Believe in Your City

Broad Thoughts Amid Narrow Debates

Those who know me know that I am proud to come from Detroit. But these days, like so many others, I am now just part of the Detroit Diaspora.

In countless ways my hometown comes back to me: images of the industrial landscapes we grew up with (mixed with summertime greens and those long, flat stretches of houses,) reminders of its fall in the hundreds of “Detroit ruin porn” videos that fill the web (we’ve seen it, thank you,) or those sausages and ginger ale that you can only find deep in the city.

Wide avenues that radiate from the center like spokes on a bike; late nights in the hot summer listening to the Electrifying Mojo and watching the stars. People who are unfailingly friendly, but know how to keep a polite distance.

I think about my hometown dozens of different ways on any day, but it always ends the same. Detroit may be my hometown, but DC is my home.

These two places aren’t nearly as different as one may imagine. Hard to believe (not to me) now, but Detroit was, for decades, the most prosperous major city in the U.S. More people bought their first homes – nice ones, separate with lawns and fences and backyard bar-be-ques and Jarts – in Detroit than in any other American city. It was a company town that worked exactly because of its immigrants: Slavs, Quebecois, Irish, Mexican, American South.

DC today – with all the condos and “gritty” bars and three-bill restaurants and hustle was exactly Detroit, fifty years ago. Motown wasn’t just a marketing label: it was the live-wire energy that that place was.

Washington today can feel the same – lots of people moving here who didn’t grow up here, company town, nightlife buffet, broad avenues amid the rigid grid of urban life.

But there’s one other thing that troubles me deeply: the hubris that it will never end.

Thoughtful opinions to the contrary are welcomed – keep the insults down and I’ll repost your thoughts and visions. But there was a time – don’t laugh – when people thought the gravy train would never end in Detroit.How could it? Detroit was the American dream.

Which makes me shudder when I now hear all these “gotta-wear-shades” exuberant predictions of how DC, and the larger metropolitan community web, will never, ever suffer the sort of humiliation visited upon iron-and-steel barbarians like Detroit. Of course it will continue to grow, and grow! Washington: City on the Move!

Except that was exactly the title of this film, promoting Detroit for – stop laughing or I shall punch you – the Olympics. hahahahaha Detroit? OLYMPICS?!

The Point of This Blog

There was a time when people called Detroit, without ironic smirks, the Paris of the Midwest. DC is these days labeled among Paris, London and Tokyo as capitals of the world.

What happened with Detroit was a catastrophic mismanagement by all parties – everybody. You can’t grow up there without feeling a little blood on your hands.

I feel that acutely now; notably as I’m not living there, doing my best. I have chosen a path that connects me with my life partner – and his home is DC. So it is mine, too.

This blog is something of a warning flare. Not of impending doom – Detroit didn’t fall in a year but over 50. Rather, I have lived city mismanagement once, and I don’t want to live it again.

Enthusiasts wave the banner for every new bar, lounge, condo or whathaveyou as proof of the invincibility of DC and its continued ascendency.

Parking? Bah. Over-crowding of nightlife districts? Old man! Developments built exclusively for the profit of the developer, community be damned? NIMBY!

I am numb to the Nimby name. It is not unlike other words people hurl to try and keep one down, hunkered, defensive. It is bullshit, and I am calling it for what it is.

We are participating in this community precisely because we care: we want to nurture it, help it grow smart but not over-fast so it falls down on its face. What charlatans call NIMBY, we know as stewardship.

So let’s not let DC become Detroit – which grew far too large far too fast for anyone to say much because money was being turned hand-over-hand.

We welcome contrary views – not as snarky three line “responses” which say little.  Have a different view? Fine. Send it to us, we’ll print (again, keep the name-calling limited) and we can have a discussion.

I am a Detroiter. I am a DCite. I love my two towns, and want the best for them. I do not want the fate of the first to become the fate of the other.

Join us.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Believe in Your City

  1. DC is the seat of the federal government. Unless the government decides to pick up and move (possible, but very unlikely), it will remain a source of jobs, and a creator of jobs in related industries (defense, biotech, etc.) for a while to come. There’s a danger in being a one-company town, particularly one reliant on low-skill, low-education jobs (manufacturing) as Detroit was, but I’m not convinced that DC is on the same path.

    As someone who was born and grew up here, I find comparisons to Detroit not only inapt but of insulting, particularly in the context of this blog’s rants against development/new bars and restaurants in your neighborhood/housing that isn’t for financially solvent middle-aged people such as yourselves/and so on. DC added maybe 8000 people between 2000 and 2010 (and is still 250k people smaller than it was in 1950) while Detroit DOUBLED in size during the first few decades of the 20th century. Hardly comparable.

    I believe in DC, and I want it to grow and densify where it counts (i.e., close-in neighborhoods like 14th & U). It’s your choice whether or not you want to agree with me, but saying DC could become Detroit as a means of justifying your position is ridiculous.

    • Doug

      Gosh Dan Reed!, you seem not to have understood what I was saying.
      I, too, believe in DC, and don’t need to stand second to anyone on that.
      The point was, is, that nobody believed the colossus of manufacturing could ever be threatened. And now you say you can’t believe the colossus of the federal government won’t be defunded.
      Believing in a city is different than faith in an unstoppable growth. I’m sorry you have to resort to terms like “ridiculous” as I have not mocked you or anyone else. Perhaps that illustrates the underpinnings of our ideas.
      Call us names, anonymously? Real courageous.
      Thanks for such a positive contribution to the conversation.

  2. 1. Dan Reed is not anonymous. He’s Dan Reed.

    2. Calling your thesis ‘ridiculous’ is not mocking it – it’s a legit criticism.

    I’ll echo Dan’s critique – Detroit’s issues stem from many factors, almost all of them large scale macro issues that affected many cities – de-industrialization, racism, urban sprawl, etc. Detroit, in many ways, represents the extreme case.

    New York lost more manufacturing jobs than Detroit did from the late 60s into the 90s, but didn’t suffer the same complete collapse because it had a broader and more diversified economy. Chicago also suffered tremendously, but it too has rebounded with a much stronger and broad-based regional economy.

    So, if your point is that things can change, that would seem obvious. I’m not sure the evidence of Detroit supports that thesis any more than another American city would. DC’s got plenty of those stories for itself.

    But the logic you imply is that without the small-bore concerns you’ve highlighted in this blog to date (neighborhood parking, nightlife, etc) will be the downfall of the city – just because Detroit also had such issues at its peak – is specious reasoning. Detroit’s collapse came for many reasons, but civic mis-management were not the primary causes. Civic mis-management didn’t cause the auto industry to shrink, for example.

    The thing is – there’s an interesting nugget you hint at – over-reliance on one sector of the economy. Steve Pearlstein’s been writing about this for the past few days in the Post: ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/steven-pearlstein-not-exactly-the-nations-entrepreneurial-capital/2012/01/22/gIQA3DqWYQ_story.html – I think he’s a tad pessimistic, but the broader point still stands). But the connection you draw from the macro to the micro is tenuous at best. One would not be out of line to call it “ridiculous.”

  3. b

    I agree with you that management of growth is important. I’d love to see you discuss it more. As more people move back to DC, we have to make sure that the trash they leave gets picked up and that the double-parkers get ticketed and that there are police who will take care of the people who disturb the peace.

    You said said that people speak of DC like it’s Paris, but rest assured, right now nobody is making that comparison:

    Detroit: 714,000 people in 359 km^2 = 1,985 people/km^2
    DC: 618,000 people in 159 km^2 = 3,886 people/km^2
    Paris: 2,200,000 people in 40.7 km^2 = 20,900 people/km^2

    Paris, a capital city with a height limit, is _six times_ as dense as DC. Even Census tract 44 (where you and I live) isn’t that dense, and it’s among the densest in the city. From 2000 to 2010, DC added 30,000 people; at this rate it would be a century before we got in the ballpark of Paris’s density.

    DC is in recovery now from decades of the sort of mismanagement you speak of, which brought us to the anomalously low density we’re at now. DC at its peak in 1950 had another 200,000 people in its borders (equals 5,000 people/km^2). It’s great to see that they’re coming back now.

    I agree with you that good management is going to be essential, and as we grow, we’re going to need more people keeping things running smoothly. I think it’s great that you’re pressing the city to take care of the inevitable growing pains, and hope to see you focus more posts and actions on getting the city to up its involvement in managing the orderly flow of all the new people you and I are welcoming back to the city.

    • b

      Sorry, I posted before my morning coffee and made an error copying a number: Paris is 105 km^2 (40.7mi^2). So the density I listed (20,900/km^2) is correct. Also, I’m not sure why I rounded up, but I should have said Paris is five times as dense as DC, which is still a pretty amazing difference (20,900/3886=5.37).

  4. Pingback: Still catching up but . . . | ustreetbeat

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