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Opinion

Detroit's a clunker, but it can still be made road-worthy

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Detroit may be in bad shape, but you wouldn't know that if you had only attended the recently ended North American International Auto Show.

Surrounded by the glitz and glamour of new cars — despite an auto industry that is crumbling just outside the doors of the Cobo Center — the auto show seemed a relic of a once-forward-thinking city:

But step outside the auto show, and beyond downtown Detroit, and things aren’t so gleaming.

I spent my first day in Detroit thinking conservatives needed to slow their roll when it comes to criticizing the city. It didn’t seem any different than other large cities I had visited, like Philadelphia or New York City.

Sure, there were some condemned buildings and closed shops, but every city has that.

The art and university districts seemed just fine. The Detroit Institute of Arts, which is in danger of having to sell its artwork to help pay the city's bills, was in a safe area. At no time did I feel I was in a third-world city, despite what I had read in newspapers since the July 18 bankruptcy. The area around the auto show was fine, too.

But leave midtown or downtown, and the scene changes. There were no more clearly defined “safe” areas and “unsafe” areas. Everything seemed to be intermingled. On one side, all was well, but on the other, there was decay.

For instance, Detroit sits across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario. Detroit is crumbling in most areas, while Windsor is thriving.

On the street level, the same thing. On one side of the street there would be new businesses, while on the other there would be graffiti-covered, abandoned buildings.

You could see the same thing in neighborhoods as well. You would see a house that was taken care of and inhabited, next door to a house that was literally collapsing on itself.

In most large cities I’ve visited, the blight is more localized; in Detroit, trying to find areas where there isn’t decay is nearly impossible.

In a city that once housed more than 2 million residents, and now has slightly more than 700,000, there are lots of abandoned homes.

In some of the previously wealthiest neighborhoods of Detroit, I was told one could buy a mansion for around $150,000. But you might not have neighbors, as the houses on either side are probably falling apart.

Outside the neighborhoods, there was an eerie, post-apocalyptic feeling to many areas of Detroit. On Belle Isle, which is situated between the U.S. and Canada on the Detroit River, the nature zoo lies abandoned. The rest of Belle Isle is functioning, but seeing the overgrown grounds of the zoo is a reminder of how far the city has fallen.

Around the city, empty hotels and old buildings seem straight out of a zombie movie, including one old building with “zombieland” written in graffiti:

There’s also Michigan Central Station, an abandoned train station that hasn’t been serviced since 1988 and has been used as a set for several films, including "Transformers":

Perhaps most depressing of all is the abandoned Packard plant, which closed in 1958 after the fall of Packard and Studebaker:

Other businesses operated on the outer buildings of the complex until the early 2000s, but you can see the decay has been ongoing for decades.

Part of the reason these buildings remain is the dangers of replacing them. Hazardous materials from the factories that built the city have seeped into the ground, and you can see warning signs on fences outside of empty fields.

In a documentary — titled “Bankrupt” — released Thursday, filmmaker Ben Howe tells the story of how this once-great city ended up so far from grace.

“I've experienced business failure and been the 'too small to matter' guy who took the fall while the 'too big to fail' guys got bailed out,” Howe told the Washington Examiner. “It was tough for me to watch the politically favored being told that the rules of the free market didn't apply to them.”

It wasn't just unions that fueled Detroit's bankruptcy — Big Government and cronyism were big factors as well. But, according to “Bankrupt,” the problem for Detroit began well before the 2009 auto bailout — back to the 1970s when complacency set in.

“In the post-World War II era, there really wasn’t any competitor worldwide up until 1970 that was a serious threat to Detroit,” said David Littman, senior vice president and chief economist of Comerica Bank, who is now retired.

Once foreign automakers began to take market share, the lack of innovation and pension promises began to take a toll on the industry and Detroit.

The bailout in 2009 did nothing to fix those problems, mostly because it bailed out the United Auto Workers without changing the way the automakers operated. This means the crisis is not over — merely stalled.

“I hope people walk away understanding that big government and big business and big labor colluded for their own benefit,” Howe said. “They weren't trying to save Detroit. They were trying to protect their own skin. Detroit's problems were kicked down the road. Detroit was expendable.”

Added Littman: “It’s in worse shape than ever."

But Detroit is not lost. Young people are still moving in. There’s a thriving financial district.

And there are people who love the city and want to save it. Singer Kid Rock donated $250,000 in 2012 to establish an interactive “music lab” dedicated to Detroit's rich music history.

And Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, has been buying commercial property in the city in an effort to rebuild it.

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