That great sage of American culture, Beavis, of Beavis and Butthead, summed up what I think should be the approach Detroit takes to its new future: “This sucks. Change it.” I was born and raised in Detroit. I didn’t leave until I was 26, and it’s not like I went that far when I did; Ann Arbor is only about 40 miles west of Detroit. But…Ann Arbor is worlds away from Detroit, in so many ways. The air for one. I didn’t notice how bad it was for most of my life until I moved to a city without enormous factories everywhere. When you live in a place with an actual downtown you can walk on a Saturday night without the ambiance of random gunfire, you notice these things. Hell, I even worked for almost two years for the City of Detroit. Yeah, I got a ton of stories from there, and I’ll regale you with those at some point, but even then, I knew I couldn’t stay.
I could give you all the conventional reasons why you’d leave a Detroit, but, for the most part, those wouldn’t be mine. The reason I was eager to leave was that Detroit was proud to be stuck where it was. It knew it was having huge problems; but it was NOT going to change the way it was doing any thing. That’s not a good attitude to have when things are going well, and an even worse one to have when things are going badly. I knew a fighter pilot who had fought in Vietnam and I asked him what he would do if he spotted an enemy plane “in his six.” (directly behind you) He said, “Anyway you go is better than the way you’re going now.” Detroit seemed to think it could stand being shot at better than it could change course. Why be proud of not changing? That isn’t it exactly, it’s rejection of how you’d perceive yourself in the course of changing. Detroiters (or is it Midwesterners generally? Discuss!) reject what they would perceive as the arrogance of EastCoasters and the flakiness of WestCoasters for a more “reasonable” view of the world. Even if that perception were even vaguely true, it forgets how virtues often degenerate into parodies of themselves. What was once steadfastness becomes calcified stubbornness, well past the point of being “reasonable”. Now they wake up, find themselves billions in the hole and thinking about selling everything that isn’t nailed down, and a lot that is. Maybe some arrogant flakiness would have been better when times were more flush.
Certainly I’ve been reading plenty o’ punditry across the spectrum about the upcoming bankruptcy of my old town; there’s more finger pointing than Uma Thurman on David Carradine at the end of Kill Bill V.2. Megan McArdle has a pretty good summary of them here at her new digs on Bloomberg.
Here’s the funny thing: Detroit will be a leader in an entirely new area for entities of its size, dealing with a humogouse bankruptcy. It’s not that everyone else’s (Chicago? California?) bankruptcy will be identical to Detroit’s, but often the first one through the door will establish patterns for the others. As Detroit goes, so goes the Nation? Geez, I hope not.