By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Back in the fall of 2011, after the media feeding frenzy over the historic bankruptcies of two of America’s major automobile manufacturers – Chrysler and General Motors - had finally subsided, the tone of the articles turned away from the nuts and bolts and actual ramifications of the bankruptcies toward a completely different discussion, as in what can be done about Detroit?
“Detroit” in this case was both the literal and figurative subject of the reams of articles and wave after wave of breathless media stories. Because “Detroit” not only meant the reeling, punch-drunk, trying-to-get-off-the-canvas domestic automobile industry, it also meant the city itself, a once-proud pillar of the American industrial fabric built from the hard-scrabble will and hopes and dreams of a nation that had now been reduced to a national joke, the poster city for everything wrong with America, both real and imagined.
This essential city, which once represented the epicenter of American industrial might had been dealt body blow after body blow, from The Great Recession – which melded perfectly with the inbred, self-inflicted, serial incompetence festering throughout the auto industry as practiced here – and which conspired to bring a founding American industry to its knees, to a virulently corrupt city government that had transitioned from being a localized humiliating fact of life to becoming a national embarrassment.
It was a relentless shit storm of Not Good that conspired to lay waste to all hope and notion of perseverance around here, and anyone who lived through it will never forget it.
With that in mind, then, I wrote a column entitled, “The Deal on Detroit.” In it, I cautioned that Detroit - which had become the new darling of the East Coast-centric media - was much more complicated than a hot sound bite or any feel good story of hope and new beginnings on the evening news could possibly portray.
That this is a tough, hard-ass town was never in question, obviously. Were things that autumn on an upward trajectory? When purely looking at the automobile industry as practiced here, absolutely. Decisions were being made throughout the industry that would result in the dramatic improvements in product – and profits - that we’re seeing today.
But when looking at the health of the city and its environs, and the deep-rooted problems that plagued this city, the ones that were preventing this city from doing anything but a dismal two-steps forward, five-back, self-defeating dance of "progress," then it was crystal clear that the collective “we” had a long, long, long way to go.
Four-and-one-half years later, where are we, and is the progress real? For the auto industry the progress is real. If anything, the giddiness surrounding this industry right now has a deep sense of foreboding surrounding it. I’ve often written about this phenomenon in this column, because the Detroit-based car companies have a long history of not being able to handle prosperity. In fact, the history of this industry as practiced here is littered with examples of the domestic car companies collectively blowing it, with the boom times inevitably followed by the crushing doldrums resulting from the predictable calamity brought on by short-term thinking and piss-poor decision making.
Will this time be different? That remains to be seen. I keep hearing that things will never go bad like they did before. I keep reading the stories that GM really gets it (CEO Mary Barra insists that it’s all good for GM, that there will be more change for the company and this business in the next five years than the previous 50), that Ford is on an inexorable march to a future marked by new growth and prosperity, that Marchionne and his minions will ride the Jeep and Ram pickup money-generating machine to untold riches or be bought out by a larger suitor - whichever comes first - and whatever brings more money to the historically feckless Fiat heirs.
But I will reserve judgment for now, because it’s still a giant “we’ll see” from my perspective. Yes, this industry is riding high right this minute, but fuel prices will go up, the anti-car movement will only get more strident, the upcoming UAW labor negotiations could easily dissolve into acrimony if not outright disaster, the Silicon Valley Swells will continue to believe that they can flip a switch and lay waste to the domestic automobile industry at will, even though their “boy” Elon The Great could only turn his dream into reality on the backs of experienced car people from around here – a fact conveniently forgotten by well, basically everybody.
And as for this city, the reality is this: It was dead. Flat broke, in fact. In such debt that there was no hope of ever getting out from under it. Detroit had to endure the most excruciating of public bankruptcies imaginable, with its years of incompetence, rampant corruption, dimwit deal making and wholesale stealing from its citizens laid bare for all to see.
But there is no doubt that out of the ashes of this bankruptcy has come substantive cause to harbor at least a glimmer of hope.
We have a diligent mayor who actually not only knows what needs to be done, but is willing to go to the wall to put the city right. That unto itself is such a fundamental change that words almost cannot convey what a difference that makes.
But still, the ugly realities for this city linger. Its educational system is still deplorable, city services are just now coming back from oblivion to be minimally acceptable, and there are mountains of associated problems that are years away from becoming molehills.
Yet, there is cause for a genuine optimism of sorts, but it’s cautionary, at best. The money flowing into the city is all well and good, with the number of bars and restaurants and housing opportunities – complete with sky-high rents - multiplying exponentially, as if that can be considered a reliable indicator.
And Dan Gilbert is buying up properties at a breakneck pace, wrapping it all in an altruistic gloss of “doing right by the city” when in fact he’s just betting on the come, although no one in the local media will even bother to broach the subject out of fear of being ostracized and saddled with the inevitable shaming and roasting chorus of “how could yous?” sure to flame up from the abyss of Social Media.
For the record, my problem with all of this is that it’s a grand eyewash that benefits the few who can partake in this urban resurrection of the moment. And the direction it’s coming from is all wrong too. The money is arriving from the top down, which is great for creating a glossy sheen that makes for euphoric local press coverage and heroic sound bites for when “Morning Joe” makes its periodic stop to take the temperature of the city.
But the reality is that if this city is ever to turn around permanently for the good, the change will have to come from the bottom up: Through meaningful educational reforms and basic societal progress that somehow cracks through the barrier of abject despair and utter hopelessness that still permeate vast swaths of this city.
That kind of change isn’t glamorous, and it can’t compete with a hot new restaurant opening in Midtown, or another architect’s rendering of yet another new building that may or may not be built. It gets to the heart of the matter of why this city seems to always be on the brink of despair, and until it is dealt with and the meaningful changes are nurtured so that they have real impact on the lives that desperately need it, then I’m afraid I will be writing similar things another four-and-one-half years from now.
As I said in that aforementioned column, yes, as a town and as a region we do have a long way to go. But this is who we are and this auto thing not only defines us, it’s what really matters to us.
We don’t need sympathy from the national media, and the glossy stories of hope of late are nice but they will never define us, or what it’s really like to be here and be from around here.
We’re a state of mind that’s filled with countless contradictions and our great history is offset by some lurid realities.
We’ve contributed much to the American fabric yet we have a historical propensity to make things brutally tough on our day-to-day well-being.
We’ve brought this country a sound like no other and a gritty, gutty context that’s second to none, yet we’ve created countless problems for ourselves, most all of them self-inflicted.
We created the “Arsenal of Democracy” when our country needed it most, yet we allowed a movement based on fairness to become a disease based on entitlement and rancor.
We’ve contributed much to this nation's progress and standing, yet we can’t seem to get out of our own way at times, which is infuriating and debilitating.
But thankfully, the story never really ends for Detroit. At least not yet anyway. We’re still standing, warts and glaring faults and all. And you can forget the recent glory stories about our renaissance because we don’t really need ‘em to validate us.
We know who we are. And we know that the perception isn’t often favorable. And we get that. But still there’s an exuberance and spirit here that no trendy Super Bowl ad can ever capture.
It’s a Detroit thing, or if you must, a Dee-troit thing. And we’re proud of what that means.
As Paul Simon so eloquently put it once in Papa Hobo:
It's carbon and monoxide
The ol’ Detroit perfume
And it hangs on the highways
In the morning
And it lays you down by noon
Got a hell of a hockey team
Got a left-handed way
Of making a man sign up on that
Automotive dream, oh yeah...
Mr. Simon probably had no idea as to the truth of what he was writing at least as this town is concerned, but he did manage to stumble upon the state of mind that defines us.
It still does.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.