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Granite City could learn a lot from Motown

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The nickname Motown describes two distinct aspects of the US city of Detroit. One was the name of the famous record label which spawned a conveyor belt of pop classics from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson.

That label, in turn, took its name from the industry which used to dominate the city – automobile manufacturing.

Interestingly, both largely abandoned the city in the 1970s, but their legacy still looms large in Detroit.

They still make cars in the Motor City, but on nowhere near the scale they did during the industry’s heyday in the 1950s. At that stage, 200,000 people worked for either one of the “big three” manufacturers, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, or in the supply chain. Now, the industry employs about a tenth of that figure.

In the wake of the decline, there are vast swathes of unused and abandoned factories and derelict houses that blight the city. The population has declined dramatically – from a peak of 1.8million to now just 650,000.

Meanwhile, poverty stalks its citizens. Detroit was rated the most impoverished big city in the US in 2015, with 39.3% living below a poverty line of $24,008 for a family of four.

Just 66 miles to the north-west, the city of Flint topped the list of Michigan state’s poorest cities with 40.1% of residents living in poverty.

It is also motor town. GM began in Flint at the turn of the 20th century but shut down its factories there in the 1980s.

Currently, the city is in a state of crisis which can be drawn directly back to the collapse of its principal industry. After suffering a decade of economic crises, in April 2014, Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money.

The move led to a federal public health state of emergency being declared in January, as residents were struck down by lead poisoning caused by the river’s corrosive water on aged pipes.

Back in Detroit, the city is still recovering after becoming the largest city in US history to file for bankruptcy in 2013, with debts estimated up to £14billion.

“It is almost impossible to describe the poor parts of the city to someone who hasn’t been there, to grasp the level of devastation in parts of the city,” says Kevin Boyle, the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Born and raised in Detroit, he published an academic study “The Ruins of Detroit: Exploring the Urban Crisis in the Motor City”.

The trouble is the sheer scale of the blight. Detroit sprawls over 140 square miles and still has over 80,000 derelict houses that need to be either demolished or rebuilt.

But there are signs of recovery. After the sub-prime banking crisis which further devastated the city’s economy, Chrysler is now owned by Italian car maker Fiat and the industry is back on a more stable track.

Likewise the city centre, hollowed out by decades of flight to the city’s more prosperous suburbs, is seeing a renaissance of sorts.

This is being driven by technology companies who can take advantage of the city’s low property prices, as well as small scale manufacturing of items like watches and bicycles, and craft beer and spirits.

Another Professor Boyle – Robin, professor of urban planning and chairman of the department of urban studies and planning (DUSP) at Wayne State University in Detroit – moved to the city from his native Glasgow in 1992.

“It is not like a hurricane or a flood. It is something that is much more insidious and it takes time for the worst impact to be seen,” he said, prior to warning that Aberdeen must not do what Detroit did.

“This is where it becomes relevant to Aberdeen. The city of Detroit and its region became complacent. It became beholden to one sector of the economy.

“We had all the conditions of a city that was no longer flexible and no longer nimble. It was no longer innovative. While other cities were being innovative, developing other ideas, products and places, Detroit rested on its very large corporate laurels.”

From his urban planning vantage point, he pointed to how individuals are making a difference to the city.

“We have several major investors, particularly one, who has bought up enormous amounts of real estate. He has filled them with businesses, brought activity, energy and life back to downtown Detroit,” said Robin Boyle.

Dan Gilbert, a multibillionaire who made his fortune in the mortgage industry through his firm Quicken Loans, moved from the city’s outskirts back into the city in 2010.

Mr Boyle said: “He discovered, unsurprisingly, there was an enormous amount of very inexpensive high-rise office property in the downtown area. He now owns around 85 properties in the downtown.

“He has gradually tried to attract retail into the downtown area. We don’t have much, but we have attracted bars, cafes, restaurants and we are seeing openings of restaurants and bars every week.

“It used to be every year, then it became every month, now it is every week. It has put downtown Detroit back on the map.”

However, Prof Kevin Boyle believes the current mayor’s plan to have this activity spread out to the areas beyond the city centre have not yet taken hold. Instead he envisages a more grass-roots approach and micro-investment having a bigger effect.

“I do wish he and the city were a bit more creative in trying to deal with its problems rather than clinging to this idea you can grow the city from the centre out which really hasn’t worked,” he said.

“There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening down in the neighbourhoods where people are trying to do urban farming. They are trying to build small businesses.

“There are ways to rebuild the city small scale and make life better for people. I wish there was a bit more emphasis on that and less on the high-tech start ups.

“There are sections of Detroit where it is really hard to get groceries. Let people open stores to rebuild the economies out on the street. There are lots of empty shops people could have.”

But what is clear is that Detroit’s main breadwinner for so long is never going to come back to the level it was.

Prof Kevin Boyle added: “There are a lot of people who feel the auto-makers deserted them. There’s people who also say high union wages and generous benefits drove out the jobs.

“It is a global industry. It is not the same industry it was when Detroit was at its peak. Those three manufacturers controlled 97% of the American market. The nostalgia for Detroit as a great manufacturing centre is just that.”

His namesake, Robin Boyle, also believes the region must look forward, rather than back.

He said: “It is about taking the assets you have and realising tomorrow is not the same as yesterday.

“You do need to be more aware of different sectors of the economy. You need a skilled workforce – you need people who themselves have got to be more flexible. It also means institutions need to be innovative and flexible.

“We really hit rock bottom and went bankrupt. Out of that has come a very different approach to the way this city is going to be organised and move into the future. That in the long term bodes well for the city of Detroit.”

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