Quite a bit of hullabaloo has been thrown about this week — some good, some bad — regarding last Friday’s New York Times article, “Detroit Goes From Gloom to Economic Bright Spot“. By highlighting a recent slew of statistics, Bill Vlasic provides confirmation to his readers that, yes, Detroit is on the rebound. Example:
Detroit has vowed to change before, slimming down when sales slumped or pouring resources into vehicle quality to catch up to foreign competitors. Those efforts stalled or failed. But many auto analysts say the current makeover has a more permanent feel, largely because of the presence of the outsiders at the top and the lessons learned from the near-death experience of last year’s bankruptcies at G.M. and Chrysler.
And that’s not all. Sales are up, the industry is streamlined, and GM’s upcoming IPO are the talk of the town. And while I believe the announcement of in-the-black profits and higher sales ratios are only signs of a short-term improvement, there’s an air of positivity swirling about the (aptly-named, I hope) Renaissance Center.
But, there’s one teensy aspect of this article that draws my ire a bit. Actually, wait. Let me stop beating around the bush: I almost find this article deplorable because of this one oversight, and it needs to be disclosed.
GM, Ford, and Chrysler are NOT Detroit. Detroit is….Detroit. Duh.
I use bold type because I’m trying to emphasize my frustration with this viewpoint. Let me explain why:
Now, I wish I had some nice, packaged Pew Research study or fringe thinktank data to support this, but my understanding is that a good chunk of the United States population has never set foot in the Metro Detroit area, let alone Michigan, and thus their geographic and cultural knowledge of the region is pretty minimal. I’ve had friends from home ask me what it was like to attend college in Detroit, and I simply reply “I wouldn’t know; I went to school in an affluent suburb an hour away.” But this lack of knowledge doesn’t just permeate the outside world: most Metro Detroiters would have a hard time identifying Detroit’s major neighborhoods on a map, but they’d know the exact directions to Comerica Park when questioned.
Now, I have no qualms with lumping the Metro Detroit area in with the city itself, despite the gross disparities in quality of life, social services, educational prowess, and perceptions, and we can talk about my justification for doing so later. But I really, really cringe when an article appearing in one of the world’s more widely-distributed daily publications suggests that Detroit and the Big Three can be seamlessly interchanged. It creates a false sense of dependability that, sadly, convinces the outside world that cars are the city’s only game.
Wall Street serves as a somewhat appropriate, yet not entirely accurate, representation of the financial world; Silicon Valley attempts to collar up an cohort of venture capital, startup, and high technology firms despite the fact that they’re not geographically homogeneous. The difference between these two metaphors and the label applied to the Big Three? New York still has Times Square, and San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge: something of substance distracts informed citizens from the plight that each of those industries faced at a given time. Detroit, long the culprit of negative press and a carnival of corruption, can’t escape its PR linkages with the automotive world because it’s not provided anything else to distract us.
Unfortunately, this article perpetuates the linkages, and it fails to ignore the continued social and economic challenges the city faces. Furthermore, it provides a hypothetical that I, as a business student, can’t ignore: if I were an aspiring entrepreneur in an emerging sector, I would perceive this article as an advocate for automotive-based growth, one that is entirely dependent on a century-old business model of scale-based production with little to no sustainability. The clean/green/biotech startups — well, most of ’em — are becoming all the more dependent on technology patents and brainiacs with the ability to turn once-crazy ideas into reality. Unfortunately, there’s not much more that can be done with a car — except make it fly and brew a cup of coffee.
So, if you’ve read that article and a bit of a chord resonated in you, one that often rings when you peruse a feel good story: you’re not alone. At first glance, so did I. But I also hope for a time that Detroit’s known not just for three giant, hulking car manufacturers but a bevy of unique, talent-rich industries with a vibrant city at its core — especially when it’s referred to in one of the world’s most widely-circulated newspapers.