Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Willow Run: Lessons for Michigan

What factors created Willow Run's persistent social and economic vulnerability?

1. Willow Run's only unifying governing structure is the school district. Being split between Ypsilanti and Superior Townships, the community of Willow Run lacks a unified municipal governing structure through which to shape its future, develop economic diversity or express its unique historic legacy.

2. A large number of wartime workers were recruited from Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The fact of a north/south cultural divide doomed Willow Run's prospective annexation into the City of Ypsilanti, which would have allowed it to benefit from infrastructure and services of an established municipality.

3. Residents depended on a single industry for employment. The wartime boom at the bomber plant transitioned almost seamlessly into the postwar boom of the auto industry.

4. Even as parents understood education's importance to their children's futures, children could consider the hard labor of factory work, a worthy well-paid pursuit.

5. Willow Run's historic and cultural identity is manufacturing.

Doesn't this resemble Michigan's present predicament?

1. While we have the appearance of a single governing structure, Michigan's legislature suffers a crippling partisan divide. Never mind two townships; we have two Michigans, red and blue. Or maybe it's a pushmi-pullyou in Lansing?

2. Certainly, the urban/rural cultural rift ensnares the state legislature when considering initiatives to help southeast lower Michigan, generally and Detroit in particular.

3. Michigan's historic and cultural identity is the automotive industry. The entire state has benefited from the auto industry. The tourism of "up north" developed from the prosperity of industry in southeast lower Michigan and the broad availability of cars.

4. While we say we value education, our tax policies say otherwise. And while industry was thriving, high school graduation could suffice. But this is no longer true.

5. Even though plenty of other businesses contribute to our economy, our principal economic engine has been auto manufacturing and associated businesses for nearly a hundred years. This primary dependence on one industry has had devastating consequences at the state level with downsizing and outsourcing.

What can we do?

1. Urge legislators to take view beyond the election cycle, detach from partisanship, and look in the same direction--forward.

2. Begin to see Michigan as a whole entity--one Michigan (Our Michigan), rather than a constellation of opposing, adversarial binaries (red/blue, urban/rural, rich/poor, labor/management, white/non-white).

3. Accept our special history and relationship to the automotive industry, but promote diverse economic development. Encourage small business and promote local economies that can sustain communities and cultivate local culture.

4. Educate children to become human beings, engaged citizens, and independent thinkers, not mere "good workers." Help them develop an appreciation and love of their home state, so that they might want to stay here, and improve the place, rather than become migratory workers in search of better opportunity.

5. Embrace Motown at the state level as the cultural gem that it is.

Any other ideas out there?