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Lessons from "Detroit: A Biography"
May 14, 2012 - 9:00pm

Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle

Published, April 2012

What would Detroit look like today if the University of Michigan had not moved from the city (after the university's founding in 1817) to Ann Arbor in 1837? Imagine what U of M's $8 billion endowment and 40,000 students would mean to the city today?

Would having a flagship research university in Detroit have allowed the city to follow a path closer to that of Pittsburgh, another formerly one industry town (steel instead of autos) that re-invented itself to a center of ED'S, MED'S, and FINANCE?

These and other questions are pondered in Scott Martelle's wonderful new book, Detroit: A Biography.  

We keep reading about how it is cities that drive our economy by spurring innovation. Matt Ridely, in The Rational Optimist,  talks about cities as places where "ideas go to have sex." Readers of Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City know that the world's future is an urban future, and that more people will move to cities in the 21st century than at any time in the history of the world.  

The sub-title of Glaeser's book is "How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier." How then to explain Detroit?

Martelle, a long time Detroit resident and reporter (he currently lives in California) sets out to explain how Detroit went from one of our wealthier cities (with amongst the highest median incomes and highest rates of home ownership in the 1950s) to a place over one-third of residents live below the poverty line. What caused the greatest urban population crash in modern memory, with the number of Detroit city residents dropping from 1.85 million in 1950 to just over 700,000 today?  

What can we learn from the story of Detroit? And is there a future for the Motor City? Martelle is stronger on the former question than the latter. He is articulate about the decisions the people of Detroit should have made to build on the city's industrial foundations. He is less certain about what Detroit can do now to turn things around.

Martelle ascribes the reasons for Detroit's fall primarily to the short-sighted and greedy decision making of the cities former elites. Rather than invest in industries outside of automobiles, politicians and corporate executives continuously doubled-down on cars. There is no Ford or G.M. University in Detroit. No Chrysler College. The failure to diversify is a lesson that other single industry towns should learn well.

Detroit: A Biography is an important addition to the growing literature on urbanism and innovation - and should be read by anyone thinking about which policies will be most effective in growing the U.S. economy in the 21st century.

What are you reading?

 

 

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