Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ford-field

Looking toward Ford Field the night of Super Bowl XL. (PHOTO: IFMUTH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Vagabonds Will Revitalize Detroit

• September 03, 2013 • 11:33 AM

Looking toward Ford Field the night of Super Bowl XL. (PHOTO: IFMUTH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Plus: A Korean parable and Saskia Sassen on the differences between Chicago and the Motor City.

Outsiders, not locals, revitalized New Orleans. Rich or poor, long-term residents can’t see the diamonds in the rough. Hurricane Katrina washed out the parochial thinking that was killing Big Easy. Lessons for Detroit:

“After a tragedy is one of the few times you can be trying to reimagine a city rather than just trying to go back to what you were before,” said Scott Cowen, the president of Tulane University, who is writing a book examining the remaking of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “What you really need is transformational change, not just incremental change to get back to where you were,” he said in an interview. “That’s been very important to resurgence of this city, and Detroit has to do the same thing.”

If Detroit really does need transformational change, then current residents and institutions are incapable of providing it. Old school Detroit is fodder for ruin porn. Outsiders, carpetbaggers, find opportunities where the firmly entrenched acknowledge failure. A broken place suggests a former state of working. Vagabonds have no idea what that looked like. The double-edged sword of the hipster invasion:

“Katrina did two things,” says Tim Williamson, the CEO of Idea Village, which recently sponsored New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week (NOEW). “Everyone became an entrepreneur because everyone was starting over in some way—we became a start-up city.”  Second, he says, “our networks scaled globally.”  Williamson and four fellow entrepreneurs founded Idea Village, a not-for-profit organization, in 2000 in order to identify and support local entrepreneurs. But it wasn’t until after Katrina—when the city’s plight triggered a huge influx of people who wanted to help rebuild—that the organization gained real traction.  Among those who showed up were MBA students from top business schools who opted to spend spring break rolling up their sleeves to help New Orleans entrepreneurs rather than hitting the beaches.  One of those MBAs was Daryn Dodson from Stanford; the following year, he returned with 25 fellow Stanford MBAs, who were supported by alum Jim Coulter, co-founder of Silicon Valley private equity giant, TPG. “Stanford would not have come here if it weren’t for Katrina,” says Williamson.  He and his partners saw that the time was right for New Orleans to attract world-class resources in order to nurture its homegrown entrepreneurial talent.

That’s how New Orleans got on the hipster map, for better or for worse. The invasion indicates a community’s networks scaling globally. On the backs of these migrants come fresh ideas and knowledge, density be damned. New Orleans was re-imagined and experienced transformational change. The same could happen to Detroit and, South Korea:

Dr. Emanuel Pastreich, a long-time resident of Korea who has worked with various Korean academic and government institutions in efforts to increase Korea’s global stature, has recently released a remarkable book that presents the quintessence of his philosophy. Dr. Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute and a professor at Kyung Hee University, and has penned A Different Republic of Korea about Which Only Koreans Are Ignorant, which has drawn considerable attention. …

… The book is meant as a touchstone to point Korea in the right direction towards its true long-term potential on the global stage. Much of the focus falls on the various hidden treasures in Korean culture itself. Pastreich uses a powerful parable taken from the Lotus Sutra to describe Korea’s relationship with its own culture.

The parable goes like this. A man meets an old friend and they talk until late in the evening. Before dawn, the friend leaves while the man is still asleep. The friend takes a priceless gem and sews it into the lining of the man’s jacket as a special gift to help him, and then he leaves before the man awakes. When the man wakes up he continues on his travels, unaware of the jewel sewn into his clothes. He suffers painful experiences, being subjected to hunger, disease, and terrible poverty. After many years, he meets up again with his friend who tells him that he had had a priceless jewel in his clothes all that time, but had been unaware of it. The point of the parable is that often the most valuable things in our lives we have right with us, but we are completely unaware of their presence. In the case of Korea, there is a profound lack of awareness of the richness of Korean culture itself.

Like Korea, the Rust Belt I know experiences a profound lack of awareness of its own cultural richness. Thus, the rushing in of Rust Belt Chic to fill that void. Repatriates and newcomers find charm where others lament what used to be there. Despite what Robert Putnam claims, the pre-Rust Belt days weren’t all that. Detroit fell far from grace? The city was a hole that everyone wanted to escape.

The rooted hold tightly to the past and the power. Detroit is a city of insiders. Chicago is one of outsiders. Saskia Sassen compares the two:

If it is not the product with its diverse components, what is it that happened in Detroit? The weak point was that all the diversity of components were mostly manufactured via subcontracts from the corporate car companies. The latter dominated and dictated. This made Detroit more akin to a plantation economy, no matter how complex a coffee bean it produced.

Chicago, in contrast, had multiple organizing logics. It was, in some sense, more networked, as we might say today. The knowledge embedded in those very diverse industrial sectors was eventually extracted and transformed/commodified into specialized servicing capabilities. It took work to dislodge that knowledge from certain types of organizational logic (heavy manufacturing, industrial agriculture, and continental level transport logistics) and insert it into a different type of organizational logic: that of today’s so-called knowledge economy.

Chicago’s political machine isn’t a paragon of open networking. I also think Sassen overemphasizes the region’s economic diversity. Quite simply, she overlooks the very talent migration that informed her line of inquiry:

When I arrived at the University of Chicago in the Fall of 1998, the mood downtown was that of a sense of loss –corporations and banks were leaving, and the general sense was that Chicago’s past as a heavy manufacturing center was to blame. But in fact, once one left the corporate heights it was clear that there was a lively economic and cultural scene of small enterprises, networked economies, old lofts transformed into beautiful restaurants catering to a whole new type of high-income worker—hip, excited, alive. Yes, there was a new vibrant economy of small specialized firms, software developers and experimental cultural spaces. The center of the city was gaining population even as the city at large was losing population (the best source for readable data on the population and economy of the city, is Chicago Crain’s long-term contributor.

Upon reading that, I know I have a new research project. Gentrification is where it—globalization—all starts. Birthplace diversity, not firm diversity, explains the divergent paths of Detroit and Chicago. The “new type of high-income worker” must come from someplace else. Otherwise inbreeding homophily rules. Too much social capital strangles innovation. Closed off to the outside, a small circle fights over a shrinking pie. Welcome to South Side, Chicago, or Gary, Indiana. Welcome to South Korea. Hello, Detroit.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.