Friday Afternoon Confession: Bright lights downtown, broken lights elsewhere
I confess I have noticed a lot of stories lately about the revitalization of Detroit. I don’t mean the American car industry (strangely sometimes referred to as Detroit) but the actual city. What’s actually a confession is I am skeptical of these stories of re-birth. This feels like a true confession because I hate the idea of pouring cold water on any excitement that could be percolating in a city that has been short on good news since the 50s or 60s.
Nevertheless, the skepticism bubbles. Reason being, all these stories focus on the revitalized downtown in the city. Downtown activity is nice. A healthy downtown is the face a city shows the rest of the world. I’m sure there are cities all over the country who are healthy overall, but still stew over a listless downtown. The problem with Detroit’s downtown is a lot of the activity they’re seeing has been drawn in through gigantic tax credits, tax freezes and/or tax abatements.
This means they’re not doing a whole lot to help the city as a whole recover (the city recently reported a $265M budget deficit). Even if they were helping more, I would hold my skepticism of the city’s overall health until there were more stories about a recovery in the city’s neighborhoods. A city’s neighborhoods are its real lifeblood, and healthy neighborhoods can serve to create a kind of symbiotic relationship with the downtown. Healthy neighborhoods would show people are actually showing enough faith in the city to invest more than a weekend night there. Right now, and I suspect for the foreseeable future, people who are perfectly willing to spend an evening downtown are also more than happy (relieved, even) to drive back to their home in the suburbs.
But let’s just assume the city’s best hope for recovery is to start with the downtown. Even if it pulls people and investment into the neighborhoods, the city will have to hold its breath to see what all these corporate citizens do when their flush tax incentives wear out. Will they be content to stay? Will they strong arm the city into extensions or new tax breaks? Will they just uproot and bounce out to the suburbs like they have for the past fifty years. After all, the first ring suburbs have corroded as well. A company could be the feelgood story for Detroit, drain that well, and then recycle the same story in Dearborn or Pontiac. I fear that this exodus of investment is what will happen and it will expose the superficial nature of this recovery. Basically a pretty face hiding a cancer-riddled body.
Again, I applaud everybody who is working hard to bring Detroit back from the brink. (Hell, Detroit may have gone over the brink a time or two.) I certainly don’t want to sound like I’m saying everybody is doing everything all wrong and it’s not going to work. I’m just saying the work (which is taking place) that’s really going to save the city – if that’s going to happen – probably isn’t going to pop up in the magazines rushing to do stories about startups and downtown developers.
Totally unrelated and much more light-hearted confession. I noticed over at AUFS that on Brad’s Twitter feed he expressed a desire for Marvel to re-do their “Secret Wars” in movie form. Out of curiosity, I looked up “Marvel Secret Wars” on Wikipedia for nostalgia’s sake (I loved that series). It turned out the series (12 issues and now over 25 years old, but with a lasting impact on the Marvel universe) was concocted solely to introduce a line of toys for Mattel. I confess this did not sit well with me and made me hate Marvel on behalf of my 10-year-old self. I confess I’ll get over this before I go see Avengers this weekend.
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