Re-Re Birth Pains — and Gains

If you think of a place that was close to death and is now entering into a new life, that’s Detroit. Why does that happen? Well there’s great space available, there’s affordability. But cities attract different people … “Detroit is a place where anything goes. It’s a place that’s open to people.”

– Richard Florida

During this long and indeed painful recession, many cities across the United States continue to face poor economic situations. No city has felt the negative impacts of the de-industrialization of the north and the current recession more than Detroit, Michigan. In a recently released five part video series for Atlantic Cities, titled Detroit Rising, Richard Florida takes viewers through the downtown streets of Detroit, profiling the community change-makers seeking to rebuild this city and answers viewer questions on what it will really take to get this city back on its feet. The series displays that while Detroit has faced tough times, there are many indicators that point to a possible re-rebirth of the city in the creative age. Previous Martin Prosperity Institute research has traced the marked decline in manufacturing and the painful effects of economic restructuring on the economy. This insight examines the rebuilding of Detroit; highlighting key organizations and partnerships that are bringing this city back to its feet.

Detroit’s downfall has been well documented, as the once automotive capital has seen its population decrease greatly year after year. There are a host of problems within the city that make it difficult to attract talented people. Decaying, vacant land, high unemployment rates, extreme poverty, extreme segregation, a miniscule tax base, and the fourth highest murder rate in the country (2010) are all issues that have become synonymous with the city of Detroit. Even recently to save money, the City of Detroit is proposing to permanently turn off almost half of its streetlights.

Although Detroit faces many issues, the potential to rise up from its current position is apparent through the city’s creativity. Historically through the technological innovation of the Ford Motor Company, the impressive architecture of many of the city’s buildings and rail stations, and amongst the musical genius of Motown and numerous rock and roll artists, the city has always had a strong creative presence. Currently the Detroit Metro’s creative share of the workforce is around 34% or 228,270 people (2010), with its service and working classes attributing to 44% and 21% respectively. With a Creative Class share slightly larger than the US average, Detroit has a number of creative class jobs currently. Combined with a working class that on average makes $7,000 a year more than the average American working class employee, Detroit has a unique opportunity.

Exhibit 1: Labour force, 2010

Exhibit 1: Labour Force, 2010

Detroit has the potential to build on its creative and working class share by further developing the talent and technology that is already in the city. Recently, companies such as Ford have developed research and innovation offices within Detroit. Ford alone holds close to five hundred patents for hybrid technology, and Detroit itself has become such a fast growing technological hub, that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in December 2011 announced that they will be opening an office in Detroit. The founder of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert has recently noticed Detroit’s growing advances and has set up a program that funds aspiring entrepreneurs and provides them work space and business coaching within the city. Detroit also has a very engaged and intelligent immigrant population and while immigrants only make up around 8% of the population, they produce around 32% of the city’s high-tech startups.

The major issue for Detroit’s technology and talent is retaining and further attracting talent. A recent study on Detroit by Sumeet Ahluwalia, Rikki Bennie, Brett Henry and Graham Macdonald, sheds light on the issue of retaining talent in Detroit. A Brain Drain/Gain index was applied to Detroit, which displays whether an area loses its educated population after graduation, or gains educated individuals. Detroit was found to be in a brain drain situation as many issues such as living conditions are deterring well-educated people from staying in Detroit. This is not due to a lack of schools or students as Detroit has a high college, graduate and professional student population. Retaining talent has become an issue and certain companies in Detroit are finding that the number of qualified students graduating into the region is not keeping up with the open opportunities, according to a 2011 Bloomberg report. Here lies one of Detroit’s biggest challenges, which is providing better quality of place for residents.

Central to Detroit’s rise is the way in which negatives are being turned into positives; drawing on the cities great assets to create a better quality of place. There are many citizens of Detroit, companies and grass root organizations that are utilizing Detroit’s creative potential. Organizations such as Art Serve Michigan, I am Young Detroit, Detroit Lives and Detroit 4 Detroit are all trying to display Detroit’s emerging creative potential through the arts and other facets. Even the government is partaking in assisting creativity through projects like the Detroit Works Project, which is a partnership with the mayor of Detroit and the citizens to engage in creating a short and long term goal to help improve the physical, social and economic landscape of the city. The Detroit Creative Corridor Center is an economic development organization with the goal of opening Detroit’s potential of becoming a global center of design and creative innovation. These organizations are following in a long standing tradition of civic engagement and community building initiatives in Detroit. The city’s creative rise is no more apparent in the organic solutions to one of the cities greatest problem, decaying empty lots. From the creation of urban farms on abandoned Detroit land, to the creation of art studios, success in the creative economy is apparent.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other publications have recently shed light on the art phenomena in Detroit in which artists have purchased houses or land (in some cases for as cheap as $100) and turned the spaces into environmentally friendly homes and art studios. This has led to a number of artists flocking to Detroit for cheap land to express their creative endeavors, similar to the historic Detroit Heibelberg Project. The University of Michigan, has teamed up with an organization known as the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency, to display new types of urban practices (architecturally, artistically, everyday life, etc.) that come into existence, creating a new value system in Detroit.

While Detroit still faces many issues that have been entrenched throughout the last decade, there is hope for a rebirth and it lies within the creative people, organizations and grassroots projects that are working hard to create a stronger city, community and economy. Other regions would be wise to take note of the resilience and perseverance that civic engagement and the grassroots movement has brought to Detroit.

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The Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto‘s Rotman School of Management is the world’s leading think-tank on the role of sub-national factors — location, place and city-regions — in global economic prosperity. We take an integrated view of prosperity, looking beyond economic measures to include the importance of quality of place and the development of people’s creative potential.