Another Damn Story About Detroit

I just flew in from Detroit…and boy is my heart tired.

Detroit is in rough, rough shape and yet to me it still is the quintessential American city. The whole package, the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good: it was built on the backs of the melting pot of Americans. At one time, you COULD actually realize the American dream, a good middle class living, good neighborhoods, good schools. Hell, just a good living.
The bad: the racism and racial divide.
The ugly: the grift.

Certainly all of that happens in every city, but the decline and epic proportions that the bad and the ugly came to be realized in Detroit are certainly unique. A damn shame because at one time Detroit was truly the land of dreams and opportunity.

Not so much anymore.

Today Detroit is shattered. If Detroit were a lady of the night, she’d be the beat up fifty year old with the black eye and no teeth handing out blowjobs for five dollars. If Detroit were a family member it would be the cousin you neglect to invite to family reunions. If it were a reunited band, it would be Milli Vanilli (WITH the dead guy).

And while there is A LOT of talk about it being on the rebound, I am having a hard time seeing the how in that happening. I mean brighter minds than mine certainly think it is, JP Morgan Chase (hardly a bellwether for adventurous investing) gave the city 100 million dollars in the city and Brooklyn entrepreneur Robert Elmes recently purchased nine industrial buildings in Highland Park to move his Brooklyn based Galapagos project out there (for the uninitiated, even people in Detroit stay out of Highland Park).

Certainly, in my short time there I did see some signs of a re-birth. There is tons of construction and a new railway being built (both solid signs of growth). But an art space and $100 million dollars can’ be enough. Can it?

When I was talking with Detroit native Karyn McCall from Cool Paces To Live, she said it is all about bringing the small businesses in. That is part of it but the city needs more. More industry and more government assistance. Sorry Republicans, small business just ain’t gonna resurrect this great city. I drove east on Michigan Avenue for about 10-15 minutes, dodging potholes to no avail, and saw nothing. I don’t mean “nothing” in the sense of a few things here and there, I literally mean NOTHING. What I did see were boarded up factories, boarded up shopping strips and burned and boarded up homes. My mouth dropped as my heart sank. I realized that the city is just decimated. You can read all you want about it but until you have seen it, it won’t really register.

It got marginally better as I entered the up and coming area known as Corktown, but only marginally. I had lunch in Corktown at a place called Mudgies. It was packed, it was hip and it was great and could very easily have fit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (except it wasn’t super douchey). However, 1,000 Mudgies can’t fix Detroit. So no, I don’t feel small business alone is gonna do it.

Detroit needs help but what is it going to take for the city to get the help it needs? In my heart of hearts, I truly believe Detroit will bounce back, but as I spent my time there I was left scratching my head wondering how. And when?

The automotive industry, the spine of the city for almost a century, isn’t coming back.

Even if it did the pay, decent by Detroit standards, is little improved from the revolutionary $5/day. For real.

In 1914, Henry Ford famously doubled the wage of his factory workers to $5/day. It absolutely changed manufacturing and completely changed the lives of a lot of people and radically altered manufacturing forever. It literally CREATED the middle class and made Henry Ford an American hero. Folklore has it that Ford raised the wage to increase the number of people who could afford his Model T. There is another viewpoint that says he raised it to restrict employee turnover, which any manager can tell you is rather costly, but whatever his motivation was, it was a good thing for America and Americans. It was only one of the ways Ford revolutionized manufacturing (and yes, his antisemitism is noted).

But consider this:
* Adjusted for inflation that $5/day is $120/day and $600/wk (+/- $31,200/yr)…BEFORE taxes.

* Today the average wage of a factory working in Mid-West is $224/day and roughly $1120/wk (+/- $58,220/yr)…BEFORE taxes and union dues.
* HOWEVER, most entry level employees at auto plants make $16/hr or $128/day and $640/wk (+/-$33,300/yr)…BEFORE taxes, benefits and any union dues.

Basically, the entry level auto worker today is making roughly eight dollars more a day than his counterpart would have in 1914.

Comparatively, Ford CEO Allan Mullaly made over 23 million dollars in salary, stock options and incentives in 2013.

And that’s presuming any of the auto plants, or their manufacturing partners, are even hiring. Low pay is certainly one of the many problems plaguing the city, but so is its still heavy reliance on the automotive industry.

Detroit’s unemployment rate is around 12%, but if you visit there, you know it is WAY more than 12%. Data. Ain’t it a bitch?

I’m hardly an economist, but it would seem to me that without different industries moving in, like technology, advertising or really any industry. I can’t see how the city rebounds any time soon. It is true that some tech companies and ad agencies have moved into Detroit, certainly not enough. And what about the workers they bring with them?

They sure as hell don’t want to live in the city of Detroit.
And yes, I mean the white workers and some of the black workers.
83% of Detroit is black.
80% of Michigan’s population is white.
Why does race matter?

It doesn’t.
To me.
To a lot of other people?
It matters.

But one should note that Detroit has an incredibly high murder rate. With a population of about 689,000, in 2012 there were 411 murders but only 386 homicides (somehow, there is a distinction between the two…don’t ask me, ask the Detroit P.D. or the FBI). And, “In 2013, Detroit’s number of criminal homicides was 333, a reduction of 14% compared to 2012…Detroit remains as a city with one of the highest rates per capita for homicide in the United States.

The suburbs don’t have the same kind of murder rates.

And if you read Charlie LeDuff’s brilliant book Detroit, you will learn that the Detroit Police Department has a creative way of accounting for deaths; proving that creativity knows no boundaries. Detroit is probably the only city where a guy shot in the back can actually be ruled a suicide. For real.

If you have ever seen the movie Escape From New York, parts of Detroit are a lot like that.
I’m not kidding.

Detroit represents the best of what the country was and the worst of what the country is. Provided you don’t live in an area that isn’t already riddled with income inequality and racial disparity and you want to see it up close, spend a few days in Detroit.

All that said, I loved Detroit. Everywhere you look you can actually see what a truly remarkable city it once was. Which makes it even harder to see the cities collapse because you realize exactly how far down the shitter the city has actually gone. OF COURSE, that is NOT a revelation by any means. EVERYONE knows this, but to see it first hand? Man. It’ll break your heart because you are surrounded by so much potential and no one seems to give a shit.

For about 18 months I had toyed with the idea of moving to Detroit. You see, growing up we were corporate nomads. Nowhere was really my “home”. Trying to tell people where I am “from” is difficult. I sorta mutter and say “the Mid-West” and deflect (I probably would have made a helluva good hockey goalie). As you get older you want a place you can call your own. A place you can call home, so I thought “Hmm, maybe Detroit. I’m from the Mid-West, these are my people.” I’d done my research, read all the stories, the good, the bad and the ugly so I approached my visit with my eyes, and my heart, open.

The vibe just wasn’t there for me in Detroit. It would never be home and while I really wanted to love it, hell I woulda settled for really liked, it just missed the mark for me. It didn’t feel like home. That matters.

The only places I felt comfortable were the very places I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a kid.
The suburbs.

And part of my discomfort is the racial divide. There I said it. If that makes me a racist…oh fuck that, it doesn’t. The city is 83% black, that’s just a fact, and they’re pissed off! Rightly so, I might add. With the lack of education, lack of opportunity, the blight, the unemployment, the grifters, the lack of basic services and then you factor in all the all the unnecessary shooting of black people that’s been going on in the past few years? Christ, that’s gotta make them angrier. It makes me angry and I’m white…and live in Brooklyn!

I’m not saying Detroit is gonna self destruct, but uhhh, it seems kinda like a powder keg.

In his book Detroit, LeDuff talks about how citizens burn houses for entertainment. They burn them and sit across the street smoking, drinking and having a laugh. You know why? Because it’s cheaper than seeing a movie! Of course, that is provided you could even find a movie theater. I read recently on a reddit thread that in Detroit “Arson isn’t so much illegal anymore as just kind of frowned upon.

The funny thing is that there is money in Detroit. It’s just in the game and the grift of City Hall.

Criminals are inherently dumb, no question, but some of the people who were running (or ruining) Detroit took stupidity to epic proportions. According to Charlie LeDuff, “…the city gave $250,000 to Detroit Firehouse, Engine Co. 19. There is no Engine Co. 19. Engine Co. 22 was awarded $500,000 for a new floor. The problem was that Engine Co. 22 was last used as a Mexican restaurant: the Casa de Espana. building a joint Police and Firehouse on Detroit’s west side started as a $240,000 no-bid contract and somehow ballooned into a 20 million dollar job.

You literally can not make this shit up.

But there are bright spots in Detroit. One of the biggest is The Detroit Institute of Art.

It currently is showing Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo in Detroit exhibit, which was pretty cool.

The DIA was a pet project of  Edsel Ford, son of the Henry Ford. In 1932, Edsel, the son of the capitalism kingpin, hired the world’s greatest fresco painter, Diego Rivera, to paint murals in the museum. In and of itself, no big deal…except that Rivera was a vocal Marxist…hired by a benchmark capitalist. The exhibit itself is so-so, it takes you through Rivera’s process and some of the things he and Kahlo experienced while in Detroit including the sketches of the murals, Kahlo’s self discovery and blossoming creativity along with her abortion or miscarriage (opinions vary) and the collapse of their marriage. It’s an interesting insight into how they came to be, but not jaw dropping. But the murals themselves are spectacular and brilliantly pro-worker. They fly the flag of Marxism ever so subtly. Accordingly, art critics, the Detroit elite and the public vilified Rivera. But the one that mattered the most was the one most pleased with it.

Their benefactor, Edsel Ford.

When I asked the woman outside the exhibit before seeing the mural itself what Ford’s reaction was she said “Oh my Edsel Ford was thrilled with the result. His father, not so much” she paused and then said “I think I would have really liked Edsel. It’s a shame he died so young“.

Edsel Ford was only 49 when he died and is mostly remembered for the Ford Edsel, often said to be one of the worst cars of all time. The irony being Edsel had absolutely nothing to do with it, he was already dead. Edsel B. Ford should be remembered for his unique contribution to the art world not the piece of shit car he had nothing to do with.

It says something about Edsel Ford, the son of America’s icon of capitalism, hiring a noted Marxist painter and despite the controversy surrounding Rivera’s work, Ford let it be. That is the mark of the man. That is the type of man Detroit needs now.

Incidentally, the following year, Nelson Rockefeller hired Rivera for his masterpiece that was 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When Rivera incorporated Vladimir Lenin into the mural, Rockefeller flipped out. Rivera offered to put Lincoln in as a compromise. Rockefeller refused and Rivera was fired. That, too, is the mark of the man. That type of man is overflowing in New York City.

For a city the size of Detroit, the DIA boasts an impressive array of work. What it lacks in-depth it makes up for in scope. It’s no wonder they wouldn’t sell it to help the city out of bankruptcy. It’s quite impressive indeed.

I’m not a car guy. I could really give a shit about them, but Detroit is a car town and because there is simply NO escaping the name (it’s everywhere) I visited The Henry Ford (that’s what the Henry Ford Museum is actually called). It was cool but something tells me that Jay Leno has an equally impressive array of cars. There was a lot more to The Henry Ford, but it was cold out and walking through the village (why was there a village I wondered) was unappealing. But the museum was cool, even for a non-car guy.

The museum isn’t ALL cars, it also highlights the racial strife of the city, has a bunch of the presidential limo’s, some air travel and a cool documentary about how Ford actually impacted American industry (propaganda but still pretty impressive and not far-fetched).

Detroit is a great city and home to a people who have a certain kind of attitude. It’s home to people who are just trying to get by, just trying to live, just trying to be home. It’s also home to a whole lot of grifters. Detroit will never be the city it once was, but I’ve no doubt it will come back.

The city has mettle and it has moxi, I just hope I’m around long enough to see Detroit be the city it truly is, the city its residents need it to be, hell, the city America needs it to be.

Some Detroit Photos:

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