Last December Jerry Flint, long time Forbes columnist, native Detroiter and supporter, critic and automotive curmudgeon, wrote this blog for the Detroit Regional News Hub. Jerry died last week and it seems appropriate to rerun his blog, not only as a tribute but for the words of wisdom.
By Jerry Flint
Columnist, Forbes Magazine, former Bureau Chief NY Times Detroit, former Wall Street Journal reporter Detroit, former copy boy, The Detroit News … current resident of New York
I was born in Detroit, Detroit, not Oak Park or Southfield, Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe. Grew upon on Willis between Third and Second, went to school at Irving Elementary (now gone) on Willis between Cass and Second, then Jefferson Intermediate (the Jeff was tough), then Durfee and Central High, a great high school, then Wayne University (when it was a city school), worked in my dad’s laundry down on Second between Brainard and Stimson. Enlisted in the army in Detroit. Later lived around 7 Mile and Livernois – never in the suburbs.
There were almost 2 million in the city when I grew up. I can think of lots of things that went wrong. We never had imaginative real estate people like New York City. There they take a 10 square foot lot and turn into a luxury condo and art gallery and restaurant with super models. In Detroit, we turned it into a parking lot.
I always remembered the area around Cass Park with the Masonic Temple and the old Kresge headquarters, an apartment house for women, and Cass Tech High School. It should have been something great like Washington Square in Manhattan. But Detroit developers didn’t have the imagination.
It seemed to me that Wayne University in my day was only interested in cheap property so it could expand, instead of turning the area into a great neighborhood.
And the J.L. Hudson Company downtown drove the competition out of business, which helped destroy downtown, instead of realizing the trick was to create more stores and activities to bring people there.
The railroad that controlled the riverfront west of Woodward sat on the riverfront land for decades and didn’t let anything happen, just holding it for speculation.
And the auto industry. Well, I know as much about that as anyone, but you’ve read it all so why repeat it. And that goes for the UAW. I can’t help thinking that the old leaders I knew, Walter Reuther, Leonard Woodcock and Doug Fraser, would have understood that they were helping to kill the industry and acted to help sooner.
But if we spend all our present condemning the past we lose the future.
So let me think about what we can do for the future of Detroit.
Politics: Detroit had a marvelously clean political system in my day: nine council people, elected at large, non-partisan. You went to a ward system because Washington made noises about unfairness to blacks—although Afro-Americans were elected to the council in the at-large system, even with the white majority population back then. Going back to that at-large system would improve the quality and honesty of local government. Some progress was made this election when Proposal D, which calls for an amendment to the City Charter so that seven of the council members would be elected from different districts across the city. The remaining two members would be elected on an at-large basis. That’s not enough. Every council member should be elected from a district.
Schools: Detroit once had fine schools and should make it a key priority again. How about girl’s high school—or two—one East Side, one West Side – even all-girls’ elementary and middle schools? You could make history. Is the system turning to charter schools? New York City is doing just that. But educating the kids is key to rebuilding Detroit. Yes, many graduates will leave because they can’t find work, but it’s still the way to start. Better teachers, more demanding schools. More privatizing of the system. End decentralization as it’s practiced. A small central board elected at-large and strong principals.
Now about rebuilding the economy? That is tough. No one has the answer, but we can speculate.
Unions: Detroit and Michigan’s reputation as union-ruled is ruinous. The recent rejection of the Ford givebacks by the UAW solidified that opinion even if workers outside Michigan rejected the contract, too. I suppose it’s too much to hope that Michigan would become a Right-to-Work state. Yup. Too much. Too bad. But somehow the government has to make clear that jobs come first, not union dues, that companies can have a couple years to establish themselves before they become unionization targets. This isn’t easy, but then the political power of the unions should decline as the jobs go to Tennessee and Georgia, where new auto plants are being built at this moment.
New auto technology: Detroit is working to be a center of battery technology and production. This should continue. The Japanese are masters of the technology now and every effort should be made to lure them to the state—and if they want non-union plants, that shouldn’t be a concern.
But the auto business isn’t going anywhere right now. What else can Detroit do?
Learn what the southern states have done to lure business. It’s not just Right-to-Work. They test potential workers, the train potential workers, they gather up land. They know what they are doing. Perhaps Detroit and Michigan can hire some of those Southerners to show you how to do it.
Can I pick up the future industries you can lure? Movies, Wind turbines, solar panels? No, I can’t pick winners. Those Southern job hunters might have some ideas. The key isn’t giving huge subsidies, either. The key is a pro-business attitude, making it easy to establish businesses, smoothing the way past regulation, and not treating a new business like goose to roasted.
And there’s no reason Detroit can’t clean itself up, burned houses cleared, vacant lots cleaned. The federal government is passing out billions to create jobs. Why not create a Detroit CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) – a few thousand people with shovels – to clean up the ruins and vacant lots. And no, we’re not talking about jobs at $37 an hour, fully-paid health care and pensions.
Crime: Yes, you can choke it down. New York found some great police commissioners and cut crime. So can Detroit—if it wants to.
Detroit won’t be what it once was for a long time, if at all. But there’ no reason it can’t be a clean, well-run city with terrific schools. That would be a start back.
I’m sorry I don’t have a grander vision. But you know that saying—the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.