I've had it happen almost everywhere I've traveled. People I meet cheerfully ask, "Where are you from?"
And when I tell them, "I'm from Detroit," the cheerfulness evaporates. "Oh," they say in a way that sounds like "Gee, that's too bad."
Some of them are even downright hostile. "You're pronouncing it wrong," someone once told me, as he gave me his version. He added an "s" and drew out the second syllable so it sounded like "Destroy-it."
Let's face it, Detroit has one of the worst reputations of any city in the country, if not the world. Take a look at the major news stories that have shaped people's impressions of the Detroit area in just the last year and they read like a litany of horrors: Nathaniel Abraham, the 14-year old who just made history as the youngest murderer to be tried as an adult. Jack Kevorkian, the disturbingly strange doctor selling suicide to people who are depressed, infirm or in pain. Metro Airport, the largest hub of Northwest Airlines, where passengers were stranded up to 10 hours in airplanes on the runways during a snow storm when neither the airline nor airport could figure out how to help them. It also has repeatedly been ranked as one of the worst airports in the world.
Those are just some of the major news stories of the last year. Detroit has long been referred to in the press as the "Murder Capital." It also has earned the dubious distinction of having the largest percentage of welfare recipients of major cities in the nation. And the stark segregation between the black residents of the city and the white suburbanites surrounding it gets chronicled every few years by national reporters writing about racism. As if to add insult to injury, the home of the largest automakers in the world also has the worst roads in the nation, riddled with potholes, cracking concrete and crumbling bridges.
Unfortunately for the American auto-makers, they get lumped in to everything that "Detroit" stands for. When the national media refers to the auto industry, it usually says "Detroit did this," or "Detroit says that." And it seems that "gas guzzlers," "pollution spewing," and "safety hazards" are the terms that go hand-in-hand with their reports. Is it any wonder that import car buyers (especially upscale luxury car buyers) disdain anything that's "Made in Detroit?" To them, all the negative connotations that the city represents are reflected in the brand images of domestic vehicles.
All this is making it difficult forCorp., Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler Corp. to attract the best and brightest people to work for them. These automakers, and their Detroit-based suppliers, are finding it harder and harder to recruit top students from the best universities. Not only are these graduates increasingly attracted to the get-rich-quick allure of the dotcom companies, none of them ever aspired or dreamed of moving into the Detroit area in the first place. No wonder Ford moved its Lincoln-Mercury operations to the Los Angeles area, and why it may move its Premium Automotive Group there. Sure, Ford wants these employees to experience one of the most competitive, import-saturated markets in the world. But it also knows it will be a lot easier to recruit top-notch talent to sunny California than to gritty Detroit.
Yet, paradoxically, the whole Detroit area is nowhere near as bad as many people make it out to be. Its per capita income exceeds the average for the United States. During the last decade, Oakland County, which comprises much of the greater metropolitan area, led the nation in personal income growth and was second in job growth. The unemployment rate is below the national average, and it boasts a broad combination of skilled and unskilled jobs in manufacturing, trade and services.
The booming economy is partly being fed by an influx of research and technical centers, particularly on the part of European and Asian automotive companies and suppliers. They know they have to locate here because, like it or not, Detroit is the center of the automotive universe. There are more automotive-related companies packed into a 30-mile radius here than anywhere else on the planet. And that in turn supports a small media empire devoted to covering it. An American executive at a Japanese car company once told me, "Whenever we want to feel like big-time auto executives, we get on a plane and fly to Detroit. Out here in LA we're practically invisible."
The Detroit area has the greatest concentration of talent for design, engineering and manufacturing. And it is high-tech talent, equipped with the latest super computers, CAD/CAM, robotics and virtual reality equipment.While it is definitely a blue-collar town, it also boasts one of the best fine a rts museums in the country, a world class symphony orchestra and an impressive new opera house.
After 20 years of decline during the 1970s and 1980s, the Detroit area is resurgent. It has the wealth and power to return to its former glory during the first three decades of the 20th century. I just pray that it has the political will and leadership to put such a plan in place. And I hope that the Big Three see that it is in their interest to see it happen.