As a resident of SW Michigan I made occasional visits to the Detroit area over the years. I enjoyed watching the Tigers playing at Briggs Stadium, particularly during the years of John E. Fetzer’s ownership of the team. The Detroit Zoo is a great place to spend a lovely spring or summer day; Greenfield Village and the Detroit Institute of the Arts are world-classs must-sees. And there is little need for a description of what the word Motown means to music fans. As a life-long “car guy” I’ve followed the automobile industry’s ups and downs over the years. The city of Detroit has always been there and although it was a big-city wonder for a small town kid it has gradually become a mere shadow of itself as the population within the City’s boundaries fell from 1.8 million in 1950 to less than 715,000.
As the news featuring Detroit became more and more about less and less – poverty, of the grinding, relentless, no hope, no future kind; abandoned and crumbling homes, commercial buildings, factories, roads and bridges; “ruin porn” photo spreads, vacant blocks and empty streets; I found myself increasingly frustrated by my inability to understand what I was seeing and learning. How does a world class City become a hollowed out shell of its formers shelf? What causes 60% of the population to head for the exits – either to the suburbs or to another state in the hopes of finding work? The news media certainly provided little that would help one understand; “if it bleeds, it leads” is still true, particularly for the electronic media. The seemingly endless description of the results of the latest stabbing, shooting, drug bust, “devils night” torching of abandoned homes, financial woes and eventual bankruptcy . . . night after night the only news datelined Detroit were mind-numbingly negative. How did we get to this point?
So I started to read about Detroit and learn more about the history of this city, how it came to be the home of the auto industry, and how it came to its present state. While a number of sources were useful in seeing examples of Detroit yesterday and today, I did not find the one resource I needed – something that helped me understand the flow of time from earliest days to current reality. And then I happened upon “Detroit: A Biography” by Scott Martelle. (2012, Chicago Review Press). I recommend it highly; it helped me understand Detroit’s present tense in the arc of its history, its leadership, its successes and its failures. And it got me to thinking about it from the standpoint of “The 8 Essential Skills” – which of the 8 Skills failed to materialize within the fabric of Detroit’s past?
Skill 3 – Building Successful Relationships was clearly a failure, from the history of terrible labor relations among owners, managers, and the people they hired to work in the factories, to the rampant racism that grew out of the “Great Migration” of immigrants and rural poor who eagerly moved north for jobs paying perhaps 10 times what they could earn in a year as a farmer. From divisive city vs. suburb political fights to a sometimes The Rest of Michigan vs. Detroit mindset in the Michigan Legislature; it’s obvious that a lot of people failed to build relationships that were successful.
Skill 4 – Managing Others was also a significant failure as labor unions and management engaged in destructive “bargaining” where each side succeeded only if the other side of the table lost. Bureaucracy within the auto companies as well as in municipal government resulted in insanely complex work rules, no-show jobs, and an entrenched sense of entitlement at all levels. From the Board and CEO level down to the first line supervisor in the assembly plant, the common sense of managing other people went out the window long ago in favor of “what’s in it for me?.”
Next time . . . Other Failures in the Detroit Story
What do you think?