Friday, December 18, 2009

Detroit and Ayn Rand

Google Earth is an important tool that I use every day in my current job. During breaks, I often look at different areas of the country and I am always fascinated by what I see. The other day, I happened to be looking at Detroit and noticed something I have yet to see in other urban areas.

The center of Detroit is at coordinates N 42-19-54 W 83-02-48. Downtown Detroit from the air, if you zoom in, looks like a typical urban area. If you have street view, you can zoom in and this area, at least, looks like most northern cities.

Now pan to the east. Directly east of the downtown section of Detroit the landscape looks remarkably rural. Many blocks are filled with empty house lots and many of the houses that are left are often boarded up and derelict.

Coordinates N 42-21-40 W 83-02-03 (4166 Joseph Campau St.) is a typical example. From the air, this looks like an area in some far-flung exurb. One of the houses is boarded up and half of the block is vacant.

This is not confined to just one area of the city. 2846 Wabash St. at coordinates N 42-20-08 W 83-04-39 is even more derelict. The area looks like Iowa with block after block completely cleared or with one or two houses to the block.

Pan in any direction around the center of the city and one finds vacant lots and derelict houses. Even the color of the city has changed from urban grey to the more dun coloration one sees in distant suburbs.

What is happening and what can not be hidden when viewed from the God-like perspective that Google Earth gives you, is that vast sections of Detroit are returning to nature. What was once the pride of American industry and capitalism is transforming into an empty wasteland.

What gives me pause is that these Google photos were taken in June of 2007, before the recent market crash. I wonder what the city looks like today after the bankruptcy of Chrysler & GM and the real estate market crash? Instapundit has a link that shows that things are not getting any better in Detroit.

As we have mentioned before, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged seems to be more prescient every day, almost as if Rand had a crystal ball and saw the future. Detroit reminds me of the fictional Starnesville, a once prosperous town that had transformed into a derelict wasteland after the collapse of the town's primary business, the 20th Century Motor Company. The company was run in an egalitarian way when the founder's children inherited the company. Before long, the company collapsed and the town it supported collapsed as well. The parallels between this fictional scenario and real life Detroit, Michigan are stark.

But are socialist policies the sole reason for Detroit's misfortunes? Pan across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario and travel to another world. The town appears prosperous and the majority of the blocks are filled with houses. Is Windsor, Ontario in Canada less socialistic than Detroit in the United States? I highly doubt it.

This issue, I think, is much more complex than it might appear at first glance. Socialistic policies that were promulgated by the government and the automobile unions are most certainly a factor in Detroit's downfall. But, also, the dependence of a city on one industry that has changed rapidly from a labor intensive process to almost full automation is a factor as well. Policies of high wages and pensions to workers whose jobs could probably be done by a machine is probably neither wise nor sustainable.

Whatever the reason, I still find it sad and disheartening to see the death of a once great city that was once the engine that drove America and the world.

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