Commentary: Bankruptcy Won’t Stop Detroit’s Innovative Entrepreneurs

7/26/13Follow @XconomyDET

On Wednesday, the city of Detroit celebrated its 312th birthday. Incidentally, that makes it older than the United States itself by 75 years. A city doesn’t endure for more than three hundred years (and sometimes thrive, lest we forget the 20th century) without a little grit, a lot of innovation, and an abundance of the kind of ingredients—land, water, culture, industry—that make up iconic cities. And make no mistake, Detroit is iconic. Love it or hate it, Detroit is one of the great American cities, which is one reason the nation is so gripped by our newest challenge: bankruptcy.

Before we delve into that particular can of worms, a bit of historical perspective: Detroit’s official motto is Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus, which translates to “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” Now, a city doesn’t choose that simultaneously grim and hopeful motto without having overcome an obstacle or two. In fact, Detroit has been “reborn” at least twice, according to records from the Detroit Historical Society and historicdetroit.org.

The Great Fire of 1805, a mere 104 years into Detroit’s existence, was sparked by hot ashes from a baker’s tobacco pipe. The city didn’t have a paid, professional fire department, so Detroit’s wooden structures burned. The city was leveled by that afternoon. Incredibly, nobody died. Perhaps more incredibly, Detroiters didn’t abandon the smoking ruins where their city used to be and set up camp on a different spot down the Detroit River. Quite the opposite; they redesigned their city with the streets of Washington, DC, as an inspiration.

By the 1880s, Detroit was a city ruled by a corrupt political machine that desperately needed reforms. Voters elected as mayor a businessman with no political experience—a trend that has remained popular to this day—named Hazen Pingree, one of the biggest shoemakers in the Midwest. Pingree ended up being a terrific mayor who fought tirelessly for the best interests of city residents. He was thusly re-elected several times and happened to be in charge when the Panic of 1893 swept the nation.

The Panic of 1893 devastated Detroit. By 1894, the city’s “poor fund” was empty. Factories were shuttered, unemployment skyrocketed, crime was rampant, and residents were going hungry. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it’s Pingree’s response that earned him the fourth spot on the Top 10 U.S. Mayors of All Time list, as ranked in the 1999 book The American Mayor by Melvin Holli. In particular, Pingree initiated a large-scale public works program and sent teams searching house-to-house to find needy citizens who might benefit from being a part of it. (By the way, we have this public works program to thank for Belle Isle being the lovely park that it is today.)

Pingree also opened the city’s vacant land, much of it held speculatively, to the public and appealed to them to transform it into urban farming operations. The response was overwhelming. The Detroit Free Press wrote in 1935 that Pingree, “the dynamic mayor of a city not yet dynamic, turned to the lowly potato as Detroit’s weapon to fight the depression of the ’90s. Pingree’s potato patches broke the back … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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  • All Hat, No Cattle

    Buffalo and Pittsburgh suggest that enlightened leadership and a hardworking citizenry can invent economies that work with shrunken populations. Detroit has had breathtakingly bad leadership, and economic innovation is pretty thin on the ground. Unburdening untenable debt opens the possibility for success; leaders and innovators must grasp the opportunity for Detroit to become viable.