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Cities

Is Detroit the Next Berlin?

Probably not, argues Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review.

After the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin had very cheap housing and industrial space, some in spectacularly grand old buildings. Years of division—with repressive communist rule on one side of town and isolation and economic stagnation on the other—had left the city depressed and underpopulated. Reunification initially only made things worse, as uncompetitive Eastern-side state-owned factories closed en masse.

This translated into, among other things, apartment rents much lower than in any other major Western European city. The low rents and post-industrial landscape drew artists and other bohemian sorts. Then low rents plus a burgeoning cultural scene drew young college grads who couldn’t find good jobs anywhere (German unemployment was high in the 1990s). They could get by in groovy, low-cost Berlin. This influx eventually  translated into economic revival. Now Berlin is a boomtown, and everybody’s complaining about the skyrocketing rents.

Detroit’s roughly the same size as Berlin (measured by metro area population). It’s got a lot of cheap real estate, some of it spectacularly grand. It’s got abandoned factories. It’s got great cultural history (mainly on the music front). So … let the young bohemians come and the boom begin, right?

Uh … no. I’m moderating a panel at the Techonomy Detroit conference titled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” but I just don’t buy it. Sure, I’m rooting for Detroit’s revival. And the revival seems real, although still in its early stages. Studying and learning from the struggles and successes of other cities (as WDET did with its series on the Detroit-Berlin Connection) is never a bad idea. But the notion that Berlin could be a model for Detroit strikes this outsider as wrongheaded and a bit dangerous. It is an aspiration bound to be thwarted. Here’s what makes Berlin so different from Detroit (and vice versa):

1) Berlin is a political and cultural capital. The economic impact of becoming the capital of a reunited Germany in 1990 was actually a disappointment for Berlin at first, as some government agencies stayed away, and corporations did, too. But the reality of becoming the capital city of a major economic power, and the construction boom that went with that, eventually had a big impact. Berlin also was quickly able to regain its pre-World-War II status as the country’s artistic and cultural capital—thanks in part to massive federal subsidies. So it became Germany’s New York (minus finance and media) plus its Washington, D.C. (minus the huge defense and homeland-security industry). With super-cheap rents. That’s a lot of magnetic power, and by the late 1990s Berlin had become the default destination for creative, ambitious, educated young Germans. Detroit has none of these dynamics going for it except the real estate. Bringing in a few curious artists is great, but expecting a mass inflow of hipsters from all over America is crazy. It would already be a huge victory if lots of creative, ambitious, educated young Michiganders began moving to the city.

2) Berlin reunified. Detroit never had a Wall, but it’s been riven by its own division over the past half century, a stark racial and political separation between the city and the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s clearly been progress made in recent years, with new stadiums and other development downtown, and an apparent shift—born of shared economic desperation—toward more of a we’re-all-in-this-together regional attitude. But the divide is undeniably still there, and it means that even a successful revitalization will of necessity have to take a much different, less-centralized shape than in Berlin. Three quarters of metro Berlin’s 4.4 million people live within the city limits. In Detroit it’s the other way around; more than 80% of the 4.3 million inhabitants of the metro area live outside Detroit proper. Finding ways to tie city and suburbs together remains one of the area’s biggest challenges.

3) Berlin has good public transit. Yeah, its air connections have long been something of a joke, but that should improve dramatically with the opening next year of a new airport. The city is also linked by high-speed rail to the rest of the country’s major cities. Detroit’s got a great airport, but beyond that it’s built quite literally around the automobile. The millennials who would have to begin flocking to Detroit to make a Berlin scenario real don’t seem to like cars much. There’s no easy way around this: Detroit simply can’t afford to build a mass-transit infrastructure right now, and a Berlin-style, youth-oriented metropolis is almost inconceivable without such an infrastructure.

4) Detroit knows business. Yes, the city’s main business has been through a really tough time lately, but metro Detroit is full of private sector expertise—not just in automobiles—and seems to be growing a new entrepreneurial class. Berlin has a startup scene now, but that’s been driven mostly by newcomers. When its long, slow return to prosperity began it was a city of bureaucrats, former communists, and the long-term unemployed. Detroit has a huge advantage over Berlin here, an advantage that should be exploited and emphasized.

5) Detroit has better immigrants. Sure, now Berlin is attracting jet-setters from all over—and has attracted hard-working immigrants from Turkey and Eastern Europe for years. But Detroit, and U.S. cities in general, have two big advantages over their continental European counterparts in attracting ambitious, entrepreneurial newcomers from other countries: (1) we speak the global language, English, and (2) despite occasional problems we have a deserved reputation as a nation where newcomers can thrive. The Detroit area has of course already benefited from its status as destination No. 1 in the U.S. for immigrants from Arab countries, and any realistic comeback scenario for the area and the city proper has to include a big role for overseas immigrants.

There’s an echo here of the competing visions of urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. Florida is of course the progenitor of the idea that a new, urban “creative class” is the key economic driver of our time—and that cities (like Berlin) that can attract young creatives will thrive. Kotkin argues that this simply won’t work for most American cities, and that messy, immigrant-filled, strip-mall sprawl is an equally vibrant and more realistic model. Florida, who married a Detroiter, has been talking up the creative-class link to the city’s revival. Kotkin, in a recent newspaper profile of Florida, scoffed that “There’s not enough yuppies on the planet to save Detroit.”

In the case of the Detroit area, they’re both right. Locavore restaurants and design studios aren’t going to bring back the regional economy. That’s going to require other, more mass-scale kinds of business success, and possibly some big-time government investment. At the same time, returning the city of Detroit to its rightful position as economic and cultural heart of the region—which seems like an essential prerequisite to any truly sustainable revival of metro Detroit—will take exactly the kind of building-by-building, restaurants-and-galleries-and-cool-little-creative-businesses entrepreneurship that Florida loves so much. Detroit is not the next Berlin. But it may still get a little bit of that Berlin spirit.

Justin Fox appeared at Techonomy Detroit in a session entitled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, conference, click here.

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3 Responses to “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?”

  1. Anthony Brogdon says:

    Thought that you would like to know that there’s a documentary called “The Great Detroit, It was-It is-It will be”. This film examines Detroit from a positive perspective for it has 55 interviewees to cover a little of everything from the history of Motown, Techno, urban farming, arts community, comeback, Henry Ford and so much more.
    Well we are planning to visit Berlin in 2017 to show the film.
    Can you help us promote the showings, or host a reception, or whatever you can to help?
    The film is available on amazon.com https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a46d5a844aeb1b805dbc88c1e9ff3fea7708e8a6a927adde57e6debceeddfd9b.jpg

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