Sunday, December 6, 2015

Detroit Musings

I headed to the Motor City this past weekend, because YOLO. Having grown up in the Baltimore area, I thought I had seen urban decay. Moreover, being an optimist, I was confident that plenty of the reports coming out of the city would be unfair.

Yet driving Detroit through the first time, I found it to be exactly how others have described it. Gray and desolate, abandoned and hopeless. You could go several blocks without seeing a person, and several more without seeing a building in use. The individuals I did see were all carrying out some task lonely task; manually fueling a gas tank in the middle of the street, a homeless man pushing his cart of possession, a woman carrying groceries she bought at a gas station.

Downtown was eery. The skyscrapers were clearly built in a pre-modern style; new buildings these were not. There were people at least, smiling and happy. The security guard at my dinner spot was wearing a bulletproof vest, something I am used to seeing in Central America but certainly not the U.S. Two of the three bars I went to had almost exclusively white patrons in a city that is 82% black; Detroit clearly is still grappling with the color line.

Millions of words have been spilled about Detroit's problems. Let me just add two relevant points that I thought about while in town, both of which I think are under discussed in the context of the city's woes.

1. Lack of Elite Colleges/Universities. I think Ed Glaeser made a similar point in his excellent book Triumph of the City. It is startling how Detroit does not have any elite schools within 40 minutes. For instance, here is a look at the biggest cities in the U.S, in 1950.

    1   New York city, NY *......  7,891,957   315.1    25,046
    2   Chicago city, IL.........  3,620,962   207.5    17,450
    3   Philadelphia city, PA....  2,071,605   127.2    16,286
    4   Los Angeles city, CA.....  1,970,358   450.9     4,370
    5   Detroit city, MI.........  1,849,568   139.6    13,249
    6   Baltimore city, MD.......    949,708    78.7    12,067
    7   Cleveland city, OH.......    914,808    75.0    12,197
    8   St. Louis city, MO.......    856,796    61.0    14,046
    9   Washington city, DC......    802,178    61.4    13,065
   10   Boston city, MA..........    801,444    47.8    16,767
   11   San Francisco city, CA...    775,357    44.6    17,385
   12   Pittsburgh city, PA......    676,806    54.2    12,487

Obviously some of these cities have done much better than others. But even among those who have struggled the most- Philadelphia (Penn), Baltimore (John Hopkins), Cleveland (Case Western), St. Louis (Wash U), and Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon) have one elite or near elite university. Detroit has...Wayne State?

Elite schools bring smart people to the city, some who choose to stay. I certainly think the lack of an elite institution in Detroit has hurt the city.

2. Lack of Immigrants. Detroit is less than 8% Hispanic or Asian- the two fast growing groups in the U.S. This shows an inability to attract immigrants, who tend to be young, entrepreneurial, and hard-working. The only other two cities on this list below 8% total for those groups are Baltimore and St. Louis; aka the two cities always on Detroit's heels for highest homicide rate.

Certainly causation runs the other way here as well- immigrants are attracted to vibrant places with employment opportunities. But Detroit's inability to bring in the newest Americans definitely has not helped its cause.

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