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The Human Factor

November 21st, 2011 - 9:15 am

The Sacramento Bee has a series of time series photographs will chronicle the changes to areas devastated by the Japanese tsunami six months ago. Three views are provided; one immediately after the disaster,  the second three months later and the third at six months. One reduced size photo is after the Read More.

Man Vs Entropy

The Urbanophile has another set of time series photos, this time taken in America. It shows an aerial photograph of a Detroit neighborhood in 1949 and again in 2003. The leftmost photo is 1949. The 2003 photo shows that much of the neighborhood has reverted to prairie.

Trees growing inside buildings

Taken together the photos pose two questions. What drove the change? And is the direction of change good? Time Magazine in a special titled “The Tragedy of Detroit” has a ready answer for the second set of photographs. The change was bad and racism, “hubris” and the lack of an industrial policy were allegedly responsible for the decline of a once great city. The obvious solution now is for the Federal Government to invest billions and transform these ruins “into the Arsenal of the Renewable Energy Future”.

Back in the ’50s, the Federal Government began investing what would eventually reach half a trillion dollars in what became the interstate highway system. You could have considered that an incredible subsidy for the auto industry — which it was — but it was also an investment in the nation’s future.

It’s an adaptable model. The fuel-cell technology that dazzled me at the GM Tech Center is less about autos than it is about energy — energy, as hydrogen, that exists in every molecule of water. What’s to stop us now from turning Detroit — its highly trained engineering talent, its skilled and unskilled workforce desperate for employment, its underutilized production facilities — into the Arsenal of the Renewable Energy Future?

If we did, Detroit could go back to building something America needs. As a nation, we could prove that we can still make things. And while we’re at it, we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.

But not everyone is convinced. The Urbanophile on the other hand takes the view that many of Detroit’s previous problems disappeared when the city killed itself. Because the parasites who feasted on the city have gone away from what they believe to be a carcass picked clean, re-building is happening all over the place, but in the shadows. Now if Time Magazine would only leave Detroit alone and keep the Federal Government from imposing Green Energy Arsenal scheme, Detroit might actually develop into something worthwhile, but organically and not necessarily according to some planning mandate.

In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

Can you imagine a two-story beehive in Chicago? In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained. Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused, ensuring that anyone who ever wants to do anything will be forced to run a costly and grueling gauntlet of variances, permits, hearings, etc. Only the most determined are willing to put up with that.

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.

Viewed in this perspective, the time series photographs are really a portrait not of the physical landscape, but of the human factor: the society that creates the landscape. In Japan the physical tsunami has rebounded against the resilient people. In Detroit, the political tidal wave proved too strong, too devastating; but now that it has receded the survivors are picking up in its wake.

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