This week’s Economist has brought something we haven’t seen in quite a long time — good news from Detroit. For a city which has become the poster child for America’s rust-belt industrial decline and urban problems, it is refreshing to see some green shoots appearing:
[D]espite all the gloom, there is a bit of a sense that things might just be starting to turn, and the reason is simple: Detroit is now incredibly cheap. And that has drawn some admittedly rather pioneering types back into town.The most remarkable of these is Dan Gilbert. A 49-year-old native of Detroit whose motto is “We can do well by doing good”, Mr Gilbert is reshaping Detroit’s centre. Last year he moved his main business, Quicken Loans, the largest internet mortgage company in America, from the quiet suburbs into a building on Campus Martius park, the heart of downtown. His 1,700 staff there were joined, earlier this month, by another 2,000 people whom he moved into a second building nearby…And besides all this, a quiet revolution is taking place in Detroit’s schools, which have done so much to drive people away. Thanks in large part to the generosity of Detroit’s philanthropic phalanx, especially the Skillman Foundation, they are gradually getting better. Half of Detroit’s children now escape the poorly run and poorly funded public schools, because of an explosion in the number of independent charter schools, religious foundations and rules that let pupils attend schools in neighbouring suburbs.
This is very good news, and it is refreshing to see that people are still searching for solutions in a city that many had left for dead. It is interesting to note, however, that in one of the bluest of blue-model cities, the government is responsible for so few of these changes. Entrepreneurs and foundations seem to be stepping in where political institutions failed, just as charter schools and religious schools are filling the vacuum caused by a dysfunctional public education system.