Detropia & the new American city

The arts drive positive social and economic change, especially when it comes to urban renewal. Artists are the ones who move into areas that everyone else has abandoned, fix them up, and get driven out once everyone else sees what they’ve done with the place and the rents get too high.

Can the arts and their close relatives, the creative class, save threatened cities like Detroit? In a city that’s been gutted by offshore manufacturing, artists and the creative economy may be Detroit’s last chance.

Misconceptions about artists and the arts abound. “The arts don’t do much for society,” and the cliche of the “starving artist” come to mind. But the reality is quite different. In fact, the average annual salary of a fine artist is probably much higher than you’d think. And salaries for highly entrepreneurial “creatives” such as graphic artists, web designers, and copywriters (like me) are decent, too.

from the ashes, a new kind of city rises (film still from Detropia, detropiathefilm.com)

I saw the documentary Detropia this weekend at Boston’s MFA with a friend of mine who grew up in Detroit until she was 10, when her family moved to the suburbs. Here’s the film’s trailer:

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As the lights came on, she turned to me and said, “You know, there are lots of good things going on in Detroit right now that they didn’t talk about at all…for one, there’s a new Whole Foods opening downtown.”

“That’s great, but who can afford to shop there?” I asked—and not in a snarky way. In a city where single family houses can cost $6,000 and artist’s lofts (with separate studios) go for $25,000, dropping $150-$200 at Whole Foods every week like I usually do to feed a family of four would seem like quite a stretch. My yearly food budget alone could buy two houses in Detroit!

Watching the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mitt Romney’s latest silver-foot-in-mouth moment: the now-infamous 47 percent video at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, where he dissed half the country for being shiftless moochers.

There’s still plenty of money floating around this country, but it’s not being funneled into domestic manufacturing. The widening income gap in the United States is now on par with Central America and even Africa, and it’s because our workers are struggling.

I check labels and always try to buy things that are made in America when I shop, but it often seems like we don’t make anything here anymore. As United Auto Workers Local 22 chapter president George McGregor sadly notes at one point in the film, even our irons (not to mention the ironing boards and the clothes we iron them on) come from China now.

I’m paraphrasing McGregor, but one especially painful scene (see 0:48 of the above preview) involves his meeting with union workers at American Axle, who face humiliating pay cuts in order to save their jobs.

“I’ve never, in all my years as a union rep, had to negotiate with someone like this,” he says at one point. “…When I asked [the company rep], ‘How are these people supposed to earn a living wage on this amount of money?’ she said, ‘I don’t care about whether or not your people can earn a living wage.’”

Sound familiar? The factory closes and moves offshore.

My other takeaway from this bleak and unforgettable film: as Detroit goes, so goes the rest of the nation. Detroit’s decline is a contagion threatening to weaken the American economy, and thus all Americans’ earning power. So predicts Tommy Stephens, one of Detropia’s main characters.

A retired teacher-turned-businessman, Stephens gets his hopes up while visiting GM’s booth at the Detroit Car Show. He wants the GM plant that makes the new Volt five blocks from his blues lounge to ramp up production, so its workers will come back and spend again. He’s impressed with the $40,000 Volt until he notices an electric Chinese car with similar technology a few booths down, the BYD (Build Your Dream). Its sticker price: $28,000.

When he walks back to the GM booth to ask the company men if they’ve seen the Chinese version of the Volt around the corner, they act surprised and say no. The marketing guy quickly points out that comparing the cheaper Chinese car is probably “apples and oranges” next to the “superior-quality” Volt.

“You remember Honda?” Stephens replies. “I remember you guys saying the same thing about them.”

We later see a headline float by about how GM is sharing its Volt technology with the Chinese, and that Volt manufacturing will move to China as well.

If the auto industry continues to willfully forget its own history, it will keep repeating the same mistakes and will eventually disappear, in spite of its massive taxpayer funded bail out. I’m glad we bailed them out (we bailed out all those too-big-too-fail Wall Street bankers when they needed it, too) because it saved at least a million jobs, if not an entire industry, but seeing this kind of myopia is worrisome.

The creative class may be Detroit’s only salvation at this point. Detroit is the home of Motown and Enimen. It’s the birthplace of techno music, Madonna, Aaliyah (RIP), and The White Stripes. The Motor City should tap into that creative energy to reinvent itself once again.

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