: no other major American city has fallen so low.
But key to Gilbert’s challenge is the sheer size of the city – 138 square miles. This is big enough to have held 2 million people, which Detroit did in its heyday, and now holds only about one-third as many, 700,000. This means it is a medium-sized city stuck with bills for services for a city three times as large. Much of what’s left is crumbling, ill-served, dangerous, filled with people with no economic present or future. One of Detroit’s major problems is shrinking itself, by turning much of its area into parkland or farmland and concentrating the remainder of its population into an economically coherent space.
This vast challenge puts Gilbert’s two-square-mile project into context. Even if he succeeds in revitalizing the center, it will be no more than a well-groomed tail wagging an awfully skinny dog.
So should Gilbert just give up? Not at all. About thirty years ago, Chicago was nearing a Detroit-style collapse. Much of its heavy industry had gone. Residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Whole neighborhoods emptied out.
But Chicago worked hard to keep its downtown, the Loop, alive. Not that it was the glittering core that it is today. But at least it still held the big banks, the markets, some major stores, corporate headquarters. When the city began to revive in the late 1980s, it had a base for that revival. Much of Chicago’s growth since then has involved a steady expansion of the Loop-based prosperity.
First, the Loop revived, creating jobs. Then the people who held those jobs began to move back into the city. This led to stores to serve them and, in time, some decent schools for their children. The process is far from complete, and may never be. But the result, as unequal as it is, is better than Detroit.
Chicago, unlike Detroit, never was a one-industry town. Nor did it lose virtually all its white population, as has Detroit. Its crucial location as a transport hub remained, as did its major universities and other assets. It went down, but no so far as Detroit, and it didn’t have so far to climb back.
The Times mentioned some skeptics, mostly black leaders there, who fear that Gilbert will create “two Detroits, one for those who are downtown and one for those in the neighborhoods.” This is precisely what’s going to happen – in fact, must happen, at least in the short and medium term -- if Gilbert’s plans succeed.
Right now, Chicago is a city marked by inequality, between those who live in the Loop-based prosperous Chicago, and those, including much of its black population, that live beyond this fortunate core. Someday, all of Chicago may share in this vitality, but not yet. And it’s not going to happen quickly.
If Detroit revives, it will not revive all at once. The industry and jobs aren’t there. If Gilbert succeeds, the first result will be a prosperous core that will probably be mostly white, surrounded by a desperate city that is mostly black. Maybe, from this core, a more just city can grow. But the challenge, not least the racial politics, are daunting, to say the very least.