Traverse City Record-Eagle


May 6, 2010

Op-Ed: Look at history to rebuild

One of the hopeful things now going on in Michigan is the newly re-energized discussion over how to revive Detroit.

Most sensible people know Michigan cannot prosper without its largest city prospering too. And plenty of new and good ideas about how to make this happen are circulating. Some have to do with fixing Detroit schools, either by reforming the public ones or creating many more charter schools.

Some come from the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan, a two-year-old philanthropic effort. Others feature mass-transit and riverfront development. But all have this much in common: They are taking into account the decisive change in the political culture of the city, led by the city's new mayor, Dave Bing.

At a lunch in Detroit some weeks ago, lawyers, journalists, foundation leaders and successful native Detroiters who now live out of town met in an effort to advance the process. (Full disclosure: I was a guest, and I agreed to keep identities confidential.)

We began with considering some basic facts about Detroit. First, the city is physically big — 143 square miles of land area, three times the size of San Francisco. Back in 1950, the city had nearly 2 million people. But today, population has shrunk to perhaps fewer than 800,000.

The consequence of population flight is lots of vacant land within city limits — tens of thousands of acres. The amount of vacant land in Detroit is larger, in fact, than the city of San Francisco.

There was talk about taking advantage of all that land to re-think what a city with lots of green space could look like.

Our group then turned to an important part of the history of America. Centuries ago, what characterized our country was vacant land. That gave rise to the idea of homesteading. Immigrants were encouraged to settle on a plot, work it, build a home. Both law and custom dictated that if a man could do that, land title eventually would be transferred to the homesteader.

I saw the last vestige of this system when I was living in Alaska in the early 1960s, and a friend proudly brandished the land title to his 40 acres west of Fairbanks. It's fair to say that the lure of land drove the westward expansion of this country.

Finally, we considered what happened to Vancouver, Canada, just after the mainland Chinese government took over Hong Kong in 1997, scaring lots of wealthy Chinese business families into thinking of leaving. Canada promptly offered citizenship and a work permit to Hong Kong residents with more than $1 million in liquid assets. The result? Thousands of wealthy Chinese immigrants transformed Vancouver into one of the most prosperous cities in North America.

There's a clear lesson here for Detroit, now suffering population decline and the flight of an energetic and ambitious middle class: Let's create a new urban homestead program. Offer anybody with $1 million in assets who wants to move to Detroit the possibility of citizenship. Bring your million; get your work permit; start a business; stay five years. Bingo! You're an American citizen, participating in one of the most exciting urban redevelopment projects of our day.

Now I know suggesting making this nation more immigrant-friendly is politically risky. But consider this: The New York Times reports that new analysis of census data shows an unexpectedly high proportion of working immigrants in metropolitan areas hold higher-paying white-collar jobs — professionals, technicians or administrators — than lower-paying blue-collar and service jobs.

Among U.S. metro areas, Detroit ranks third, with no fewer than 59 percent of immigrants holding higher-paying jobs.

The bottom line: There is no way a foreign-born immigrant with $1 million in assets is going to take away Detroit residents' blue-collar jobs.

But if wealthy immigrants are welcomed to homestead and come and build businesses in Detroit, who's going to get the new jobs they create? Detroit residents.

Consider this too: More than half of all new businesses in Silicon Valley were started by foreign-born immigrants. For them, America is still the land of opportunity.

Immigration was what made America. Homesteading was what drove America's expansion west. Ambitious, motivated entrepreneurs are what contributed to America's wealth.

Taken together, these offer a route to rebuild our suffering inner cities. All we need to assure Detroit's prosperity is to remember and apply these historical precedents.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By e-mail at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.

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