Can Detroit Rebuild Its Middle Class?

Downtown Detroit is brimming with new condos, start-ups, and breweries. But for the city to make a comeback, it needs to repopulate itself with a new middle class.

Henry Ford, 37, US car manufacturer, pose for a photographer in his new T Ford model in front of his car plant in Detroit, in 1900. In building his car company, Ford also created the U.S.'s first widespread middle class, in Detroit.  
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Tim Alberta
Feb. 28, 2014, 6:20 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on De­troit.

DE­TROIT — Stand at the Wood­ward Av­en­ue over­pass above In­ter­state 75, and you’ll see the two faces of De­troit. On one side is beau­ti­ful Comer­ica Park, a sym­bol of down­town eco­nom­ic re­viv­al, where city res­id­ents and sub­urb­an­ites alike pack in to watch pro­fes­sion­al base­ball in a world-class ven­ue. Then, across the ex­press­way looms an empty 13-story build­ing, with the word “ZOM­BIE­LAND” scrawled across the top.

That lat­ter view pretty much sums up one of De­troit’s biggest prob­lems today: the city’s lack of res­id­ents. It takes people to build a middle class and a func­tion­ing eco­nomy. And while down­town De­troit is boom­ing with new busi­nesses, the de­vel­op­ment hasn’t been enough to lure large num­bers of new homeown­ers to neigh­bor­hoods scattered around the city’s core.

It’s not hard to see why. Crime is rampant. City ser­vices are a dis­aster. De­troit pub­lic schools are among the na­tion’s worst — many sub­urb­an school dis­tricts have been over­whelmed in the past dec­ade by the in­flux of fam­il­ies flee­ing the city’s poor edu­ca­tion sys­tem — and more than half of the chil­dren here live in poverty. “The ma­chine that cre­ated De­troit’s middle class does not ex­ist today,” says Yolan­da Jack, a 43-year-old nat­ive who mod­er­ates com­munity for­ums at the city’s Charles H. Wright Mu­seum of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an His­tory. “Poverty is not a black or white thing. It’s a people thing. It’s a De­troit thing.”

The dis­ap­pear­ance of a ro­bust eco­nom­ic so­ci­ety in De­troit is es­pe­cially tra­gic be­cause it was here that Henry Ford cre­ated what was ar­gu­ably Amer­ica’s first broad middle class. Ex­actly 100 years be­fore De­troit filed the largest mu­ni­cip­al bank­ruptcy in U.S. his­tory, Ford in­tro­duced the $5 work day to ex­ped­ite mass pro­duc­tion of his Mod­el T. Rep­res­ent­at­ives of Ford Mo­tor Co. toured the South and offered un­educated laborers, most of them black, an op­por­tun­ity to re­lo­cate to De­troit and earn pay equal to their white coun­ter­parts. Thou­sands flocked north­ward in the first wave of the Great Mi­gra­tion, and by 1930, De­troit’s pop­u­la­tion had swelled to more than 1.5 mil­lion, triple what it was in 1910.

The city’s pop­u­la­tion is now just 700,000, down from a peak of nearly 2 mil­lion res­id­ents in the mid-20th cen­tury. Re­build­ing De­troit’s middle class, or some semb­lance of it, is crit­ic­al to this city’s eco­nom­ic fu­ture. Ef­forts are un­der­way in sev­er­al areas. The gov­ernor wants to put in place a bold plan to lure im­mig­rants to the re­gion; a net­work of not-for-profits is work­ing to re­tain Michigan’s col­lege grads; and the busi­ness com­munity is try­ing to di­ver­si­fy and shed the ste­reo­type of a man­u­fac­tur­ing-or-bust eco­nomy. De­troiters real­ize there won’t be an­oth­er in­flux of out­siders to save this city. To build a long-term eco­nom­ic base, De­troit, like a low-budget base­ball team, must de­vel­op and re­tain homegrown tal­ent.

Just a few blocks away from Comerica Park, the home of Detroit's professional baseball team, sit a collection of abandoned structures, including a 13-story building with "ZOMBIELAND" scrawled across its edifice. (Tim Alberta) Tim Alberta

Even with its well-doc­u­mented lim­it­a­tions, De­troit pos­sesses the build­ing blocks for a po­ten­tial eco­nom­ic ex­plo­sion. The city’s bor­der with Ontario, Canada, is the most fre­quently crossed in North Amer­ica, al­low­ing for un­rivaled in­ter­na­tion­al com­mer­cial co­oper­a­tion. The Great Lakes con­tain 20 per­cent of the world’s fresh wa­ter sup­ply. There are three top-tier uni­versit­ies with­in 90 minutes of the city. And Michigan, thanks to the De­troit met­ro­pol­it­an area and the auto in­dustry, boasts Amer­ica’s highest con­cen­tra­tion of en­gin­eers.

What De­troit doesn’t have in abund­ance are edu­cated, young cit­izens. Dav­id Egn­er, pres­id­ent of the Hud­son-Webber Found­a­tion in down­town, says the city has between 12,000 and 15,000 res­id­ents who have com­pleted four years of col­lege and are un­der 35. That fig­ure is an­em­ic com­pared with re­gion­al  com­pet­it­ors like Chica­go and Min­neapol­is, which, in pro­por­tion to their pop­u­la­tions, boast about 130,000 and 80,000, re­spect­ively. This stat­ist­ic is not simply an in­dict­ment of De­troit’s dread­ful pub­lic schools; it speaks to the un­will­ing­ness of sub­urb­an­ites to stick around the city. “It’s a Mid­w­est phe­nomen­on: We’re all leak­ing tal­ent,” Egn­er says. “We’re just bet­ter at it than any­body else.”

Egn­er’s re­search con­firms what south­east Michigan nat­ives learned long ago: De­troit’s biggest bar­ri­er to re­tain­ing tal­ent is repu­ta­tion. It turns out that the brand­ing of De­troit as the Mo­tor City has a down­side, pro­ject­ing the im­age of a place that is primar­ily a man­u­fac­tur­ing hub for blue-col­lar work­ers. City kids barely both­er to get edu­cated, and col­lege-edu­cated sub­urb­an kids are plot­ting their es­capes be­fore gradu­ation, hav­ing learned long ago that De­troit of­fers noth­ing for them.

The Hud­son-Webber Found­a­tion leads a net­work of non­profits work­ing to rem­edy both prob­lems. Mil­lions of dol­lars in grants are work­ing to con­nect job-train­ing pro­grams with in-de­mand in­dus­tries. At the same time, massive in­vest­ment is flow­ing to­ward re­search­ing in­nov­at­ive pro­jects in tech­no­logy and en­ergy that can be pushed to­ward com­mer­cial­iz­a­tion and at­tract a young, di­versely edu­cated work­force to the city.

Thanks to these ef­forts — and one man’s money and de­term­na­tion — De­troit is quietly as­sem­bling a new, small sub­sec­tion of young, middle-class en­tre­pren­eurs and risk-takers. Rock Ven­tures, the um­brella com­pany foun­ded by bil­lion­aire De­troit nat­ive Dan Gil­bert, has moved more than 12,000 work­ers down­town over the past sev­er­al years. This has triggered a dom­ino ef­fect, with large cor­por­a­tions and small start-ups fol­low­ing suit and feed­ing off Gil­bert’s in­vest­ment. Nat­ive Michig­anders, some of whom spent years away from the area, are mov­ing back at an ac­cel­er­ated pace.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is also con­cerned about the chal­lenge of at­tract­ing pro­fes­sion­als to pop­u­late De­troit, and he un­der­stands the scope of the prob­lem bet­ter than most. His vis­ion in­volves set­ting aside 50,000 visas over the next five years for high-skilled im­mig­rants to live and work in De­troit. “Today’s a day about De­troit’s fu­ture,” Snyder said in Janu­ary. “It’s about job cre­ation in De­troit and an out­stand­ing op­por­tun­ity to show the rest of the world how in­nov­at­ive we can be.” Res­id­ents say they would wel­come im­mig­rants. The hope is that im­mig­rants will fill up neigh­bor­hoods, start busi­nesses, di­ver­si­fy the city, and add to its tax base.

But fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion policies won’t change overnight. Nor will ef­forts to re­tain young Michig­anders be suf­fi­cient to ad­dress De­troit’s un­der­ly­ing is­sues. The city may feel re­newed by its nat­ive sons and daugh­ters re­turn­ing home, but it won’t be re­stored un­til the next gen­er­a­tion views De­troit as a vi­able des­tin­a­tion for a ca­reer and a fam­ily. And for that to hap­pen, they must see a city that is safe, in­nov­at­ive, and burst­ing with jobs that don’t re­quire hard hats.


Is there any­thing more un-Amer­ic­an than telling Amer­ic­ans not to both­er try­ing?

Such was the out­cry here after Chrysler, a sub­si­di­ary of Itali­an-owned and Dutch-headquartered Fi­at Chrysler Auto­mo­biles, aired a con­tro­ver­sial Su­per Bowl com­mer­cial. It began with mu­sic le­gend Bob Dylan ask­ing, “Is there any­thing more Amer­ic­an than Amer­ica?” It ended with Dylan doub­ling down on the ste­reo­type that De­troit’s con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety starts and ends with the auto­mobile. “Let Ger­many brew your beer. Let Switzer­land make your watch. Let Asia as­semble your phone,” Dylan says. “We will build your car.”

The prob­lem is, De­troiters don’t just build cars any­more — and cer­tainly not at the ex­pense of oth­er com­mer­cial op­por­tun­it­ies. Chrysler ex­per­i­enced an im­me­di­ate back­lash be­cause its ad ig­nored this evol­u­tion and snubbed new sources of civic pride.

Shinola, the loc­al watch­maker that now em­ploys 200 people, is one of the city’s great suc­cess stor­ies. De­troit’s mi­cro­brew in­dustry has ex­ploded, and pubs here sell dozens of loc­al se­lec­tions. And De­troit’s in­nov­a­tion goes bey­ond watches and beer. The city’s tech in­dustry is boom­ing, thanks to gi­ants like Com­puware, and a small army of start-ups is pi­on­eer­ing new mi­cro-in­dus­tries touch­ing everything from green en­ergy to urb­an ag­ri­cul­ture. Res­id­ents no longer want their city’s repu­ta­tion and eco­nom­ic for­tune to de­pend only on the auto­mobile. Here, in the birth­place of the “Buy Amer­ic­an” move­ment, a more hy­per-loc­al mes­sage is tak­ing hold.

“We pro­pose a dif­fer­ent ap­proach: let #De­troit brew your beer, build your cars, AND build your watch,” Shinola tweeted from its Twit­ter ac­count after Chrysler’s Su­per Bowl ad aired.

This is the new De­troit, a city de­term­ined to build a mod­ern middle class by fos­ter­ing an im­age of di­versity and self-sus­tain­ab­il­ity. The hope is that a city, as­sembled by out­siders, has fi­nally dis­covered a new homegrown for­mula for res­tor­a­tion.


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