What to Make of America's Most Interesting City, Part 3
I wake up with the garden cold and empty outside my window. I look out at the frozen bench, the dead grass, the blue sky through the scraggle trees. In the kitchen, there are pictures of the garden’s bounty from the summer of 2008 mounted on a poster-board – a colorful collage of fruit trees and beanstalks – but no food. I’ve seen these pictures before, on some blog, a friend’s email, another dispatch from Detroit, the land of possibility and plenty. But on this morning, hungry in an empty kitchen, I wonder if the skeptics were right.
The thing about Detroit is, nobody really knows what’s happening here. I came to find out. I came to learn about urban agriculture, to learn about what kind of community could be built by growing your own food. I had heard about dozens of neighborhood gardens and community development organizations. I had also heard about a businessman’s plan for developing thousands of acres of commercial agriculture in metropolitan Detroit in the name of economic development. The plan appeared to draw support and derision from all sides, creating splits within nearly every circle, from business leaders to community activists; and after seeing a picture of a man in a dark three-piece suit standing amidst knee-high brown grass in a vacant lot, the whole thing seemed too absurd to ignore. What’s going on in this city that makes a businessman think he can become a large-scale farmer in the middle of one of the United States’ largest metropolitan areas?
After establishing that the kitchen is empty, I borrow a bike from the Trumbullplex, leaving by the theater door and making sure that Clark doesn’t run out after me. Alex must still be asleep. I dodge the ice patches in the driveway and drop into Trumbull Avenue. I’m on my way to a café in Mexicantown. I bike by an empty warehouse with blue plastic sheeting flapping in its windows that could be abandoned or newly renovated; its sign for leasing could have been there ten days or ten years. My stomach is empty except for last night’s beers and the Coney I ate during my walk to the Trumbullplex, so even though most of the snow has melted from the street, it’s slow going.
Detroit is hard to make sense of from outside. It’s a city buried under narrative: the future of America, city of hope, a wasteland of racial conflict, testament to the hubris of industrial capitalism – everyone finds their theory reified in Detroit. In 2008, during the mess with GM and the bailouts, the mainstream economists were having a field day. We heard from all the usual suspects – Krugman, the Economist, professors at HBS and innumerable bloggers. Time, Inc., bought a house and essentially did war-reporting from a residential neighborhood. Their picture of Detroit became ours, and it seemed to coalesce with textbook precision.
It was a familiar story, one we’ve been telling ourselves for more than forty years: Detroit is an example of our economy shifting from manufacturing to information. Manufacturing relocated to cheaper labor markets, mostly outside the US, taking well-paid jobs with it. Industrial bases in the Midwest were replaced by start-ups on the coasts, where America’s greatest asset, labor-cum-innovation, was leveraged in the proliferation of firms that don’t produce anything we could properly call a “thing.” Business-speak shifted from quality control to knowledge management. Yale opened a business school.
Meanwhile, Detroit was crumbling. The same people who brought us knowledge management created mathematical models to describe how capital leaves a city. Without an industrial anchor, workers leave in search of other jobs. They take with them not only their families, but also their spending power, which is felt especially hard in the real estate market where the decrease in demand, and the concomitant surplus in supply, lowers property values. Edward Glaeser and Giacomo Ponzetto, both professors at Harvard, link urban decay to lower communication and transportation costs, and describe the same process in the industrial sector: “When the costs of distance fall, manufacturing firms leave the city, which causes a decline in urban income and property values…This effect captures the decline in erstwhile manufacturing powerhouses like Cleveland and Detroit.” Property is often an individual’s, and especially a family’s, primary source of collateral, so depressed property values lead to depressed credit markets and thus, on the mainstream analysis, to a crippled economy.
What first appeared to be a vacant lot turns out to be an empty public park, and across the street from it is my coffee shop, with inviting floor to ceiling windows as promised. I go inside, get a small coffee, only a touch of milk, and I sit down by those big glorious windows and gather my thoughts in the sun, looking out on the park across the street, with its frozen grass and lonely gravel walks. It’s a popular park, by the looks of it, at least with the soccer players, whose cleats have left telltale dirt patches where the goals must stand in warmer weather.
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