Prescience on Detroit Bankruptcy

Motor City Industrial Park
Motor City Industrial Park

I’ve been doing summer reading and will soon post my review of Jane Jacobs’ classic 1961 book on urban revitalization The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

In the meantime I was struck by a short passage in the book in which she foretells the death of Detroit.

On the recently bankrupted Detroit, we could call Jacobs fantastically prescient, or we could just as accurately acknowledge that Detroit has been dying for over half a century.

Detroit’s Chapter 9 Bankruptcy is just reaping what was sowed in the 1950s.

At one point in her argument about the need for diversity in cities, Jacobs deplores the Bronx, but notes that Detroit is even worse:

And if the Bronx is a sorry waste of city potentialities, as it is, consider the even more deplorable fact that it is possible for whole cities to exist, whole metropolitan areas, with pitifully little city diversity and choice.  Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx.  It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts.  Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity.  It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.


Please also see my review of Jane Jacob’s fascinating Systems of Survival – A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics 

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5 Replies to “Prescience on Detroit Bankruptcy”

  1. In what sense was she using the term ‘diversity’? I’d say it didn’t have the racial connotation then that it has now. Was she referring to economic diversification?

  2. Reminds me of the decline of places like Pittsfield, MA when they relied on GE. I think at one point there were 14,000 GE jobs in a town of 50,000. GE left and the area went into decline, hitting its nadir around the mid-90s. Pittsfield had a bit of a renaissance in the 00’s partly due to reinventing itself as a cultural center but it still is a shadow of its former glory as an industrial town.

    It can happen with entire countries. Bangladesh has never come to terms with the fact that there’s minimal demand for jute compared to the old days of burlap bags.. They even have a Ministry of Jute.

    It kind of makes you think about parallels with mongrels vs purebreds.

  3. Cogent observation. Jane wrote a lot about the weakness of “company” towns and check out what she wrote about Manchester and Birmingham. Same monoculture of Detroit once found in other cities like Pittsburgh (steel), Hartford (insurance), et al. Ironically, Detroit has begun a barely visible turn-around through emerging diverse small companies. Eventually, it will revive stronger because of it.

    Roberta Brandes Gratz, author, The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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