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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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