Detroit – the next Pittsburgh?

It has felt a little strange recently, as the City of Detroit prepares to file for bankruptcy, to read various comparisons from major news outlets claiming Pittsburgh, the city I live in, could serve as a model for Detroit, an area I once also lived in. There have been dozens of articles over the last couple of years stating that Pittsburgh’s resurgence after it almost collapsed when the steel industry imploded could help guide Detroit in reinventing itself. Pittsburgh, in case you haven’t heard, successfully reinvented itself by focusing, in large part, on developing the health care industry and institutions of higher education, or “eds and meds.” Now we have Google and a thriving robotics center and a booming film industry, and more farm-to-table restaurants than you could eat at in a week. Detroit, many of these articles claim, could become the “next Pittsburgh,” if it could only be willing to shed its Motown, auto-industry dominated sense of self and focus on higher education and technological advancements as well.

Good luck with that.

Even my recent addition of The New Yorker is getting in on the act. writing “If you were to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, home to Diego Rivera’s magnificent murals depiciting scenes at the Ford Motor Company in the early nineteen-thirties, and then take a stroll through the surrounding streets, you might be surprised at what you find: coffee shops fequented by young hipsters; old warehousesbeing converted to lofts; bike racks; houses undergoing renovation; a new whole Foods supermarket. After decades of white flight, black flight and urban decay, Detroit is being spoken of, in some circles, as “the new Portland” or “the new Brooklyn.”

It’s a shame, really, that in order to survive and then, thrive, Detroit needs to become the new anything beyond the new Detroit. I’ve told my father-in-law, who is ardently anti-Detroit, having had a relatively disappointing working experience in Michigan, that the Detroit currently portrayed in the media isn’t the Detroit I experienced from 2005 – 2008. Certainly, there was blight, and yes, I was once approached by a homeless man who threatened me for my engagement ring (lesson: don’t wear diamonds in Detroit. Hey! Could be the title of my memoir, yes?) but the majority of my experience was marked by evenings spent over mojiots and ropa viejo at Vicentes or beers and barbecue at Slow’s, watching the Tigers play at Comerica park or attending plays at Wayne State University. Ian and I both worked in the heart of the city and while my parents claimed our daily commutes to Detroit elevated their collective blood pressure for four years, I did not feel more vulnerable or unsafe than I do in the city of Pittsburgh, which is to say, not often at all.

I lived and worked in the Detroit area for four years, and I have many friends who remained there and have carved out gorgeous lives for themselves. At this point, between graduate school and my current position, I’ve lived and worked in Pittsburgh for nearly eight years, and to me there are some very definite differences between Pittsburgh and Detroit – differences that will probably keep Detroit from “becoming the new Pittsburgh” but will also hopefully become…whatever it’s meant to become next. In many ways, my answers might seem more pro-Pittsburgh than pro-Detroit, so first just let me say that while I live in Pittsburgh, and love it nearly unconditionally, and it has hold of my heart – Michigan, the state, IS my heart, and that includes Detroit.

(1.) Pittsburghers LOVE Pittsburgh – Michiganders mostly feel “meh” about Detroit – I have lived in four different states and six different cities, and I have traveled all over the country, and I really believe that NOBODY loves their hometown the way Pittsburghers love Pittsburgh. Loyalty knows no bounds here, and most people can’t imagine why you would ever want to live anywhere else. Don’t bother pointing out the dismal climate, often poor air quality and difficulty of getting from point A to point anything thanks to one-way roads, poor road construction, and oh my god congestion on the bridges – Pittsburghers will just cheerfully point out to you the rivers, the mountains, our identity as the one true Appalachian city and, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers. In Michigan, a majority of the people who travel into the city for work don’t live there, and a significant portion of the population never has to leave the suburbs at all. This means…

(2.) Pittsburghers USE their city, whereas people in the suburbs of Detroit don’t USE the city in the same way. I have friends with a wide variety of economic backgrounds, and while some of us have tickets to the ballet and others have tickets to the local football or hockey games, almost all of us have annual memberships to the zoo, the Carnegie museums and the library. It is never recommended that we take a drive outside the city, unless it’s for a very particular experience, like white water rafting or zip-lining. My friends and I take our kids to the Children’s museum, the zoo and Frick park – we go to the opera and fight to obtain tickets to touring Broadway plays – we all support our sports teams. In Pittsburgh, enjoying and using our city is a way of life. I was shocked recently to find out that the majority of my friends in Michigan have annual passes to the Toledo zoo instead of the Detroit zoo – their reasoning is sound (better zoo, + baby polar bears for the win!) but it still seemed odd to me that they would leave the state instead of supporting a local resource. Trips to the Detroit Institute of Art are considered a once-a-year luxury, as is attending a baseball or football game. Regular use really seems to make a difference, in the Pittsburgh vs. Detroit argument.

(3.) I’m going out on a limb with these next two, so keep in mind these are my personal observations and not necessarily how things are. On the whole, I find Pittsburghers signicantly less materialistic than many of the people who live in suburban Michigan. In Pittsburgh, it doesn’t feel like a race to keep up with the lastest fashions, cars and home decor whereas in suburban Michigan, it felt like people were conspicuous consumers. I’m not someone made to easily feel badly over a lack of interest in material goods, but in southern Michigan there was a tremendous emphasis on having a new model car, a new condo or home, and keeping up with trends. In Pittsburgh, rocking a pair of legggings and some rain boots is as fancy as it often gets, even in the nicer restaurants, and it’s more fashionable to take the bus or bike to work than it is to drive a car. If you DO drive it really doesn’t matter WHAT you drive but if you want to drive a Prius or other chargeable car, there are lots of stations to charge your car around the city. People live in old houses along older streets and they don’t automatically flee farther away from the city the minute they earn more money. There is an inherent focus on sustainability here that is endemic to the people and place of Pittsburgh itself.

(4.) I also think racism tends to be more up front in the Detroit area than it is Pittsburgh. I thought about saying that suburban Detroit is more racist than Pittsburgh but ultimately I don’t know if that is really true – what I do know is Pittsburgh is much more diverse than Detroit and suburban Detroit, and beyond that, I literally never hear negativity from my caucasian friends and co-workers directed toward other races or cultures. When I lived in Detroit many of my friends thought nothing about sharing their negative opinions about other races and cultures to an uncomfortable extent. The legacy of white flight from the late fifties and early sixties runs deep in Michigan, and the city and neighborhoods aren’t as integrated as they are here in Pittsburgh.

(5.) Time magazine, online, ran a great piece a while back that doesn’t appear to be saved in its archives, arguing that the very geography of Pittsburgh is what helped make its resurgence successful, and I think that’s the most important point I’ve read about this topic. Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs could only expand so far, limited as they are by rivers and mountains. Detroit, on the other hand, had seemingly limitless land surrounding it, so the expansion of the suburbs could go on ad infinitum. I grew up in northern Michigan, a four hour drive from southern Detroit, and upon my first few exposures to the extensive southern suburbs I didn’t understand how anyone could tell them apart. As far as I was concerned, Novi bled into Northville and Southfield bled into Canton which bled into Plymouth and they all looked exactly the same. After living there for four years I know that’s not the case, and each town is distinguishable, with its own heart and personality, but they are so interconnected by expressways it’s incredible. So, if you are raised in Novi, go to school in Novi, and do the majority of your living in Novi, you don’t necessarily feel connected to Detroit, in any way. The limiting geography of Pittsburgh prevents this sort of dissonance and makes, I think, a big difference in the way the city is embraced.

I don’t want to see Detroit crumble and fall, any more than it already has. It was once a truly great city, and it can be again. I think identifying industries that can be successful and help restore some of the economy is vital, as well. But Detroit shouldn’t be expected to shed its past – just celebrate it, learn from it and move on. There can only be one Pittsburgh, one Portland, one (thank God) Brooklyn – there only needs to be one Detroit. I think our energies could be better spent figuring out a vision for a new Detroit, one guided by its history and its present – a vision that draws on the strength and knowledge of those who live there, as well as the geography – than wishful hoping that Detroit will model itself after something its not.

2 thoughts on “Detroit – the next Pittsburgh?

  1. Do you think that the education level of your friends affects the overt racism you’re encountering (or not encountering)? I’m curious because, for instance, my extended family in central PA is very overtly racist, as are many of the folks in my similarly blue collar neighborhood. I very rarely experience overt racism when I’m talking with people of similar education level…or maybe I’ve just been lucky so far?

  2. Unfortunately (or maybe not?) I don’t think education has much to do with it – when I was in college there was actually a lot of rage over the idea (and that’s all it was – an idea) that people didn’t get into the University of Michigan because minorities took “their” spots – and some of the most egregious, racist things I heard were said by college graduates! More and more my own personal theory is beginning to form around the idea of space – here in Pittsburgh we are all squashed up next to each other – we have to learn about each other whether we like it or not. I nMichigan, there is endless land to escape what you don’t want to know.

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