Maybe Facebook should buy Detroit?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatcha thinking, Faceless? Share those feelings.

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