Summer adventuring, Part 3: The Career Management Book that Led Me to Detroit

Detroit probably wouldn’t have seemed like a travel destination if not for a book I read on career management back in 2013.  The city was only mentioned anecdotally as a cautionary tale of what can happen in our careers if we fail to grow, innovate and adapt:

In 1903, after failing twice, Henry Ford tried his hand at a third business venture: Ford Motor Company.  In 1908 he rolled out the Model-T, by 1913 he found an efficient way to build it via the assembly line, and in 1914 he doubled wages to $5 a day to draw a stable workforce to run his operations.  Ford’s credited with effectively creating America’s middle class, paying workers enough to actually afford the vehicles they built (and the mobile lifestyle that accompanied.  By 1951, President Harry Truman called Detroit “a synonym throughout the world for the industrial greatness of America.”  It peaked as the 4th largest city in the U.S., a sophisticated metropolitan contemporary of New York and Chicago.  Detroit was first to pave public roads, assign personal telephone numbers, and develop an urban freeway. General Motors became the first company in U.S. history to exceed $1 billion in revenue.

But fast-forward to present-day Detroit.  Its population dropped from 1.8 million in 1950 to 713,000 in 2010, and it’s estimated that fully one quarter of the city’s residents left between 2000 and 2010 alone. Not only have many of its residents fled (primarily for the suburbs) those remaining now live in the most dangerous city in the country.

But what struck me the most, the whole point the authors wanted to make by referencing Detroit’s downfall:

Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its day.

Can you even picture this? Could you imagine San Francisco and San Jose’s money, jobs, residents bleeding out until all that’s left is a shriveled up ghost town with a distant memory of the glory days?

I can’t picture it.  The Silicon Valley I know is a fixture in American industry, paragon of innovation for our country, leading the way for the U.S. job market. Silicon Valley isn’t going anywhere.

But isn’t that what they must have felt about Detroit?

I started to wonder if the steel and automobile and assembly line were today’s microprocessors and social networks and search algorithms, and the cautionary tale seemed applicable not just to a city or a career, but our lives overall: no matter our successes, no matter how great we may be, we must continue to grow and adapt if we’re to endure.  Even the mighty can fall.

So just a one chapter in to the career management book, I was hooked.  For its notoriety, its history, its impact on today’s corporate American life, its role as an industry epicenter,  its tangled story of innovation and the lack thereof, and for its dramatic decline…something about Detroit was entrancing.

I had to see it.

Turns out Toronto is a mere 231 miles from the Motor City.  I’m not even sure why the family agreed to go.   The idea was initially gunned down in the air and it seemed I’d need to get there on my own someday.  But maybe my Mom realized she could get a Tigers game in, or maybe Aaron realized how much cheaper restaurants might be compared to swankier New York and Toronto. Or maybe they thought it would just be a hassle to fight it.  For any or none of these reasons, after Toronto we hopped a train to Detroit.

I’ve never visited a place I’ve heard such bad news about.  And though Detroit’s bled out over half its population, you wouldn’t know it at first glance at the skyline.  All you’d see is the towering GM building on the Detroit River, the varied and opulent architectural styles downtown.  Standing in the middle of the city and looking up and around, you’d think Detroit was any other major U.S. metropolis, more visually arresting than many  since it rose to such prominence in its heyday. It’s like looking at a beautiful old house from the curb, not knowing that the inside has been all but gutted.  Only as you look closer, noticing the condition of the buildings, the countless vacancies, boarded up windows and graffiti-laced walls, does it become clearer that though the bones of the city’s glory remains, its pulse is still weak.

But as we spent the next few days in the city, renting an Airbnb in a moderately rough part of town and Lyfting everywhere for lack of any convenient public transit, it became clear that there was still beauty to be seen in the place, that it wasn’t simply shrouded by its own struggles, a duller, sadder version of normal life.  It’s self-evident I’m sure, but I had to see it for myself to see that even with the current dark reality, it’s not as if the sun doesn’t still shine on Detroit.  You’ll still see the occasional wildflowers. Good coffee.  Public art.  Outdoor markets.  Generous front porches.  Friendly neighbors who welcome you to their garage sale.

In fact, these simple bits of beauty were all the more vivid against their backdrop.  Maybe they just distract from the severity of Detroit’s situation, maybe they hint that the city won’t stay down.  I’m not informed enough to tell, but I’m curious to find out.

Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus

We hope for better things;
it will arise from the ashes.

-Motto, City of Detroit.  (1805)


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