Seattle: what Detroit might have been

Detroit built cars, Seattle made planes — for the glory decades of the 20th century that was true, anyway. Now, however, the cities are following very different paths. Hindsight might be obnoxious, but its irony can be painfully insightful.

This morning, I swilled coffee and read an article in Fast Company about Seattle, named the magazine’s City of the Year. The article, by Garth Stein, details the city’s emergence as an intellectual, geological and gastronomical land of plenty. Once the land of Boeing — because of easy access to timbers needed for planes during World War I — it  is now the land of Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, REI, Jones Soda and many, many more innovative companies and bio-tech researchers.

While I read, in the background, NPR’s Steve Inskeep was reporting on Weekend Edition from Detroit, a broken down city plagued by a lack of industrial vision, marked by Ford, GM and Chrysler’s collective failure to transition from automakers into transportation titans. Detroit’s city leaders hitched their wagons to a dying industry. And now, the nation and taxpayers must help them tighten up a rusty, rusty belt. We’re paying the price now for yesterday’s conservative, stay-the-course philosophy.

Meanwhile in Seattle, a spirit of innovation, of creativity, of self-sufficiency long ago allowed the city’s economy to soar beyond the work of making planes.  Seattle’s unemployment rate is less than half that of Detroit’s. And its prospects for the future are much, much brighter. Amazon’s reporting record profits. And this week, Microsoft reported that for the first time in 23 years its profits declined. During the worst economic times in 80 years, profits declined. They did not evaporate, and Bill Gates is not panhandling. Over the same period, Detroit stood idle or slid backward, committed to milking the last drops of prosperity from a shrinking industry. Seattle moved beyond, intent on the future, forward-looking, do-it-now types setting the stage for the next century.

Detroit could have been a rustic gem of the midwest, where creativity and efficiency blossomed. Instead, taxpayers will prop it and the Big Three up a little longer, desperately grasping for innovation they should have been chasing years ago. The hybrid has left the building. And it’s a Toyota. The high speed train? Light rail cars? Mass transit?

GM, Chysler and Detroit could have headed that direction a decade or two ago. They could have built a lot of things other than rusty piles of debt and layoffs. We can only hope it’s not too late.  The only thing more obnoxious than hindsight? Repeating history.


9 Responses to Seattle: what Detroit might have been

  1. Andrew says:

    Great article, Zack. I grew up in the Detroit area and painfully aware of the shortsighted, stubborn arrogance of the Big Three (although fwiw I see Ford as the lesser of three evils).

    While I’m here, glad you’re reading Fast Company! I love this magazine & not only because my daughter, Kate (Bonamici) Flaim, writes for them. 😉

    Keep up the good work!


  2. […] Seattle: what Detroit might have been ( […]

  3. Oh_Really says:

    What the pen, what the sword? Such an aggressive strike from a Seattlite at Detroit in times of total domestic economic despair. I hope you feel good about yourself, because I take no comfort in your blog. Are you really so sure of Washington’s financial and industrial dominance? WaMu (no longer), Boeing (no longer HQ’d in WA), Starbux 900 store closings….

    With only 8-2008 Fortune 500 companies headquarted in WA one might question your confidence Zack. Michigan is home to nearly 3 times the amount of Fortune 500s. An almost bankrupt 2008 GM produced 3 x’s the revenue of the beloved MS AND paid state income tax that contributed to road and infrastructures far superior to Washington’s. Be cautious and respectful in your arrogance friend, I enjoy my Seattle community and hope arrogance such as yours doesn’t breed wholesale ignorance and blind faith such as that experienced by the Romans.

  4. zackbarnett says:

    Interesting thoughts… thanks for reading. I don’t live in Seattle, and in fact I live in an Oregon county pushing 15 percent unemployment. Nobody’s in good shape right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t start immediately applying lessons of the time. The difference between GM and Microsoft? MS isn’t panhandling its way into corporate jets. Me? I just don’t like seeing the government prop up an industry that lacks the ability — or innovation — to survive on its own. Face it, GM and Chrysler lacked the legs to run the race years ago. Now it’s up to taxpayers to supercharge companies and save the day. What’s next? Bailing out the NFL’s lowly Lions? Again, I ask, “The high speed train? Light rail cars? Mass transit?”

  5. Oh_Really says:

    Striking hard at Detroit alone again… stooping so low as ripping on the loser Lions. I notice you are a “half empty” person not elevating the regular Detroit NHL or NBA champions.

    Let’s follow your all too limited logic and pull back on the loans to GM and Chyrsler. We’ll also extend that logic to all industries. Where do a majortiy of American’s bank? With a TARP recipient. Gov’t gaurenteed loans to GM and Chrylser totaled about as much TARP as Wells Fargo alone (least needy) took, let alone the total 700 billion distributed in the fall and additional monies rolling out this year to most remaining national banks.

    Let’s pull back on all that money too and dismiss American finance as not having the ability or innovation to survive on it’s own and quit ripping on just Detroit and the domestic automakers. It’s a national inadequacy. At least Detroit made nearly a century long run at utilizing American resources to build their vehicles, supporting the defense of this country time & again and strongly assisting in positioning the US as a global super power that has allowed you this free speach.

    You’ll be re-examining your quick to dismiss sound bite attitude in a few years global citizen; sipping your Chinese Tea wearing your Asian made (not Oregon made) Nikes, driving your Toyota and sleeping on your money.

    Let’s just cut to this, if more American’s had just a teaspon more national pride like our parents, grandparents (domestic or immigrant) had, this country would position for a much quicker turn around.

    If Beaverton Nike didn’t sell out 25 years ago, no doubt Oregon County’s unemployment wouldn’t be 15%! Is that the model Detroit should’ve innovated??? What a laugh.

    Nike currently enjoys a 47% market share of the domestic footwear industry, with sales of $3.77 billion. Nike has been manufacturing throughout the Asian region for over twenty-five years, and there are over 500,000 people today directly engaged in the production of their products. They utilize an outsourcing strategy, using only subcontractors throughout the globe. The majority of their output today is produced in factories in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam,

  6. Hi, good post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for writing. I will definitely be coming back to your blog.

    Okay, just kidding.

    I can;t speak to Detroit, but as a transplanted Seattleite who still pines for Ballard and Broadview (shh, don’t tell the folks at my day job), I do have to say that Seattle’s mass transit system ain’t all its cracked up to be. The monorail was unveiled to great hoopla at the ’62 World’s Fair… and to this day still only travels the same piddling course of something like 1.4 miles, or somesuch, its expansion repeatedly trumped by shortsighted voters.

    On the other hand, Seattle has made a concerted effort to apply aesthetics to its urban development. When something historic is in danger of being bulldozed, there is at least a discussion (read: outcry), which is more than I can say for my current locale.

    And above all, Seattle doesn’t take itself too seriously.

  7. zackbarnett says:

    Anybody’s who’s been stuck in traffic in Seattle can testify that Seattle’s mass transit is hardly that of Portland, or even, for its size, Dear Old Eugene, Oregon. I’m mostly trying to say that the Big Three and Detroit should have morphed from automakers into transportation giants, pioneering mass transit systems all over the country, building the trains, laying the rails, and, dare I say, paving the way into an energy efficient future. If they had, maybe Seattle’s mass transit might actually be all its cracked up to be, and we might not be bailing out GM and Chrysler.

  8. Rohit says:

    Fantastic article, Zack. As a Seattleite who’s business often takes him to Detroit, your post gave me lots to reflect on.

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