Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Is abject failure necessary for a community and organizations to be able to rebuild?

Most people who know stuff know that in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. steel industry went through a wrenching reinvention, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs, as steel production became an industry organized on a global scale, and production shifted from a mass production method to a system focused on shorter runs and specialty products. See "The Role of Management in the Decline of the American Steel Industry" from the journal Business and Economic History (1996).

All the time while the big producers were failing, smaller companies like Nucor, with a different business model and system for production, succeeded.

The automobile industry and the related unions couldn't have been unaware of the failure of the steel industry, as changes in both industries impacted the other.

I guess that was a dry run, but ignored, for Detroit. Not to mention that in 1979, John DeLorean wrote a brilliant book about the failings of the automobile industry, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors. Or even an article in the Economist ten years later, "On a clear day you can still see General Motors" which looked at the continued failures of the company and the industry. DeLorean's book had a huge impact on me in terms of approaching organizational development and institutional change.

Maybe you have to hit rock bottom before you become willing to change, willing to innovate?

It shouldn't have to be that way, and it might just be a factor of the different kind of innovation ecologies that exist between industries that develop as large, mass production oriented companies vs. industries that come out of a more startup, bottom-up culture like the difference between technology clusters along Route 128 in Massachusetts vs. Silicon Alley in California as described by AnnaLee Saxenian in Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128

I joke that some cities develop "a desperate willingness to experiment because they have no other choice" and finally, Detroit has reached that point.

As The Doors sang in "Been Down So Long":

Well, I've been down so Goddamn long
That it looks like up to me
Well, I've been down so very damn long
That it looks like up to me
Yeah, why don't one you people
C'mon and set me free

Last night, I watched the Planet Green cable network's mini-series, "Detroit in Overdrive," a three-part program about Detroit's revival, which repeats on Monday August 8th.

I found about half of the running time of the programs relevant to the stated purpose of the program.

Showing automobile design students at Center for Creative Studies wasn't relevant, neither was traveling to and touring a GM plant in Grand Blanc, Michigan, which is 61 miles away from Detroit, and Genesee County isn't even considered part of the "metropolitan statistical area" that the Bureau of Census considers to be the Detroit Metropolitan area. Undoubtedly these segments were to please GM, the sponsor of the programs.

Most of all the "arts" stuff that was featured was about community building.

But this stuff was interesting:

• Joe Faris, a past contestant on Project Runway, working with a manufacturer of "clothes" for manufacturing robots to produce jeans;

• maybe Kid Rock's production of craft beer at some unidentified brewery;

• the Woodbridge Records kids, who aren't all that different from indie, start-up music labels elsewhere, but at least they get their vinyl records manufactured in their home city which is unlikely for most other indie labels;

• how urban agriculture programs in the city are also selling their products to restaurants and vendors, and at Eastern Market, Detroit's public market and food wholesale distribution center;

• the studios and artists and craftspeople in the Russell Industrial Center;

• how the University of Michigan has a "Detroit Partnership" day which gets more than 1,300 students (mostly students of privileged backgrounds) into the city for a day of volunteerism (they never did that when I went to UM);

• how the Center for Creative Studies, a college of design based in Detroit, and long known for its automobile design programs, has a social activism product design class, and in that class, Veronika Scott created a coat for the homeless that can be manufactured in the city as a jobs development and health initiative (the coat ends up being made of Tyvek after 5 attempts using other materials failed, and it can serve as a sleeping bag too) -- CNN story on Veronika Scott.

But I don't think the series convinced me that there is an overarching understanding of what happened to the city and why, including the negative power of segregation and racism ("Detroit's distress: A Q + A with Thomas J. Sugrue" from the Newark Star-Ledger--Professor Sugrue has written many books about Detroit's decline).

The episodes were more focused on cheerleading and showcasing what we might call the gritty determination of heoric peoples. None of the "experts" interviewed during the course of the program came from institutions outside of Detroit and its suburbs.

I don't think anyone searching for guidance on how to revitalize their weak market neighborhoods would get a fair amount of "overarching" insight from the programs, although the stories and ideas are interesting and some of the projects are really great.

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