It’s a natural cycle: cities that once sprang up around industry should naturally fade away as the supporting industry does. In the west, they’re called ghost towns.
In the midwest, they’re called Detroit:
There’s a new driver grabbing the wheel in the Motor City.
He’s not an elected official, or a local business titan. He’s not even a Detroiter.
He’s Rip Rapson, president of the $3.1 billion Kresge Foundation, and his combination of ambition, political connections and financial resources has made him a powerful force in the effort to remake a city much of the country wrote off a generation ago.
Under Mr. Rapson’s watch, Kresge has invested more than $100 million in Detroit’s transformation, funding a riverfront promenade, building greenways and backing incentives for entrepreneurs. And he’s just getting started.
“Philanthropy has emerged as the sector best able to provide the long-term vision and shorter-term investment of capital the city needs to right itself,” Mr. Rapson said at a private gathering of urban experts in Detroit this spring.
That foundation-knows-best attitude exasperates Mayor Dave Bing and City Hall officials, who have sought to reassure Detroiters that their voices, not outsiders, will guide efforts to rebuild the city.
“Everyone talks about Kresge, Kresge, Kresge,” the mayor said in an interview. “We’re pleased with the support we’re getting from them, but… Kresge is not doing this in a vacuum by themselves.”
Mr. Rapson dived head-first into city politics last year when Kresge agreed to fund Detroit Works, Mr. Bing’s signature campaign to consolidate the city’s shrinking population into healthy neighborhoods and re-purpose vast tracts of vacant land. Kresge also put up $35 million to spark development of “M1,” a light-rail transit line down Woodward Avenue, the spine of the city.
Both initiatives are now in limbo. Kresge stopped funding Detroit Works at the start of the year after disagreements with City Hall over the role of outside consultants. The foundation also is rethinking its support for the rail line amid a separate spat with city officials.
I like Dave Bing: he’s a Hall of Fame basketball player. I like Detroit: it’s where my grandfather lived out his final years (until the riots, when he moved to the suburb of Southfield); the ’68 Tigers were my first favorite baseball team, Al Kaline my first favorite ball player. But government is what got Detroit into this mess. Government and the economy and a dying automobile industry and the overweening power of the unions, to be fair—but it was government’s failure to encourage a diversification of industry, by cutting taxes and regulations to encourage new business, that was the real downfall of the city. Dead Man’s Gulch, Arizona, didn’t have a lot to sustain it after the gold mines were cleaned out; Detroit did. Or should have.
Whatever attracted Kresge to Detroit is a mystery to me: the city’s been dying for decades. Maybe the allure of being a white knight (so to speak) riding to the rescue made the mission seem noble. The best that can be hoped for Detroit now is a drastically downsized city: vast tracts of land sold off and a smaller hub within. A two-bedroom ranch, from a six-bedroom gothic revival.
And even on that they can’t agree. The city (predominantly African American) resents being told how things are going to be by someone wielding Kmart money. Which is fine—even as it should be in a democracy.
But that money isn’t going to be there forever. The will to revive a dying city isn’t going to be there forever. Maybe beggars can be choosers—but dead men tell no tales.