Renée Loth

A city defined

Hard-hit areas like Detroit could enjoy real recovery if emphasis shifted to an export economy

(Photo for The Washington Post by Madalyn Ruggiero)
By Renée Loth
February 12, 2011

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AMID THE animated rodents, smushed test-babies, snack-food perversions, and crude humor of Sunday’s Super Bowl ads was a powerful, two-minute homage to Detroit, America’s most abject city. Over a pulsating soundtrack of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,’’ viewers were treated to panning shots of some of Detroit’s lovingly restored landmarks from the days when the auto industry made it the richest city in the United States. Today it is the poorest, with a 36 percent poverty rate.

Far from avoiding its grim, rust belt image, the ad — ostensibly to introduce a new Chrysler luxury sedan — celebrated the city’s guts-and-grit industrial base, its smokestacks, its hard times. “It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel,’’ the narrator intoned.

It was a goosebump moment for sure. But it will take more than an appeal to regional pride to save Detroit, home to 80,000 abandoned buildings and an unemployment rate of 29 percent. It will take a national urban policy the likes of which the United States hasn’t seen for 40 years.

Detroit is only the starkest symptom of decades of wholesale disinvestment in the nation’s older urban centers. The same conditions obtain on a smaller scale from Trenton to Buffalo to Lawrence. “If you don’t have a platform of national policy you’re really sailing against the wind,’’ said Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy program at the Brookings Institution.

But Katz would broaden the lens to include a new economic plan for the whole nation. For too long, he says, America’s economic policy has focused on consumption, home ownership, and the financial industry. What if the emphasis — and the subsidies — were shifted to support an export economy, with a strategy that links manufacturing to the new products invented in the nation’s universities and idea labs? Not only the cities would benefit.

Barry Bluestone, dean of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University, grew up in Detroit. He believes that compact cities, with their smaller eco-footprint, offer a particular advantage to a greener future. “If we had an urban policy that was a smart-growth policy, we might see some of these cities resurrected,’’ he said. As it is, many depressed cities are no longer dense, but blighted with vast tracts of foreclosed housing or vacant land. They need to be radically re-zoned around a smaller core.

Other prerequisites for comeback cities:

A deeply committed business and political elite. Pittsburgh, hit earlier than many cities by de-industrialization, has retooled and diversified, thanks to smart political leadership and major philanthropic investment from the Heinz family.

■ The foresight to recognize that demographics is destiny. As Bluestone notes, something like 8,000 Americans are turning 65 every day. Cities can be attractive to retiring baby boomers looking for culture, convenience, and community. “We converted the entire US economy around kids in the early boom years,’’ said Bluestone, pointing to the rise of suburbs, the “family car,’’ even Disneyland. Now is a good time for a re-conversion.

Immigration reform. Every American city has benefitted from the energy and hard work of striving newcomers. The current hostility and suspicion greeting even legal immigrants will not help the United States become, as Katz puts it, “the nation of choice for high-skilled workers.’’ Right now, that’s more likely to be Canada.

Investment. Many older cities have “good bones,’’ including cultural institutions, public transit, parks, and waterfronts. But a crime rate like Detroit’s or Camden’s is enough to fend off the most avid urban pioneer. Unfortunately, President Obama is telegraphing that his budget will cut Community Service Block Grants, targeted to urban areas, by 50 percent.

Rather than concentrating help for cities in “policy ghettoes’’ that are too easily dismissed or cut, a more expansive economic retooling like the one Katz envisions may be the more pragmatic approach.

Government tweaking can only go so far; what really makes cities thrive are the people. The urban activist Jane Jacobs had it right when she wrote about “the exuberant diversity in a city’s streets,’’ the many small, casual encounters that provide delightful friction, “eyes on the street,’’ and social glue. People are still drawn to each other. Bleak as the present may seem, Detroit and other depressed cities already contain the seeds of their revival.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.