Detroit Has Life

By Russell Ethridge

After 50 stunningly disastrous years, Detroit is seeing the spark of revival that comes when things get so bad that only the truly visionary can see through the rubble.

I’m not talking about autos. Making cars comes and goes. At the moment, auto is back with a vengeance; maybe 18,000,000 sleds this year! This is no surprise to anyone selling parts, turning metal, or molding polymers. That revival has been going on since two of the “big three” dumped their debt (and shareholders) in bankruptcy to improve their balance sheets, and the third hired a manager who actually understood that it was about “the product, stupid.” Hopes for Detroit always rise with auto sales, but auto sales are only a small piece of what is driving the current revival in what locals call “The D.”

What’s really behind Detroit’s revival are an influx of educated young people and change agents like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and insurance entrepreneur David Cotton, an obstetrician who bailed out of medicine into finance when he saw the change that was coming to health care funding.

Detroit at night

Cotton saw the pathetic way health care is administered and established insurance and management systems that employ many people in low and mid-level administrative jobs in downtown venues. Gilbert, a non-practicing lawyer with a history of bookmaking in college, bought every building he could in Detroit (and Cleveland before that) for pennies on the dollar. Gilbert is taking some of the world’s best architecture (this WAS the Paris of the Midwest), and reformatting it into hip spaces where young people move data, market stuff, including cars and mortgages, and live. Gilbert is making things happen. Many others sat on these properties for years, waiting for…well, someone like Gilbert. Although he is currently under attack by government regulators unhappy with some of his employment practices, Gilbert is generally considered a good employer, and he’s sparked a ton of small businesses that occupy his properties. Gilbert, Cotton, and the others had the benefit of a path forged by real risk takers like Little Caesars founders Mike and Marian llitch whose years of investment in Detroit sports and entertainment kept the city on the map and relevant. Detroit recently elected a mayor who is known for being a turnaround guy. That he is white and elected by a mostly black constituency speaks volumes about how much Detroiters wanted change from the years of corruption and incompetence that preceded him. Other developers are also investing now that you don’t need to bribe a city official to get a meeting. Two big hospital systems and a thriving university add to the mix.

There are many others who are embracing this moment like the restaurateurs who’ve made Detroit a foodie haven. I dined recently at a new hipster joint located in a burned out area across from the city’s wholesale food markets. The proprietor moved from Brooklyn and bought the Detroit property for the cost of a month’s rent in New York. There are countless others providing great food in stunning venues resurrected from the dead, a fact that reminds me that we should cherish our architectural history like Europeans do. I have dined far and wide, but it is hard to find more interesting and pleasurable food than that which I’ve had recently in the “D.”

Detroit’s population outflow has stopped, mostly. This is a city of over 140 square miles that had roughly 1.8 million people in 1950. Starting with the nation’s first urban freeway, Detroit paved the way for its then predominantly white residents to flee to the wide open spaces of suburbia in the cars they made. Jobs and factories followed thereafter. They rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and hit the gas after the riots in 1968. Now, there are about 700,000 souls over the same acreage. If you do the math, that’s a ton of vacant land. The delivery of services is inherently inefficient when there is one house still standing on five blocks of otherwise vacant land. People left behind are over 80% black, and 50% are functionally illiterate. Only half the properties generate property tax, a fact that goes a long way to explaining the need a couple of years ago for the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. Some of this land is being used for forestry and agriculture, but most of the development by Gilbert and others has been in a few square miles in and around downtown.

The abandonment of the city by whites fleeing to the suburbs is part of what crushed city government and a source of some resentment by those who were left in the decay for three generations. Unfortunately, their lot has not improved much since most of the development seems to be for and about educated and mostly white people who do clean work in light filled spaces before heading out for exotic small plate offerings at prices that almost seem embarrassing.

That is not to say that the development has been all white. Detroit is, perhaps, one of the most ethnically diverse cities anywhere. We have more Middle-Easterners than anywhere outside the Middle-East, in addition to many Asians, Indians, and Hispanics, which creates a wonderful diversity that just makes the city cool. But that drop of diversity still has not provided much of a lift for the mostly back residents of the other 130 square miles whose school system is almost a billion dollars in debt and whose children are killing each other in numbers that are unfathomable in a civilized society. When I questioned one of my developer buddies about this contrast, he noted, correctly, that Detroit’s revival is no different from many other cities, including Chicago, where the affluent and educated live one life, and the poor and uneducated live quite another. A rising tide may lift all boats, but if you don’t have a boat, then it doesn’t matter. You tread water or drown.

Question: What do you think of when you think of Detroit?

Russell Ethridge is a prominent attorney in the Detroit area and longtime contributor to Today’s Machining World.


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13 thoughts on “Detroit Has Life

  1. Jake

    First thing I think of when someone mentions Detroit: Socialism

    Whether the parties in power were subsidizing the poor (welfare) or subsidizing the rich (automaker bailouts) – either way it was Socialism… and typical of Socialism, they ran out of money to confiscate.

    1. Josh

      Oh for crying out loud. You wouldn’t know what socialism was if it jumped up and bit you in the rear. What happened to Detroit has far less to do with whatever it is you’re labeling socialism than it does the fact that it lost 50% of its population primarily because white people were afraid of living in the same neighborhood as black people. Also, it makes me sick every time someone laments the auto bailout while everyone was a-okay with the hugely more massive bank bailout. The auto bailout was NOT a bailout of the rich, that’s absurd. The auto bailout saved thousands on thousands of good working class jobs and main street small businesses while the bank bailout protected the pockets of rich elite. Barely anyone raised a peep when we were bailing out the rich and the same people were ready with torches when it came time to let Michigan burn to the ground. Thankfully we didn’t let that happen.

  2. Noah Graff

    I hate to say it but the first thing that pops into my head is ghetto and crime. I think of Eminem. I think of Robocop, who of course was created for Detroit because it was the most dangerous crime infested place. I think of abandoned mansions. I envision them, even though I can’t even remember seeing a photo one.

    I also think of the screw machine business. And ponder where all those players are in relation to the poor ghost town of urban Detroit.

    Recently I think of the airport. It’s new and quite beautiful.

  3. Misterchipster

    It is high time our elected officials keep their hands in their own pockets and not in the pockets of the constituency. When votes are “bought” with the “programs” funded by “the government” – which is the tax payer, any area including the nation as a whole will end up like Detroit. You don’t lift people up by giving them what someone else has earned. Socialism is the destruction of any nation.

  4. allen

    Can’t disagree with Mr. Ethridge about the inevitable effects of socialism. Can disagree with Mr. Ethridge’s enthusiasm about Detroit’s revival.

    Not to say there aren’t flickers of life but the city’s still well and truly in the grip of the socialist “me first, screw you” attitude. That’s nowhere more evident then in the debate swirling around Detroit’s public education system.

    The parents of Detroit have abandoned the district in droves due to the unsafe nature of the schools and their educational worthlessness. While there are a couple of good schools in the DPS they’re almost all selective and the bad schools are, well, bad enough that if the occupants had four legs rather then two the SPCA would be all over it. The district’s teachers recently had a wildcat strike and as part of the justification for the illegal strike offered up the poor state of the schools. Kids wearing winter coats in class at one end of the building while kids at the other end were sweating freely. Dead rats in classrooms.

    More recently a dozen or so school principals were indicted for taking kick-backs from vendors who were overcharging the district. That’s about 15% of all the principals in the district. Is it any wonder the kids don’t take education seriously? The principals of the schools don’t. Why should the kids?

    The district also has one employee for each three students which is twice the state average. Kind of makes the district’s financial situation a bit more understandable.

    Duggan’s been, in general, a pretty decent mayor although part of that’s due to timing. The bankruptcy abruptly re-established the link between the municipal unions and reality which has made life somewhat easier for hizzonor. It allowed him to get on top of the lighting situation with street lights that had been out for – I kid you not – decades finally being replaced.

    In other areas of the city bureaucracy some things haven’t changed.

    Apparently getting a clear title from the city is still a slog and businesses big and little have a far too complex a path to follow to make sure they don’t run afoul of the city’s bureaucracy.

    Basically, I’m not ready to clutch my clasped hands to my throat in thrilled amazement at the city’s stunning rebirth but things seem to have stabilized. The city doesn’t appear to be heading distinctly down hill any longer.


      1. allen

        Thanks and yeah. Kinda sorta. More a Detroiter during some periods in my life then others.

        What do I think of when I think of Detroit?

        The blind guys and the elephant.

        They’re all arguing about the little piece of the elephant they can get their arms around with none of them giving any thought to the elephant.

        And the elephant? It’s utterly indifferent to all the arguing going on around it, has its own agenda and will go in the direction impelled by the forces relevant to it, with not a bit of concern for the opinions of the guys trying to understand what an elephant feels like.

  5. Sophie

    I agree I was born in Detroit and lived there until 1958 when I was 16 years old. My family left because of opportunity in Chicago area. Now Chicago area has huge “Detroit problems” and is headed soon in the same direction. The debt level is staggering and no quick fix will change that any time soon.
    Wake up Socialism doesn’t work, but sounds fair and just.
    Teach a person to fish not give him the fish and have him complain about the type you gave him. Sooner or later you will run out of other people’s money. We are getting to this point in Chicago and many other parts of the country.
    The direction of the country is up to the voters. Doing the same thing with the same results is defined as insanity.

  6. rick

    The people keep believing the elected officials that all of the problems are caused by outside forces stealing their money and opportunity.

    When in reality it is 50+ years of failed socialist policies ever perpetuated.

    There is no hope…

  7. mike

    i thought Quicken Loans helped to “quicken” the dearth of Detroit (and elsewhere) with all their shoddy mortgage loans made and then sold to the government . . . must be nice to pinch someones arse and then turn around and be someone else hero? Or was the mortgage debacle no ones fault either? All that money Gilbert made on the back of the average Joe worker that had to suck it up after the banks and mortgage companies went bust . . . what short memories we all have . . . sad.

  8. Bound for Texas

    What do I think of?
    I think of their “Hell Night” and how they allowed their city to be burned down for years and years and years.

    I think of Arabic language I’m told is on those green state paid for highway signs, perhaps in Dearborn not Detroit but what does it matter.

    I think of Mosques being built in our American cities and prayer cries going out on loud speakers I’m told.
    Keep in mind, I’m told this not seen it with my eyes but told this by folks who lived their and left.
    Is any of this true?

    I’m told of ghetto’s that look worse that Japan after we bombed them into oblivion.

    I think of Democrats and Unions and people who cared not about how they would paid for things but just tax, tax, tax.
    Is any of this correct? I don’t know but it’s enough that I have no interest in going into Michigan let alone Detroit.

    The funny thing is on my desk I have a nice ceramic piece I purchased off of eBay that says Detroit and it was made by PEWABIC Pottery. Two pieces in fact, one of the Detroit skyline and one that says Imported from Detroit Chrysler. I use these as coasters and love to think I helped a company in Detroit.

    Am I anti-union? No
    Am I anti-Democrat? Perhaps
    Am I anti-Detroit or Michigan? Of course not.
    I want to see them do well, thrive and revive and do it in ways that allows them to be around another 100 years with growth and vitality? Why? Because I’m an American and proud to be one.

    As a grandson of an Italian immigrant who came here legally I might add, I cherish business and invention and innovation.
    I’m the great nephew of the man who invented the controls for the automatic washing machine and a relative of the man who created the Bank of Italy in San Fransisco which is the Bank of America.
    I love all people coming to America properly and legally and creating awesome businesses.
    This is why I ride Harley-Davidson’s and even Moto Guzzi’s (Italian made) and love buying new vehicles made in Detroit.

    But, I’m from Illinois and own a manufacturing company I started in a two car garage with $750.00 and in a way reminiscent of my grandfather I launched two companies that have helped to employ hundreds of Americans and one very hard working German woman, God bless her.

    When I think if Detroit I mourn. Make me stop mourning by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps Detroit and getting your asses busy. Quit clamoring to the political left and asking them to bail your ass out. Get to work!
    Quite burning down your city.
    Start building it up.
    Get to work.

  9. Donnie

    When I think of Detroit,
    I think of what must have been and how it was surely ruined. If you don’t produce what you are worth as a whole, the results are inevitable. When you are living off of the work and sweat of someone else, you will end up with exactly what you deserve. Detroit should be a prime example of this injustice, in our society.

  10. Lloyd Graff

    I am agnostic about Detroit, but I love Russ’s passion for the city, or at least what is left of it. He loves its eccentricities, goofballs, and unsightly treasures. He loves his Court that hears the everyday miseries of ordinary nutty people gutting it in the D. Russ is a Detroit lifer, because he is totally entwined in the tentacles of the monster he calls home.


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