For a transplanted Detroiter like me, Silicon Valley took a while to get used to. The brown hills and spreading oaks looked unreal as I cruised along I-280 in the 1980s. But once I got off the main arteries, I felt right at home. Back then, Silicon Valley was focused on semiconductors, computers, and defense electronics. The streets were filled with light industrial buildings, parking lots, gas stations, and ethnic restaurants. “Just like home,” I said to myself. “This is a place where people make things.”
The Detroit where I was born and grew up in was filled with countless small manufacturing shops and warehouses. My dad ran one of them, a steel supply center, and I hung out there as a high school kid. In college, one summer, I worked shifts on a massive Ford Assembly line — in the suburb of Wixom. We made Ford Thunderbirds and Lincoln Continentals. In those days, you could apply for a job and start the next day.
Detroit was also a beautiful city with a central street plan modeled after Paris. Bounded by a spectacular riverfront and ringed with miles upon miles of single-family homes, Detroit was an inspiration for generations of immigrants. The heart and soul of their motivation was economic promise. Detroit was a city where you could earn a good living. It was a city to which people gravitated.
During World War II, Detroit called itself the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Hundreds of thousands of laborers from other states arrived to build tanks, trucks, and airplanes. My dad, who came from the East Coast to work in a tool and die shop, was one of them. Many others, white and black, came from Appalachia and the deep South. All brought their traditions and their conflicts. That heritage defined our city and its rich “Motown” culture of music and art.
Anybody who grew up in Detroit experienced the boom and bust cycles that defined the auto industry. But over time, we developed an almost mystical faith in Detroit’s “mission.” No matter what happened economically, the car factories would restart and we could get on with our lives. “The Spirit of Detroit,” an enigmatic bronze sculpture in the heart of downtown summed it up beautifully. We all knew what it was, but nobody could easily describe what it meant.
Silicon Valley also has booms and busts. I’ve lived through four of them. After each cataclysm, the pieces reassemble themselves differently and the people move on. Individual companies fade away but new ones emerge. As high tech activities morphed from semiconductors to computers, only the word “Silicon” has stayed the same. After our last crash in 2001, the Valley’s newest incarnation is as a center for software. What a contrast to the Motor City, where wounded companies and suppliers limped on for decades, losing market share to more nimble competitors.
The last couple of years have been horrible for Detroit. When the U.S. economy collapsed in 2008, the spirit of Detroit crashed and burned. A new reality has been hard to define let alone accept. Along with many Detroiters, I was furious and hurt when Congress forced GM and Chrysler to declare bankruptcy, after handing out hundreds of billions of dollars to the financial sector with far fewer strings. Didn’t the rest of the country appreciate how much manufacturing matters to the nation as a whole? And if Detroit was lost where else would manufacturing happen?
Over the past year, I realized that the question is not “Where?” but “How?” Manufacturing remains the core of value creation and Detroit, as much as any region in the United States, has an opportunity to reclaim its leadership role. But 21st Century manufacturing will not demand the infrastructure that built 20th Century Detroit. It will require entrepreneurship and imagination about products that people need and value. Nobody can predict what those products will be. What is clear to me is that the first and best evidence of success will be the emergence of a new landscape of light industrial buildings, parking lots, and ethnic restaurants — one that evokes Detroit’s look of 50 years ago, and matches Silicon Valley’s of today.
More than some can imagine, key pieces of this renaissance are already in place. Some are new. Others never went away. As always, it starts with creative people, and I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse of the future of Detroit when I attend Maker Faire this week.
Stuart Gannes was born and raised in Detroit. He worked as a writer for Time-Life before moving to Silicon Valley in 1989. There, he started the software company, Books That Work, then worked at AT&T Labs and Stanford. Stuart has had a lifelong interest in making and how-to.