Michigan cities have their own unique personalities. I think of Detroit as an aging, bruised woman of the streets. She once had spunk and style, and men fell at her feet. But she’s been used and abused too many times now, and it makes me sad just to look at her. And Flint is her younger sister.
Ann Arbor, in contrast, is an orchid in a well-tended but perhaps unsustainable greenhouse. It’s pricey and pretty to look at, but maybe a bit too showy and proud of itself. How long would its tender blossoms survive in the cold world outside?
Grand Rapids is like the Laz-E-Boy chairs that were once made there, solid and serviceable, if not terribly imaginative. Traverse City-Harbor Springs-Charlevoix are elegant yachts moored a few miles out in the harbor – rich and aloof, supported by people who make more money than they probably deserve.
But what is Lansing’s persona? It’s a city that’s always been harder to peg.
When I moved back to Michigan in 1970, after a brief stint in Mexico, it was a coin flip for me between Lansing and Ann Arbor. Sparta/Spartans or Athens? Which one to chose?
Ultimately, I saw the decision as a choice between Ann Arbor’s prime rib and Lansing’s meatloaf. And I chose Lansing because that affordable meatloaf meal back then also included a crisp salad, fresh sweet corn and a cup of coffee and apple pie for dessert.
I liked Lansing’s blue-collar grittiness and down-to-earth style. The auto industry seemed to keep the city honest.
Ann Arbor was dominated if not overwhelmed by University of Michigan. Meanwhile Lansing co-existed with Michigan State, but it had its own identity, as the state Capitol and as the headquarters for Oldsmobile. Policy wonks and corporate types in suits roamed downtown, with real folks in the neighborhoods, and some brainy people not far down the road who had enough money to support a thriving arts and entertainment scene. How could you do better than that?
Lansing was as progressive as Ann Arbor back then – even our Republicans pushed for environmentalism and social justice. I remember when Republican State Senator Lorraine Beebe announced on the Senate floor in 1966 that she had had a therapeutic abortion, at a time when many ardent left-wing feminists would have thought twice about doing so. The biggest anti-Viet Nam War protest in the state was at MSU, not U of M. A clutch of musicians and artists had banded together under the banner of Banana Farm around Clemens Street. And then-Governor William Milliken urged the state to invest in education as the key to a high-tech future in case the auto industry started to falter.
Rust Belt betrayed
And falter it did. In the intervening decades, the auto industry in Michigan buckled, driving people from the state in search of work. The entire state suffered the loss of the auto industry, but that left Lansing with only government and MSU to support its future. The neighborhoods began their sad decline, as the “shop jobs” disappeared. The middle-class prosperity we thought was the American way of life turned out to be a brief blip instead.
The “peak exodus” during the Eighties was the year from July 1981 to July 1982, when 158,000 people fled the state. By the 2000 U.S. Census, Lansing was already lagging on key indicators (years other than 2000 as noted):
|Lansing||Ann Arbor||Detroit||Grand Rapids||MICHIGAN|
|Median household income||$34,833||$46,299||$29,536
|Median value of owner-occupied housing||$73,500||$181,400||$63,600||$91,400||$115,600|
|Population change from April 2000 – July 2006||-4.3%||-1.0%||-8.4%||-2.4%||1.6%|
|Persons under 18||26.8%||16.8%||31.1%||27.0%||26.1%|
|Persons over 65||9.7%||7.9%||10.4%||11.6||12.3%|
Again, according to Reuters, the auto industry has cut 395,000 jobs since 2000, most of them in Michigan, and those are jobs that aren’t coming back. According to a report issued in October 2009 by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRCM), Michigan employment overall is now more than 20 percent below its peak in June 2000. While the auto industry gets most of the attention, the public sector has not gone unscathed. “Within the public sector, however, there has been considerable variance with respect to composition. Generally, higher education and hospital employment levels are up and K-12 education and State of Michigan classified employment levels are down,” the report said. For Lansing, that has meant good news for neighboring MSU, but bad news for all the state employees.
But there is truly frightening news about the future that we are failing to address. When the federal stimulus dollars run dry in 2010, both MSU and the State of Michigan may well plunge off the cliff, joining the remains of the auto industry lying below. UPI quotes Craig Thiel of the CRCM saying, “It’s hard to imagine what happens when (federal) stimulus money runs out.”
It’s not that I don’t love Lansing, but I think slogans and PR won’t save the day. For far too long, the city has been in denial that there are serious threats to its future looming.
The Lugnuts and Thirsty Thursdays are fun. The new Accident Fund investment is worthy of applause. But Mayor Bernero should not spend much time savoring his landslide because the neighborhoods are suffering and even tougher times are on the horizon.
I find myself disheartened reading the recommendations recent report from LEAP (Lansing Area Economic Partnership, Inc.) in the Lansing State Journal:
â€¢ Assist, accelerate and attract businesses
â€¢ Expand talent attraction and retention efforts
â€¢ Support placemaking and transportation infrastructure improvements
â€¢ Enhance cultural and creative assets
â€¢ Improve first impressions
â€¢ Expand entrepreneurship and innovation services
â€¢ Strengthen and expand regional mission
All I can say is, duh? For this, you needed a Kellogg Foundation-funded study? It is a rehash of everything people around here have been saying for years.
In the guise of free enterprise, we Americans have allowed our government to encourage manufacturing to move to countries where unions are weak, wages are low and environmental laws are lax. Meanwhile Midwest cities like Lansing have been left with no bag left to hold.
It will take more than well-meaning platitudes about growth and the occasional downtown development. If we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, it’s time to create a local economy where we buy from and support each other. We need local-food restaurants, inviting bakeries, tailors and dressmakers, a small greengrocer and other small, locally owned businesses dotting Michigan Avenue all the way to downtown. We need to buy from each other even if it means paying a few cents more, rather than heading to a Wal-Mart, China’s outlet mall in the suburbs.
As jobs in education, government and industry continue to crumble, we will have to start supporting one another to survive. And expecting Wall Street to help our Main Street is like asking Godzilla if he’d like to share his lunch. Be careful you don’t get eaten instead.
“Buy local” isn’t just a slogan anymore; it’s a survival mechanism.
Give us your ideas on what it will take to make Lansing a vibrant city that’s fun to live in again.
Here’s the video from Travis Stoliker on five things Lansing should do: