Monday, March 15, 2010

Requiem For Detroit: is the demise of urban Detroit leading to the birth of a new Detroit? ... and the renaissance of leadership?

I watched another fascinate documentary called “Requiem for Detroit”. I want to post the highlights from the programme followed by my reflections. I would be interested in your thoughts around leadership, personal leadership, motivation, engagement and any other thoughts you wish to share. This is a cautionary tale of the industrial world – not a cautionary tale of America. I believe there are many examples of Detroit around the world – albeit they attract less attention. It is a tale that ends with a wonderful sense of hope – in that – any man-made disaster is as nothing compared to nature’s immense power and ability to do a ‘make over’ on our man-made disasters. I hope my précis and my reflections here do justice to the brilliant 90 minutes documentary.

Urban Detroit: Then and Now

100 years ago – the city of Detroit bursts onto the world economic scene when Henry Ford produced the first motorcar for the masses. Here, I am only referring to the inner city of Detroit – Urban Detroit. The suburbs surrounding Detroit are thriving with it’s population of about 3.5 million. Urban Detroit: then
  1. The frontier city of America’s dream
  2. A city of transformation
  3. The Paris, and jewel, of the Mid-West
  4. 4th largest city in USA
  5. Had a population of 2 million people
  6. Packard Plant: largest automative plant of it’s time at 3 million square feet and nearly a mile long
Urban Detroit: now
  1. Thousands of homes destroyed
  2. Many businesses destroyed
  3. 20,000 murders in the last 30 years (highest murder in the US)
  4. Has a population of 800,000 people (no traffic jams on the freeways any more)
  5. 28.9% unemployment
  6. 47% illiteracy
  7. 33.8% of the urban dwellers lives below the poverty line
  8. 29 schools closed in 2009 alone
  9. 70 fires a night
  10. Packard Plant: largest abandonment in North America continent
The automotive industry kick-started the American Dream in the early 1900s. Detroit attracted people to its City - equivalent to the Gold Rush. I have no wish to catalogue the complexity of the different events, which caused the demise of urban Detroit. What was really poignant to me was the words from one ex-inmate, “abnormal behaviour in abnormal environment is a normal response!” Suffice to say that I was shaken to the core as I saw so many abandoned office buildings and houses – the scenes more resembled news footage I’ve seen of Beirut (certainly not something I expect to see from a city like Detroit)

Whilst the documentary spent much of it’s time tracing the events that led the downfall of urban Detroit – it is the last 10 minutes that really got me reflecting the kind of 21st Century leadership needed. Because against the harrowing statistics of ‘urban Detroit now’ – there are rays of hope;

  • Goodwill De-Construction Project: helping people to salvage the good parts from abandoned houses and transform other abandoned houses into decent homes to live in. As one of the project workers said (having been in and out of jail), “It’s good to get paid but I want to be somebody. We lift each other up.”
  • Community gardens are springing up from abandoned land. Many of the older African American’s remembered the old ways of growing food for yourself, so they went back in time and started to grow things to survive. As one commentator said, “It’s more than about growing food, it’s about caring for yourself and thinking for yourself”.
  • Detroit is now at the forefront of America’s Urban Agriculture Movement. As they sat around a fire warming up their hot-dog, one urban farmer said he wanted to test the theory that you can survive by growing your own food on one acre of land, “I’m making about $500 a week.” – to which another guy said, “That is as much, if not more, than I made when I was on the GM assembly line!” This ex-GM assembly line worker then paused, reflected on his own urban farming exploits and said, “How can I live like this? How can I NOT live like this?”

  • Detroit is probably the worst place on earth to take risks – and yet the urban city is attracting risk-takers wanting to make a difference and implementing things that they passionately believe in. Many of these risk-takers are young

What I am reminded off as I watched the documentary is the enormous power of nature and natural systems. One hundred years may be a long time to human beings … but it’s nothing compared to the universe, our planet and nature. The concrete jungle put up by man in urban Detroit has been gradually reclaimed by nature and the natural systems. By natural systems, I include the economic system – in that – there are people who earn a living from illegally recycling material from the abandon buildings (technically, they are stealing – but do you blame them?) … and those legally recycling (Goodwill De-Construction Project).

As we witness the demise of urban Detroit – Satellite images show urban Detroit looking greener than it has done for years. Funny how mother nature will always wipe away few decades of properity and man-made disasters no matter how big they are. So, is the demise also giving birth to a new kind Detroit, the Detroit of the future? A future where leadership is about:

  • Co-buildership: of learning to build more sustainable communities rather than relying on large conglomerates to provide for our every need?

  • Living in harmony with natural systems: where the greatest leadership learning is knowing how to ‘tune into’ natural systems and understand the limits to which you can ‘play’ the system.

Interestingly, once Henry Ford realized the tremendous part he and his Model T automobile had played in bringing about the permanent economic and social change of the United States, he wanted nothing more than to reverse it, or at least to recapture the rural values of his boyhood.


  1. Profound Kwai Thank you for sharing it.

  2. I just had to write down my thoughts Ian. There were so many compelling thoughts going throughy head. I really couldn't afford the time to write the piece but I just had to.

  3. I was wondering, "How in the world does this man have time to watch a documentary and write such an amazing post!" but you answered it in your comment.

    What you see in Detroit is what Benton Harbor, MI went through in the 60's and the exact same thing is turning it around, (along with additional resources like a Jack Nicolas signature golf course and multi-million dollar condos/hotels).

    Nature and goodwill reshapes our cities and nations all the time, and they also reshape who we become in terms of leadership, the word itself being over-glorified, because transformation is the natural cycle of life.

    I'd love to take time lapse video of 5 square miles of earth and just keep watching it for hundreds of years to see how it develops, gets destroyed, redevelops, crumbles agains, reforms, etc. I have no doubt that we'd be amazed at what we'd see.

    Great post Kwai. May I suggest you publish this one?

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