MFK Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and Simone Beck were all in the South of France and thinking about food in 1970. Kmart, Walmart, and Target were all born in 1954. How do these zeitgeist moments happen?
I have been asked a thousand or so times since Detroit was taken over by an emergency manager—and only sometimes with a soupҫon of snark by an admissions officer at another law school—what the events transpiring in Detroit mean for the larger southeast Michigan region as a whole, and Michigan in particular. (The snarky comments stand in stark contrast to the very good-natured congratulations I recently received from a coastal colleague, on the occasion of LeBron James’s return to Detroit. Wrong Midwestern city, I said. That’s Cleveland. “Are you sure?,” was the response. Yeah. Pretty sure.) Sometimes, these inquiries come from within; one student returned the admissions survey I distributed last fall to the entering class with the following comment:
Detroit’s decline seems like a strong headwind against our brand. While most folks are aware of the law school’s reputation, nearly everyone I talked to second-guessed my decision to move to Michigan. Seems like only the people who have lived in or visited Ann Arbor had good things to say about it. Most everyone else thought we were moving to an urban wasteland.
The commenter concluded by encouraging the Admissions Office to “demonstrate A2’s vibrancy and vitality to prospective students,” while conceding that the job probably falls within the purview of the “Pure Michigan” initiative (or possibly Eminem). (And of course, some students choose Michigan precisely because of its proximity to Detroit.)
Actually, whenever someone asks me about Detroit, here is what I say, and mean: This is a great time for Detroit. Detroit has had troubles for a long, long time—real troubles, to be sure (my husband, who happens to have been born the same year as Target et al., vividly remembers crossing back home into Detroit from Canada following a 1967 family summer vacation, and seeing tanks in the street and soldiers with guns; his parents’ stunned reactions suggest to him, in retrospect, that they must not have had a car radio), as well as the resulting PR troubles. (My own first memory of Detroit when I arrived in Michigan for law school in 1989 was, more or less: Huh. Look at all the buildings, and people. Restaurants and whatnot. Nothing on fire at all. Not what I expected.) Now, at last and at least, something dramatic is happening. We seem to have crossed some Rubicon where serious brainpower and energy are being devoted to solutions and changes. (For the seven years I worked in Detroit, I put my money on the proposed blind-optimism solution painted on the wall of the pizza place across from office building: “Say Nice Things About Detroit.” And in fact, that sunny spirit seems to still be part of the fix-it plan.) Notwithstanding the reasoned criticisms of the emergency-manager system as anti-democratic, in my mind, the bankruptcy isn’t a sign that something has gone wrong in Detroit; it is a hope that something is going right.
Which brings me back to the beginning, and my observation about times of zeitgeist. The big players in this drama are Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan—all of whom found themselves in Ann Arbor in the first years of the 1980s, thinking about law. (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, on the other hand, was there a decade earlier.)