Triumph of the City, maybe even Detroit

My friend Erik Proulx is in the midst of his second Lemonade film, this one telling the story of what we all hope might be Detroit’s resurrection. As with his first film, the original Lemonade, it’s not government policy or unemployment checks, or even the bailout of the automobile industry – don’t get me wrong I was in favor of a better stimulus package than the one we actually got – that restores an economy, it’s personal and collective optimism, achievement and creativity.

And so it will be with Detroit. The often ill-fated attempts at urban renewal and the erection of shiny glass buildings are never what make a city great – it’s the people who live there. Erik’s film focuses on such people and as an exploration into the spirit and passion of Detroit residents intent on bringing the city back it paints a picture of hope and possibility.

Erik released the extended trailer of Lemonade Detroit right as I happen to be reading Edward Glaeser’sTriumph of the City. Erik’s premise is that with enough will power and motivation (the latter often comes from having got kicked pretty good) people have the ability to turn lemons into Lemonade. Glaeser’s hypothesis is that cities magnify those qualities. They attract innovators and entrepreneurs, place them in proximity to one another and encourage interaction, collisions and social mobility.

In the late 1800’s right before Detroit became the center of the automotive universe, the city looked a lot like Silicon Valley in the very early days of the computer industry.  Dozens of small, innovative firms and an army of entrepreneurs – Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, David Buick — fueled each other’s ideas, created a community of competition and attracted investors.

A culture of learning and experimentation, and communication among and between industry pioneers, led to the growth of both a city and an industry. Detroit was a center of knowledge. If you were in the car business you needed to be there.

But unlike Silicon Valley, where constant learning, education, and ideas continue to attract thinkers, Detroit’s industrial model led to the opposite: a culture and a massive scale production process which, according to Glaeser, turned out to be “antithetical to the urban virtues of competition and connection.”

Instead, because the assembly line made it possible to be highly productive without knowing that much, it killed the need for learning and attracted the kind of worker for whom learning didn’t matter. According to Glaeser’s thesis, as soon as that happened Detroit was destined to die. “When a city creates a powerful enough knowledge-destroying idea, it sets itself up for self-destruction,” the author writes.

In the end the same industry that made Detroit great ended up destroying it. The vertical integration of the automobile companies crowded out new ideas, spinoffs and alternative industries.

Erik’s film suggests that if urban re-invention is possible it will emanate from a diverse mix with of human capital. Entrepreneurs, artists, educators and other creative people are the ones who’ll make it happen. They’ll make new connections, riff off of each other, and maybe turn Detroit into the kind of city that Glaeser writes about: one that attracts smart people and enables them to work collaboratively to build something lasting.

Kudos to Erik for celebrating the human spirit and making us all more hopeful.


Thanks for sharing this, Edward. So inspiring and rich soil for some related projects.