COMMENTARY: Detroit attracts a new generation 'free of the past'

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By Frank H. Wu

I read the Thomas Wolfe novel "You Can't Go Home Again" when I was in high school. I graduated in 1984. I claim Detroit as my hometown, and that is generally accurate; I grew up in suburbs such as Dearborn, Livonia, Northville, and then ultimately Canton, which was mostly cornfields back then.

The year I left for college, the Detroit Tigers had their record-setting season in Major League Baseball, with a 35-5 start, winning the World Series. That summer, rocker Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was released, including on compact disc, the first American album in the new format. As a kid, I remember touring the River Rouge Plant. From the catwalks above, you could feel the heat, smell the stench, hear the din, and see the molten iron being poured. Our primary destination on downtown trips was Eastern Market. That was where my parents would buy the whole fish that my mother would steam for dinner every night, and it was among the few public spaces where people of all backgrounds would gather.

All of that, like Vernor's or Faygo and Sander's, is nostalgic for me. Although I have lived other places, like anyone else I continue to have a bond to where I came from.

Before Silicon Valley, Detroit was the center of innovation. It boasted more engineering talent per capita than anyplace else on the globe, and that was why we were there: when my father landed a job at Ford Motor Co., that was about the best you would wish for, since it likely would be for life, with a pension in retirement. Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the United States. The Labor Day parade was a major political event attended by presidential candidates. The city has exemplified the best and the worst of the 20th century, from perfection of the assembly line to deindustrialization, multiple riots to "white flight," the home of the "Big Four" automakers, functioning as the arsenal of democracy during World War II. The closing of the main Hudson's department store, with old-fashioned elevator operators, symbolic of much more than the demise of a local retailer.

Twenty years later, I returned. I had the honor of serving as dean at Wayne State University Law School. After graduating from University of Michigan, I had clerked for a federal judge, been a practicing lawyer in San Francisco, and then become a professor in Washington, D.C. Yet there was something special about the opportunity in the Motor City.

My wife and I agreed it was important to live within the urban core, not in the distant suburbs. We were lucky to buy a courtyard unit in Lafayette Park, the architectural landmark of a neighborhood, which had remained racially integrated since its establishment. You could walk to Eastern Market. The new baseball park and football stadium were close enough that on game days our street was lined with cars, where fans in the know parked for free.

Wolfe turns out to be right though. Everything was different. The high school from which I graduated was one of two on a shared campus, because the school district experienced such population growth. A third facility had been added since then. The subdivisions had developed. Crops were no longer being grown across the dirt road from our old house even though there is a stretch still undeveloped before Ann Arbor. The Detroit Free Press, where I had been employed for a summer as an intern allowed to write editorials, no longer occupied its magnificent building. Once one of the top 10 newspapers in the nation by circulation, it has been in contraction mode for years due to a decline in advertising, the same fate which has befallen the rival Detroit News with which it had entered a Joint Operating Agreement.

You cannot rely on childhood memories. You change. The world changes. For one thing, everything was smaller than I recalled. The perspective when you can barely see over the counter is not the vantage point when you are older than your parents were when they took you shopping, and of course you considered them old back then. I tried to participate in civic life as I had imagined when young. I enjoyed the engagement. It was an honor, for example, to work with television broadcaster Carmen Harlan, whom I had watched for as long as I cared about the news, on the debate between mayoral candidates. We shared the stage at McGregor Memorial Conference Center in 2005, asking questions of incumbent Kwame Kilpatrick and challenger Freman Hendrix.

A community also must look forward rather than backward. Detroit is showing signs of a renaissance that has been in the making since before the Renaissance Center opened as a fortress on the waterfront. It cannot be what it once was; it can only become something new. The prosperity of a bygone era was based on manufacturing automobiles, for which America commanded an advantage and could reap profits at a premium.

The population back then enjoyed high-wage employment regardless of skills, the legacy of Henry Ford's famous offer of $5 per day wages, bringing immigrants across oceans and African Americans from the south. The scale of the former factories dwarfs that of urban farming and artisanal production. The former cannot be replaced by the latter. Even if a technology were invented, such as teleportation, the devices would be made elsewhere or through automation. The demand for labor would be exceeded by the supply of laborers, and education would be required.

Detroit is tough; its spirit, strong. The possibilities ahead will depend on its openness, as it attracts a new generation with the energy for a challenge, creative folks free of the past. The city is a hub for transportation, with air traffic to Asia and trade with Canada. Climate change will make the region all the more appealing. I have confidence in Detroit. I will always be a Detroiter.

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Frank H. Wu is the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as dean.

Published: Fri, Dec 27, 2019

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