Envisioning A Prosperous Future For Detroit

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In Time magazine, Daniel Okrent wrote, "the ultimate fate of Detroit will reveal much about the character of America in the 21st century." Okrent shares ideas for reviving his hometown, and current and former Detroiters offer their thoughts on how to bring back their city.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The statistics are horrifying: 29 percent unemployment; seven out of 10 murders unsolved; population half what it once was; and not one single solitary national grocery store within city limits. Its former mayor's on probation after serving time for perjury and obstruction of justice. And, of course, its signature industry is just about circling the drain.

Detroit is on life support, but not dead yet. At least not if editors at TIME Incorporated have their way. The company bought a house in Detroit and was spent the next year rotating reporters and photographers in and out of it as they report on the struggles of the Motor City. A project just kicked off with a cover story in this week's edition of TIME magazine written by Detroit native Daniel Okrent. He joined us in a moment.

Detroiters in the audience past and present, we want to hear from you. What will bring your city back? Give us a call: 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Danny Okrent joins us from the studio on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. And, Danny, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. DANIEL OKRENT (Writer and Editor): Nice to have - nice to be here, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Before we hear of Detroit's struggles, well, the Lions last week broke on 19 game losing streak, finally beating the Washington Redskins, and the Tigers, as we speak, have an opportunity to clinch the American League Central and get into (unintelligible).

Mr. OKRENT: What's the score?

CONAN: Four, one, Minnesota.

Mr. OKRENT: Oh.

CONAN: So, anyway, if they win - if they fail to win that game, they can - any combination of two Tiger victories and twin losses over the weekend will give Detroit the division championship. But, anyway, that's got to be some good fortune for people in the city. And you went back to your hometown, I gather, somewhat reluctantly.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, only then that I took early time limit from TIME Incorporated eight years ago. I haven't been doing much magazine writing. I write books now. But I got a phone call from John Huey, the editor-in-chief. He had just been to Detroit to meet the heads of the auto company. So he came back and he said, I can't believe what I've seen. We have to do something about it, and can you take part in it? He knew I grew up there.

CONAN: And it's then going back to report on your hometown. And writing in the first person which, I gather, something also you're not too comfortable with.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, I don't want to write about myself, but I did want to write about what Detroit was in the '50s and '60s when it was at the - at its prime. I mean, all I could do was relate my personal experience.

I don't think I spent too much time on that, just a few paragraphs. The piece is about how Detroit came to its terrible state where it is today; what happened over the last 30, 40 years that took what was once the most prosperous city in America: the arsenal democracy, the home of our signature industry, and has reduced it to, as you said, near-death.

CONAN: And there are many reasons why that all happened, including toxic local politics and city suburb problems, racism, for sure, and disastrous decisions by the prime industry there, the car business, and indeed as you site by the United Auto Workers union as well. But nevertheless, you try to end at an optimistic note and point towards ways that Detroit could come back. And those include - why don't you talk to us about that?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, I think the key thing is to realize that when you have a place that has a skilled workforce that is unemployed, that has more engineers than any other place but Silicon Valley unemployed, that has beautiful houses that can be bought for - as we did, we bought a six-bedroom, three-story house in a very nice neighborhood for $99,000 - when you get into that sort of a circumstance, you are in a position to really remake your economic world. It's an opportunity for people who have entrepreneurial spirit to come in and reinvent Detroit.

CONAN: And some of the opportunities are there, even in an industry, which seems to be - well, it's on government welfare now and in disaster shape.

Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. The fact that the technology that's being developed by the auto companies is not strictly for autos. I went out to the General Motors' tech center in suburban Warren and I drove a Chevrolet that was powered by hydrogen and fuel cells. Now, it's the power that matters here, although it's an amazing car. It has 90 percent fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine.

But think of it, apart from being a vehicle that can get you from one place to another, it has this technology that we can could use for any number of energy purposes. So why not turn Detroit - which was once known as the arsenal of democracy for building the planes and tanks and jeeps that won World War II -and make it the arsenal of the renewable energy future. We've got the technology. We have affordable labor. We have land and homes that are available. Why not make that a national mission?

CONAN: And the emissions of a hydrogen engine are not smog and carbon monoxide. They are…

Mr. OKRENT: It's mist.

CONAN: Yeah. It's water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: It's water. Exactly. This is power that resides in every molecule of water.

CONAN: We want to hear from Detroiters in the audience, whether they live there now or did in the past. What can bring your city back? 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org.

And Pat's on the line. Pat calling us from Charlotte, Michigan.

PAT (Caller): Hi. Good to talk to you. First thing, I think the biggest problem Detroit has - if you look at the statistics, their government cost more per capita than I believe any other major city in the country. And they have the same disease that, basically, all Americans have. And not to sound racist, I mean, down in Detroit, they tend to vote for a black person, no matter what. In other areas, they vote for a white person, no matter what; or a Christian person or whatever.

And I think until Detroiters and the state of Michigan start voting for the person who makes sense in office, Detroit can't pull themselves out of this malaise. There's lots - as your guest says, there's lots of things that could be helpful but it's never going to happen as long as people there vote according to their emotions, rather than according to what makes sense for Detroit. And I'll listen for your comment offline because I know you're very busy.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks for the call, Pat. And, well, political reform is indeed one of the things you call for, Danny?

Mr. OKRENT: Right. And, yeah. In fact, right now, they've got a new mayor, Dave Bing, former NBA star, who did not have to take this job, who did not have to run for office, who was living in the suburbs, admittedly, and moved back in because he thinks he can approach it differently from the last few mayors who were - well, two of the last three who were rather confrontational, to say the least.

The reader has - the caller has one very good point about the cost of services. But I think he's got the wrong reason for it. The reason why services are so expensive in Detroit is because they're trying to serve a population that is half the size that it once was, but they still have the same land area that they have to cover. So police, for instance, or fire or sanitation, they might be traveling two or three times as far as they would in any other city to get the one or two remaining houses on a block in a devastated neighborhood.

The city has to shrink its footprint. It has to come down to half the size than it is now. This has never happened before in America - in American history. But the notion of saying to somebody, look, I know you love your house, I know you love living here - you're the only person on the block, we can't protect you anymore. We can't help you if there's a fire. We have to move you. We have to claim your house by eminent domain and move you somewhere else so that you're in a neighborhood that we can serve.

CONAN: That's something that some people would say, wait a minute. You're advocating retreat.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, I'm advocating realism. I suppose you could continue to see the population decline, the land area stay the same, and the cost per person, as the caller said, just going up, up, and up. I think it's only common sense, frankly.

CONAN: Let's talk with Julie. Julie with us from Howell in Michigan.

JULIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

JULIE: I don't think Detroit has to look that far to be inspired. All they have to do so is look on the other side of the state, in Grand Rapids, at our prize, which is a humongous art exhibit that has been going on for just one week and it has transformed that city. And I'm living between both of them and pretty objective. And I see Grand Rapids from the sleepy industrial city into this creative, happy, lively area. And I think Detroit really needs to focus on its - getting the creative people there because that's really where everything starts.

Mr. OKRENT: I think that's another thing that is happening in Detroit, another thing as a result of the fact that it's so inexpensive. You do have a growing art community and music community, people doing interesting things in the inner - in what was once called the inner city - in abandoned buildings, in loft buildings and former factory buildings, and they're beginning to make the same kind of impact that the caller is describing in Grand Rapids.

CONAN: Julie, thanks very much for the call.

JULIE: You're welcome.

CONAN: One of the things that really damaged Detroit was white flight from the city and then divisive racial politics on both sides of that divide, as you describe it on your piece, Danny. And you're saying it's time for that to end.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, obviously, that - that's - that doesn't serve anybody's interest. The other thing that struck me most was a conversation I had with the Oakland County Executive, Brooks Patterson. He's a very capable guy. He's been in the job for a long time. And he says, no, no. It's not a problem. What happens in Detroit, I'm sorry it's happening to them, but that really doesn't affect Oakland County. And then, two sentences later, he was saying that he's worried about his AAA bond rating being downgraded. The agencies have told them they might because of its proximity to Detroit on one side and Flint, a small version of Detroit, on the other side.

It's a common problem that affects the entire metropolitan area. And the people who have left the city and think that they've left the problems behind them are going to see the problems creeping up on them very soon unless they realize that they have to work together.

CONAN: So, what form of regional government might there be?

Mr. OKRENT: Well, I think that you begin with particular services. Already, the city of Detroit sells water to the suburbs. But if we can get them to areas like transportation, police protection and even, if possible, education, then we've got a chance.

You know, one of the great school districts in America is in Raleigh, North Carolina and that's because it's a common school district between the city and the suburbs. It's a Wake County School District so that people in the all-white suburbs have some real vested interest in the quality of the schools and the way the schools are managed in the inner city.

CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Okrent who wrote the cover story for this week's issue of Time magazine on their Detroit Project, a former editor and writer for Time, Inc. and a former public editor, the ombudsman at the New York Times.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Sam on the line. Sam calling from Detroit.

SAM (Caller): Hey.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SAM: Oh, I love this show. First time caller.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

SAM: I want to say your commentary was right on, that there needs to be some serious condensing of the population, so that the cost of services can go down. I think the biggest thing that Detroit needs to realize is that the automakers are on their way out and have been on their way out for quite awhile. That's not a new issue. You just need to drive around the city and see the square footage after square footage of very cheap industrial space that no one wants to move into and have an impact on.

And the last caller that was comparing Detroit to Grand Rapids, you know, I'm sorry we don't have any Republican billionaires to have these little art contests. It's a very unfortunate thing, but you know, that's real life. And I'll take my comment off the air.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Sam.

Mr. OKRENT: Nothing to disagree with there, I'm afraid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OKRENT: I think that he's absolutely right.

CONAN: Now, let's go to Andy. Andy with us from Sacramento.

ANDY: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I actually just want to make a comment that - sort of stand on the comment that Julie made. I live in Sacramento now, but I grew up outside of Detroit. And growing up, we were told, you know, never go to Detroit, it's the worst area, it's so terrible, and Grand Rapids is so nice. But after I graduated high school in 2000, a lot of my friends moved to Detroit and still live there now.

And I was there in January of '09 - in Grand Rapids of January '09 - and they're not - they're two different cities. But what I think Detroit has going for is accessible art. And your last caller made a point about, you know, billionaire Republicans, but in the city of Detroit, there are so many musicians and there are so many artists and so many people that, you know, you may go inside a building that is so trashed and graffitied on the outside and inside they're - find a very welcoming and hip, trendy art space. And I feel like that's one of those communities, like Flint, that even though it may be just ghetto and terrible and hard to live in, is really a very proud community and a creative community.

And I just wanted to drop that comment. I'll take it off the air.

CONAN: All right, Andy. Thanks very much. And you mentioned earlier, that in part because, well, housing is cheap and other things, the art community, the music community is coming back. But it doesn't seem like that's going to be the basis of a solid middle class.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, what you can do is you can create a city that becomes an attraction. I think the caller had a very good point there, that if you have a lively cultural life, you begin to get people who used to not go into the city, to do so. In fact, there's a really nicely revived downtown in Detroit. It has - what's happened there has not reached the neighborhoods, but it begins to make it possible for - to think of Detroit in a different way and to attract people who would not have lived there five, 10 or 20 years ago.

CONAN: Here's an email from Lynn(ph). I was born in Detroit in it's heyday, sort of. I went to Cass Tech and Wayne State and finally moved away in 1973. Detroit has tried and failed at comebacks for years and has been on a steady decline for as long as I can remember. In my youth, downtown was vibrant and fun - Hudson's, Siegel's, Crowley's, good food, great shopping and a hot fudge cream puff at Sanders. Those were the days. It was a one-industry town and it will have the same fate as the railroads. There is no comeback and never was.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, there won't be a comeback for the auto industry. And the good news is that with the auto industry on the ropes, or as you said, going down the drain, you can no longer - finally, people are waking up that we cannot depend on this. And what's good for the auto industry is not good for Detroit. The total dependency on the auto industry for the last 50 years - it was like a man standing on a roulette table and he wins on red so he bets red again and again and again. And because he wins, he thinks he's going to keep on winning.

And now, the bank has been broken. The auto industry is over. They should move on to something besides autos, and the opportunity is there for new people to come in and new businesses, too.

CONAN: Here's Carol(ph). Carol with us from Green Bay, Wisconsin.

CAROL (Caller): Hi. I grew up in the Detroit area. I went to Oakland University. My husband has four degrees from Wayne State and we lived on Wayne State campus for many years. But he was a mental health specialist for 17 years, nine in private practice. And the big three started cutting their mental health benefits in the late '80s and '90s. And then Governor Engler, back then, slashed mental health, closed Lafayette Clinic, put all the, you know, people that had problems, in the streets.

But we know people that are still - like psychologists and things like that in the Detroit area, and they have to work at five and six clinics, three to five…

CONAN: Carol, I know you've got a lot to say, but we have very little time left.

CAROL: Okay. My point is, if you could bring back some kind of a mental health issue, some kind of like, industry like that. Let's get some, you know, okay we might have to have insurance companies, too, but we need to bring back industry like that, also, back to these vibrant areas. There are so many - like you said, there are so many engineers, you know, and how many psychologists and social workers and therapists that are there that have - their life has been ruined. You know, like we had to leave in 2001. You know, we lived in Canada for five years. Now, we - my husband's a professor, thank God. But…

CONAN: Carol, I'm afraid we have to end it.

CAROL: You know, okay. But you know what I mean. We need to do something.

CONAN: Okay, Carol. Thank you very much.

Mr. OKRENT: Well, yeah. I think that Carol in Green Bay is entirely wrong. I mean, I feel for those people in the mental health business, but that is not a productive business. If you have productive industry that is employing people and producing jobs, then you get back the benefits and people in mental health and many other areas will find that there is money to pay for what they provide. We can't have a service economy where everybody is taking out each other's laundry and nobody's producing anything.

Every group - the firemen can say that, the policemen can say that - every group in Detroit can say, well, we lost our jobs, bring us back, pay us, even though there's no tax base.

CONAN: Daniel Okrent wrote the cover story for this week's Time, on their Detroit Project. And he joined us from Cape Cod. You can read his story and check out the Detroit blog at our Web Site at npr.org. He's also got a new book coming out next year on the history of prohibition.

And tomorrow - Danny, thanks very much. By the way…

Mr. OKRENT: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Minnesota 8, Detroit 1; bottom of the eighth. Sorry about that.

Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. Let's hear how you can green up your lawn without chemicals. This - we'll see you again on Monday.

This is NPR News.

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