Seattle: what Detroit might have been

April 25, 2009

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.