Cities

A Development Guru’s New Take on Detroit: Optimism

Lost glory: decaying mansions in Detroit's Brush Park (image via Shutterstock)

Lost glory: decaying mansions in Detroit’s Brush Park (image via Shutterstock)

Detroit’s emerging startup scene is enough to make even an economic development guru pivot his position on the city’s future. New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, who’s been watching the gurus closely, prefers the term “flip-flop” for Richard Florida’s readjustment. Florida, a University of Toronto and New York University professor, Atlantic senior editor, and author of “Rise of the Creative Class,” has been opining for years about Detroit’s circumstances.

Last week, Florida told CNN that anyone who’s been paying attention to Detroit’s affairs wasn’t surprised by the bankruptcy filing. But he said it hit right when the city is finally turning a corner: “…Over the past five or six years, for the first time business is coming back to the city, the downtown corridor is revitalizing, young people are moving back to the city.”

And in a “Detroit’s Not Dead” piece in the Atlantic on Monday, he wrote: “As a metropolitan region, Detroit has the assets needed to underpin economic recovery.”

He also told CNN that, while he doesn’t have any hope in the auto industry to be the engine for a revival, “there’s a very nice plan in place … called Detroit Future City … for providing services to a city with that shrunken population…. It’ll be a long process, but I think we can bet on Detroit for the future.”

MacGillis has a problem with this punditry. Not because he necessarily disagrees, but because these predictions seem to be a reversal from the argument Florida made in 2009 in a 7,900-word Atlantic cover story. Back then, forecasting “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” Florida wrote:

“To say the least, Detroit is not well positioned to absorb fresh blows. The city has of course been declining for a long time. But if the area’s auto headquarters, parts manufacturers, and remaining auto-manufacturing jobs should vanish, it’s hard to imagine anything replacing them.”

And Florida didn’t exactly foresee the influx of entrepreneurs and new business that he now tells CNN was already well underway four years ago. With regard to who would not abandon Detroit, Florida named only:

“…those with no means and few obvious prospects elsewhere, those with close family ties nearby, some number of young professionals and creative types looking to take advantage of the city’s low housing prices. Still, as its population density dips further, the city’s struggle to provide services and prevent blight across an ever-emptier landscape will only intensify.”

What’s so newsworthy about a consultant changing his tune? MacGillis takes issue with the fact that Florida has gotten “upwards of $300,000” for his economic development reports, and that he argued against the auto industry bailout.

MacGillis writes:

“Today’s metro Detroit economic output would be a good bit smaller than $200 billion if the Obama administration had taken Florida’s advice and decide not to ‘prop up sagging industries in the name of helping places and people who live in them.’ So, while Florida’s new piece had some good nuggets in it, I’m more than a little puzzled about why we are once again turning to him for wisdom on urban policy.”

And MacGillis links readers over to Deadline Detroit reporter Jeff Wattrick, who really takes Florida to task. He accuses the professor of preaching “feel-good urbanism, a prosperity hustle for materially comfortable, city-dwelling believers seeking validation for their worldview” and says “this trope about rebirth … is purely magical thinking.”

Whether Florida is flip-flopping or not, if one were in the habit of wishing for predictions to come true, who wouldn’t hope for his new ones over either his old ones or Wattrick’s?

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