We live in a strange time, don’t we Faceless?
Here’s a peek into the Theatre of the Bizarre that I’m referring to: some political parties trying to rewrite (or in this case, erase) history; the US is spying on everyone; the Mayor of Canada’s largest city is this side show; Mother Earth is tired of our shenanigans and wants us off (and rightfully so; you can only screw with the innkeeper for so long before she tosses your ass out, after all)… and that’s just the tip of it. We haven’t even dipped our toes into the economic side of things: companies with no revenues of any kind being offered BILLIONS of dollars and refusing it, while cities like Detroit—Motor City, the former automotive heart of North America—are literally in full-out decay and steadily destroying what’s left of themselves.
So what’s happening? Damned if I know… but I have to admit, it’s a bit fascinating to watch. For decades, we’ve talked about equality: equality for women, equality for minorities, equality for people regardless of their sexual orientation — and we arguably got all of it. But during that time, while we were fixated on whether the colour of your skin should entitle you to a better income or if two men should be able to give a child a loving environment to grow up in, something else was happening. This disparity—not just in wages, but in the very basic ability to feed, clothe and house ourselves—didn’t just happen, despite the rhetoric the Occupy folks would have you believe. No, this has been happening all that time, and we’re just seeing the effect of it now.
It’s a little like building a house on clay instead of bedrock. It might look stable at first, so you turn your attention to the colour of the trim, or to building a new deck and redesigning the kitchen… but all the while, that beautiful house is slowly settling and shifting into the muck and the foundation is starting to crack. You may look at it as new damage, but it’s not: it was an inevitability and just took a while to show itself.
And what can you do? You still need a place to live, so knocking it down isn’t really an option; you can’t sell it to someone else without telling them about the predicament you’re in, which limits your options even further. So, you try to make it work; you try and deal with the fallout while your house sinks further into the shit you built it on in the first place.
This, in a matter of speaking, is Detroit: a microcosm of the “American Dream”, a city so firmly attached to a single goal—to build things, great things—that they didn’t realize that the bedrock they believed was below them had washed away long ago, and all that was left behind was the clay. It was a foundation cracked by a steady march to cheaper production costs and an even cheaper labour; that previously solid bedrock eroded by newer tools than the sort that made them great in the first place. No one felt the ground shifting under their feet until it was too late and their houses were all crooked, there was no one to sell them to and no real way to fix the problem. Add to the mix a leadership more interested in patching things with duct tape than creating concrete plans for a New Detroit, and they were lost.
So they left. They left in droves, neighbourhood after neighbourhood. In the 2009 census, Detroit was home to 910,000 people; the following year, their population was 710,000 and that number is still trending lower, sitting somewhere around 690,000 now. The population had been in slow decline since the 50’s, when over 1.8 million people called it home and they were America’s 4th largest city; they’ve lost 60% of their population since then, with a massive drop-off in the past four years. Using the same census metrics, there are only a handful of other cities in the US that have had a similar decline: Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis being a few. Even New Orleans, in spite of Katrina, held onto more of their citizens (they have only lost 43% of their citizens since the 60’s). People saw a reason to stay, they saw the potential for a future.
Here’s a little exercise that might hit you like the brick to the face: click here. The prices you’re seeing there are REAL; that’s right, you can buy a house for $1. Now, flip through and see how many pages it takes to get over $5,000 (when I did this, I got all the way to Page 57). Page after page of houses for sale for under $5,000; for roughly $2 million, you could be the proud new owner of over 600 homes. And these aren’t micro-shacks, either; $1,200 can score you a four bedroom, 2,000 square foot house on a 5,000 square foot lot. A bit too down-market for you? I understand, you’re a fancier cat than that. Try this one on for size, then: by any standards it is a palatial property…a 10,000 square foot house on an acre of land for $795,000. And that’s after a price drop.
Mind blown yet? It should be, Faceless…but I’m not done.
The Detroit Public School Board has closed 2/3 of their schools over the last decade, reducing the number of actual schools from 261 to 97; taxpayers are on the hook for $2.1 billion worth of improvement bonds they voted in to build and improve those schools over the last two decades, many of which have already been torn down; Detroit’s Proposal to Creditors (I triple-dog dare you not to cringe when you flip through that) states that they have 78,000 abandoned buildings, 40% of their streetlights don’t work, a significant portion of their emergency vehicles are non-functional; and on and on. Many of those abandoned buildings are residential homes (we saw them on realtor.com, remember?), but not an insignificant number of them are commercial properties. Instead, they’ve become ‘home’ to drug users, prostitutes and other forms of ‘societal blight’ and are a monstrous resource drag on the cities’ struggling emergency services departments. I won’t even get into the reported crime rates. On and on the Misery Train rolls… it’s hard to see a bright future when you live neck-deep in shit.
Okay, now I’m done.
“Right, the city’s fucked. How can they possibly recover from that?”
Great question. There are options, though perhaps not the most conventional. Let’s circle back to the Theatre of the Bizarre I mentioned at the beginning of this little rant. Peep this:
That graphic came from a study penned by the St. Louis Fed on the record levels of corporate cash in the US. And this is only U.S. publicly traded companies…who knows how much money private global entities hold in their coffers. The Forbes List boasts 1,426 people on its Billionaires List, with a combined net worth of $5.4 trillion; it’s a number that has grown by a good margin since last year, all of this while cities like Detroit turn into scenes from Fallout 3… and, so be it. This isn’t a rant against the wealthy, or a discourse on the excesses of the New Rich. Irrespective of your opinions on whether it’s right/wrong for people to have that kind of wealth while chunks of the globe are in ruin, it is how it is. The “fault”, if that’s what you want to call it, isn’t really theirs anyway; millions of consumers gleefully hand that money over to them, and they’d be foolish to stop taking it. You wouldn’t, either.
Nope, this is just a question to the Zuckerberg’s, the Walton’s, the Koch’s and all of the other ultra-rich of the planet: what is all that money for, anyway? I mean, I get it, Zuck; you earned it and bravo to you, it’s yours to do with as you wish. But instead of buying yet-another flash in the pan internet company or building yet-another product line to bulk your already-enormous reserves up even further, why not put it to a bigger, nobler use? That $3 billion you were going to pony up for SnapChat? Just build your own. You were smart enough to take a silly concept for a website and turn it into a world-changing beast, so tell me you can’t figure out how to beat a 23 year old at his—sorry, your—own game. Then take what’s left and throw that money into a revitalization plan: buy a dozen of the 100’s of abandoned factories and create your own Facebook East compound… or better yet, buy the whole area and give a city that’s in desperate need of a second chance something to hope for. You know others will follow your lead; and before you know it, you’ll have changed the face of the city, maybe created a new Silicon Valley, and built a larger, more sustainable revenue stream in the process. Added bonus: you might have a chance at truly resonating with a socially conscious and surprisingly-aware youth that you’re losing touch with, by showing them that you actually give a shit about the future they’re growing into and that it’s not all about you. Chew on that for a bit, Mr. Z.
There are some people using their wallets to make a difference in places like Detroit. Kid Rock’s Made In Detroit is adding a boost of morale and pride to the city, along with cash for Detroit charities; locals and ex-pats alike are setting up shop and trying to revitalize the economic landscape in their own way. And Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans (and #384 on the List) has a plan: he and his “Blight Force” have the goal of demolishing every abandoned building in Detroit and revitalizing the city, with the hopes of a bright New Detroit.
Of course, you’d be foolish to think this is a noble gesture: he’s a businessman and owns a significant amount of property—including a casino that by its very nature demands a somewhat-healthy economy—and is very aware that his investments will erode with a crumbling city. But you can look at this as a way to use your money and influence to help yourself AND others. And if this little caper works and Detroit recovers, his team and the next several generations of their families will make the ultra-rich of today look like paupers, and they’ll be hailed as saviours. Win-win? Indeed.