Tag Archives: Detroit

Michiganders and their weather

Has anyone else noticed that Michiganders talk a lot about the weather?

I listen to a few different Michigan podcasts and I noticed that in each one of them, at one point or another, a guest or a host will open up their comments by talking about the weather.

Then I started thinking, I always talk about the weather when I call home to my family. Someone asks me how the weather is or I ask them how the weather is – or both.

Michiganders are just so used to horrible weather : We have some of the cloudiest weather in the country – 13 of the top 101 cities according to this site – and, in my hometown, some of the snowiest weather. I propose a hypothesis that we talk about the weather more than should be considered normal since we either talk about our horrible weather as a sort of therapy (“Well, at least summer’s only six months away”) or in pleasant surprise when we, on occasion, do in fact have nice weather (“Look! A patch of green is showing through the snow!”).

Has anyone else noticed this? Am I making this up?

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We are not all Detroiters

As nice a sentiment as it is, we are not all Detroiters.

For years, Michiganders have looked at Detroit as a “problem” that needs fixing. An inconvenience. An eyesore.

And now that the city of Detroit is declaring bankruptcy – at the behest of our Governor – we’re all Detroiters?

For too many people across the nation and across the world, Detroit has become a sort of apocalyptic Babylon – the image of a once mighty empire in ruins. Many people are quick to gawk and let their mouths hang open in disbelief at the city’s fall, but few people are willing to make any headway on the problem.

Detroit is not the problem, however. Detroit is the victim.

So-called “experts” across the nation are lining up to speculate on how this iconic American city could have ended up at this point and in this process, local officials have become an easy scape-goat for much larger problems.

Corruption on the part of certain elected officials could never be as damaging to the city as losing over 60 percent of the city’s population in fifty years. It’s a long way to fall from nearly two million to just over 700,000.

Corruption could never do as much harm as shipping jobs to other states and other countries. People – and tax dollars – go where there’s work available.

Corruption has done far less to harm the city of Detroit than urban sprawl. There are still over four million people in Metro Detroit – only their tax dollars are going to other city governments rather than to Detroit’s coffers.

The real Detroiters are the ones living in Detroit right now, the ones dealing with the consequences of White Flight, the ones coping with the aftermath of our manufacturing jobs getting shipped overseas.

And it should be noted that these Detroiters are remaking the city today in revolutionary ways that are showing what a post-industrial society looks like. Vacant fields are being turned into farms. Neighborhoods are being converted into art galleries. The people of Detroit are pulling together, reclaiming the city through ground-level organizing – from biking groups to networking for transplants moving to Detroit for work.

And Detroit is adding jobs: Entrepreneurs are moving to Detroit to start businesses. The tech industry is posting huge gains in Detroit. As Quicken Loans and other companies set up downtown, housing is in high demand. A new bridge connecting Detroit with Canada will expand trade and manufacturing possibilities.

The state of Michigan could best help out the city of Detroit by speeding up the blight removal, by using some of the $500+ million in our rainy day fund to invest in the city and speed up its recovering. The city’s layout is in desperate need of an overhaul since it’s a huge place. Detroit is roughly the same size as San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Boston combined (139 sq miles vs the combined area of these cities standing at 156 sq miles).

To go back to Detroit’s French roots, Dépenser plus pour gagner plus. Spend more to get more. For Detroit to become economically viable, we need to reverse the city’s hemorrhaging population. Restructuring the city, investing in infrastructure and police, and speeding up blight removal are all crucial components to this.

We need some action. Detroit’s recovery is Michigan’s recovery – but that doesn’t make us all Detroiters.

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Belle Isle BS

This is the sort of news story that you think must be some internet BS that should be easily debunked with a little research.

But, as far as I can tell, it’s true. A group of wealthy businessmen are trying to buy Belle Isle from the city of Detroit for $1 billion to create a ‘utopian enclave’. This commonwealth would be a low tax, ‘crime-free’ community without laws. Because we all know that our country’s wealthiest never commit crimes, right?

All of that for the low membership fee of $300,000.

How do we start addressing what’s wrong with this ‘libertarian’ vision for Belle Isle? Essentially, it’s White Flight on steroids. The 1% don’t like paying taxes so they need their own enclave where they can play by their own rules without interference from that pesky government of ours.

The project developers promise ‘spin-off’ investments that would supposedly benefit the city of Detroit. But you know what would really benefit the city of Detroit? Increased revenues. You know how you achieve that? Increase the city’s population. Bring more people in to live and work in Detroit. Make it an economic hub once more.

The sort of mindset that inspires this sort of deranged vision has no conception of what communitarian responsibility even means. What kind of society are you living in that it costs $300,000 to belong to at the same time that you set up shop next door to the most violent and one of the poorest communities in the entire United States? You can’t toss your scraps across the river and claim to be actively invested in Detroit’s well-being.

I realize that there is a fundamental political difference that separates my vision of society from the developers who are pushing for this Belle Isle enclave. The sort of ideology that lies behind this project says, in blunt terms, “I don’t owe anybody anything. I’m a self-made man. I worked hard all my life for my money and I don’t want to get taxed to death by the government. If only other people worked harder, they could have everything I’ve got. It’s not my fault that other people lack initiative.” That’s the idea in blunt terms. But no one lives in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line, you’ve gotten help from someone else whether it be your family or – God forbid – the government. Fortunes generally aren’t made solely on the hard work and initiative of a single person or even a group of people.

It’s in the interest of the very wealthy to have a large working class and a healthy middle class. Without a sizable working class, who is going to answer your phones? Who is going to make your latte at Starbucks? Who is going to check you out at Wal-Mart? Not all of us have been replaced by robots just yet, so in the meanwhile, our working class is still pretty essential. It’s also in the interest of the 1% to have a large middle class to buy their products. So I love it when I hear this whole spiel about how a little hard work and initiative is the only thing standing in the way of my fortune. I’m not complaining, personally. I’m pretty well off. And besides, you need me. You need me to buy cars from you, to buy computers from you, to buy books, CDs, coffee, food or whatever else it might be. So don’t act like you’re so great all on your own. You need us, too.

I would very simply like to suggest that it’s hypocritical of these very wealthy individuals to propose tax free enclaves when they already have so much. Yeah, I’ve heard it said that we need the wealthy because private enterprise means jobs. We need wealthy individuals to use their private capital to start businesses. I get it.

But it’s ironic that these same libertarian-leaning individuals, who so often decry the lack of responsibility on the part of our government for its deficit spending, so often connive to find ways to dodge taxes themselves. We not only need wealthy individuals to help create jobs, we also need them to pay their fair share so that we can have a strong education system, so that we can fund infrastructure, so that we can pay for military spending and pay off this debt we’ve accrued.

So of course there is a balance that we need to strike between respecting our obligations towards one another – which I very strongly believe in – and also allowing private enterprise to function without excessive taxation.

This BS vision for Belle Isle crosses the line. It violates our communitarian obligation to support our society – the same society which supports businesses like Chrysler and Cafe d’Mongo in Detroit whose former presidents and owners are pushing this idea. What’s your vision for this great country? Do you want to 1% to continue drifting off to sea with their off-shore bank accounts and tax-free enclaves while the rest of us work for, proportionally speaking, less and less? When you need your own island wedged in between Canada and the United States to protect yourself from taxes, you’re neglecting the very country that helped make you great.

I’m all in favor of you creating your own personal libertarian enclave. But only if you build your own cabin in northern Quebec with trees that you cut down yourself while wearing clothes that you sewed and raising your own crops and animals to slaughter yourself.

Until then, I’m tired of the very wealthy behaving so irresponsibly.

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21st Century Detroit

How do we rebuild Detroit? It’s a question older than half the city’s current population.

In recent years that question has become more and more closely intertwined with rebuilding the Michigan economy as a whole since it’s apparent that we can no longer rely solely on the auto industry or, more broadly, manufacturing despite recent gains that the state has made.

Since Governor Snyder’s election in 2010, part of that discussion about how we rebuild that state economy has centered around a bridge – a bridge proposed by Mr. Snyder to link Ontario and Michigan together. We have several already, yes, but according to Mr. Snyder, the increase in traffic capacity will mean that Detroit will solidify itself as a hub for international trade and commerce.

The Center for Automotive Research is claiming 5,000 to 6,000 temporary jobs will be added during bridge construction and 1,400 permanent jobs. Whether those jobs will be in Detroit or split with Windsor, the article fails to mention.

Another more detailed article from MLive describes how a second bridge in Detroit will assist car manufacturers that regularly have to transport goods from Canada to assembly lines in the U.S.

Mr. Snyder is being applauded as a “visionary” for pushing the project. I have been very critical of Mr. Snyder in the past but as a Michigander I believe in finding a way forward together and I don’t want to detract too much from the project. What he is trying to do has the potential to be very positive – and it’s worth noting that the project has the support of every single past Michigan governor living today. He’s up against a billionaire with a lot of money at stake tied up in the Ambassador Bridge who’s been waging ad wars against the New International Trade Crossing.

Recognizing that I am neither a resident of Detroit nor am I an expert in economics, here is a short “Yes, but…” to the discussion.

Detroit made itself great in my grandparents’ generation by leading us into the biggest, most calamitous war in history. Car manufacturing plants got converted into America’s war machine overnight and helped supply the Allies with much needed tanks. My grandfather and grandmother both served in the war – one as a cartographer in Alaska and the other back in Detroit at a converted manufacturing plant. I’m proud of what my grandparents and the city of Detroit accomplished.

Today, Detroit needs this kind of adaptability to rise again. The problem the last time around during World War II is that the sudden boost in economic activity and manufacturing wasn’t sustainable. If we want to leave a lasting legacy and a lasting infrastructure, building a bridge isn’t going to be the answer. Sustainable development means surpassing new ways to better serve the auto industry. It means developing new industry – which I fully recognize could also profit from this venture.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I recognize that no one is presenting this as the definitive answer to Michigan’s economic downturn but rather as one component that will help move us forward. And I agree. I think that the bridge has great potential to help Detroit turn a corner if the private sector will get on board as they’ve promised.

I would just like to ask the question: Why aren’t we investing in more sustainable infrastructure? Why are we opting to expand highway transportation when demand has been decreasing at the 82 year old Ambassador Bridge? We could instead be expanding international rail services. Take a look at this map – we already have a good deal of rail infrastructure in and around Detroit that could be further developed as a more durable means of making Detroit into an international trade hub. As oil resources dwindle and become more difficult and more costly to access (not just financially speaking but also in terms of human life and the environment), we find ourselves still awaiting viable alternatives as technology for more eco-friendly automobiles lags. We need solutions now and one of them is using more trains. Of course this will mean that nationally, we need to bulk up on our infrastructure which means spending money which makes people cringe now more than ever.

But this is the future we’re talking about. We have a couple options right now: We can continue exploiting oil resources and go after the hard-to-get-to reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and in the North Atlantic and the Alberta Tar Sands and change nothing structurally about the way we operate as a society in terms of transportation or we can simultaneously exploit what resources we’ve already tapped (being realistic) while also reworking our transportation infrastructure and pursuing sustainable energy options.

Unfortunately, the United States has largely contented itself with the former rather than the latter. While the shortcomings of this approach should be self-evident, most people think in terms of the pump, which is to say that we base our feelings towards drilling for oil off of how much a gallon costs at the gas station. There are two (primary) problems with this: A) this isn’t a permanent solution, our supply of oil is finite and B) by going after these reserves like the Tar Sands and deepwater drilling in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, we’re doing permanent damage to our environment in exchange for temporary gain. Future generations will condemn us for our short-sightedness on this count unless we make drastic changes in how we extract oil or else in actively pursuing new energy sources.

So back to Michigan.

If we want to be a 21st century leader, we need to invest our resources in efficiently exploiting our border with Ontario by building and expanding lasting infrastructure that will be adaptable to changing needs 82 years from now.

We need a visionary in office right now and I applaud Mr. Snyder for his work on this so far – but I hope that we won’t content ourselves thinking that more roads will be a lasting solution. Of course alternative transit won’t solve all our economic difficulties, but it sets us up as better prepared to face the future with greater adaptability for whatever needs face us down the road.

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C-E-NO

In our weak economy, certain members of the GOP have offered themselves to voters as CEOs to hire, as businessmen who know how to run operations smoothly and cost-efficiently.

The two businessmen I’m thinking of are Mitt Romney and Michigan governor Rick Snyder.

Rick Snyder submitted his candidacy for governor as someone who wasn’t interested in social issues but rather wanted to get Michigan’s economy back on the tracks again. And so far, he’s mostly stuck to his plan to focus on the economy – whether or not he’s managed to get the economy back on its feet again, well that’s another matter.

Mitt Romney has been doing a less successful job with this. Nationwide there are just too many Republicans who are insistent on having a candidate who presents himself as not only a commander-in-chief but also as a preacher-in-chief. I genuinely believe that Mitt Romney would like to run a campaign free from messy social issues and would love to be presenting himself as a successful CEO, as a successful businessman who can cure the United States’ economic woes. Unfortunately for Republicans like Mitt Romney and John McCain, the Religious Right is perhaps the most powerful political force in this country and there isn’t a single Republican nominee who’s managed to secure the nomination in recent years with their blessing.

I would like to argue, however, that a government and a business are not at all the same thing.

Even if Mitt Romney could run purely as a successful businessman, just because you have successfully run a business, that hardly means that you should be in charge of a government.

In fact, I’d like to argue that it might mean just the opposite.

Where businesses exist to earn money, governments are instituted to protect the rights of their citizens. Governments facilitate and regulate the basic framework of daily life, ensuring that everyone has access to basic needs when they are in want, that everyone gets a piece of the pie (or the American dream, if you will) through access to education, transportation, healthcare, etc. I know, I know, to many GOP pundits and politicians, the word “regulation” equates with socialism. But we have regulation so that employees don’t get exploited by their employers, so that we can have clean air and drinkable water that won’t catch on fire because of pollution.

Governments don’t exist to look out for their bottom dollar.

Governments exist to take care of everyone from the top CEOs and money-makers to the people living on the street, lining up for a place at the shelter night after night. I realize that this introduces a major ideological conflict with the libertarian lot who think that government just gets in the way, but when was the last time you thought it might be cool if a river flowing through your town caught on fire?

This is my major problem with Rick Snyder: He’s confused the two. He ran for governor of Michigan with the slogan “Hire Rick”.

And frankly, he’s running the state just as you would expect a businessman to.

He’s zeroed-in on the weak departments and started cutting away the dead branches – only in this case the dead branches are local city and town governments under financial duress. Local, democratically elected officials are being replaced with appointees from Governor Snyder until the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) decides that the books are balanced and they’re through making their cuts and running the town.

Two problems:

As a Michigander, let me first say that I am well aware that Michigan has been facing a time of drastic hardship. Drastic times, drastic measures. I get it, I get it.

However, let me counter that with another cliche: Then ends don’t justify the means.

Replacing democratically elected officials, undermining the democratic process is no way of getting a community back on its feet. This is a profound disrespect for democracy that we’re seeing here in the state of Michigan that punishes the people of Michigan for nothing that they did wrong.

Detroit, for example, has been in financial trouble for years because it’s been losing its tax base. The population has been cut in half over the last fifty years – from a peak of nearly two million to about three quarters of a million today – due in part to one of the most drastic examples of White Flight in US history. African Americans migrated from the South to Detroit at the beginning of the 20th century looking for a better life in the manufacturing boom. They left behind oppression, they left behind being treated as second class citizens so that today, in 2012, they could be… treated as second class citizens all over again. As Rachel Maddow has already observed, the vast majority of people in Michigan who are directly affected by this EFM law are African American.

Do we need a clearer sign of lingering institutional racism in our country? African Americans moved north for a better life. 100 years later, their great-grandkids can’t even vote for their local town and city officials.

I’m not accusing Rick Snyder or Michigan Republicans of racism at all.

But if you can’t see the problem here, pull up your pants. Your privilege is showing.

Secondly, putting an EFM in a community may balance the budget, but what does that do for the local economy? What jobs are created? Where does it leave the community? What sort of precedent does it create? What other scenarios might arise where the state governor decides that it’s in his or her best interest to replace local officials?

If you haven’t been following the story, Rachel Maddow has been doing a really good job following it for over a year now (use the search engine to look up old segments) and I can’t recommend Eclectablog highly enough – I can’t believe I’ve only just started following. I guess that’s what grad school does to you.

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