Monday, October 11, 2010

Clearing up a myth about Detroit

David Byrne, the rock star and arbiter of urbanism, has a new piece in the Wall Street Journal about the decline of Detroit. He argues that culture can help bring back the city, but he is pessimistic. He should ask Johnny Knoxville about that.
In any event, David Byrne uses the Packard plant as an example of what is wrong with the city:
We biked on. Almost all the folks on the streets were black, and most seemed to be wandering, alone, stunned. We stumbled on the Packard plant, once the home of the most successful luxury car in America. The plant is huge, covering 80 acres, and the city wanted to raze it. But they weren’t clear on who owned it! They thought it was owned by a man named Dominic Cristini who, it turns out, is serving a prison term on drug charges in California. That research was revised when a company named Biosource sued an art gallery for removing a Banksy from the property—thereby revealing themselves, or one Romel Casab, as the owner. Casab is therefore responsible for demolition, or something. God knows what toxic shit is in there.

He has a point that the city doesn't know who owns the plant, and that's a problem. He is stretching when he claims that Packard was the most successful luxury car in America (Packard was most successful in the 1920s). But the real problem here is that the Packard plant is not a result of the decline of Detroit. The plant closed in 1956 and the company closed two years later. Detroit was growing and booming then, with well over a decade of growth ahead. In addition, the auto industry was just taking off at the time the plant closed. There are lots of things you can show to illustrate the decline of Detroit, but highlighting the Packard plant shouldn't be one of them. It closed during the height of Detroit's prosperity and mostly reflects the troubles of Packard. I suspect the only reason that people continue to highlight the plant is because of the (now) famous Motor City sign shown in the above photograph. At this point the old Packard plant is just one of thousands of abandoned properties that the city has to deal with, but the plant's closing did not cause the city's downturn.

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