This might look deadly boring at first glance, but hang on; there’s a twist at the end.
Detroit was once one of the great industrial centers of the United States, home to vast automobile factories and all the things that go to making that happen. Its location between two of the Great Lakes and at one of the few land connections between the United States and Canada make it one of the great commercial centers of the world. Or rather, it should be.
Instead, due to a century of mismanagement and pervasive organized crime, Detroit has become an object lesson to other cities as “what not to be”. It’s hardly surprising that it would be a center for smuggling given its location, and one would naturally assume the attendant income from that activity might be a boon to the city. Alas, such has not been the case.
Detroit has long been noteworthy for racial tension; a massive walkout at the height of military production in the Second World War resulted from three black men being promoted to work on the production line in traditionally white jobs — this in 1943, at that time in our history when Rosie the Riveter was a national heroine. In 1967, the Twelfth Street Riot resulted in the National Guard and eventually the U.S. Army being called in to restore order, leading to over seven thousand arrests and two thousand buildings destroyed, mostly in black residential areas. And, in 1974, the Milliken v. Bradley decision further institutionalized the divide between rich and poor, black and white, encouraging a rush by money to the suburbs and ethnic segregation of neighborhoods.
This tension did not exist in a vacuum, but rather was the natural result of industry and society. After Ford and his fellows located there, the city was gradually redesigned to facilitate personal automobile transport as laborers rushed in toward good jobs. The city center flourished, and assembly line craftsmen proudly drove to work from their lovely new homes near Highland Park, down broad tree-lined avenues, to their state-of-the-art factory jobs. Those who wanted could walk or catch a streetcar, and so the city grew.
But after the War, the intricate system of electric streetcars was allowed — some would say “encouraged”, by automobile manufacturing interests and in particular by the unions — to decline, and even the inadequate city buses that replaced them soon fell into disrepair. This left both manufacturing and the city center incapable of access either by consumers or its workforce, and residential neighborhoods began to decay as the suburbs improved. At the same time, federal investment in freeways and rail shipping generated vast wealth throughput, but the now black city’s inability to cooperate with its mostly white suburbs in transit planning left it incapable of commercially exploiting the increased traffic. And all of this was influenced strongly by organized crime, a bloated metaphorical leech which inexorably sucked funds from every project and city system.
Enter the Ambassador Bridge.
First built in 1929 to serve demand by Canadian commercial interests, the span soon became the major connection between Detroit on the American side and Windsor in Canada. Its use gradually grew until today, when it carries a quarter of the commercial traffic between the two countries, and plans exist to double its capacity with a second span.
The Ambassador Bridge, it should be noted, is privately owned by billionaire Manuel Moroun, who profits not only from tolls but from the massive markup at his untaxed gas stations on either side of the span. Manuel Moroun is not often publicly accused of being a mobster, not since Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, but there’s a lot of private gossip about how his father acquired a controlling interest in the family trucking company back in 1946. Still, all this is just rumor; given Moroun’s army of lawyers, I’d hate to be seen to suggest otherwise.
But that rumor, combined with horrific congestion on the Canadian side and the massive amount of funds siphoned off the bridge traffic — particularly the profits from the duty-free gas stations — has led both the United States and Canada to earnestly desire an alternate crossing. (Government does so hate competition when it comes to siphoning off funds.) The DRIC was proposed in 2004, eventually renamed the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and… nothing has been done to build it. Not surprisingly, Moroun’s lawyers have been blocking it by every avenue possible, both in the courts and through the exertion of his tremendous influence in local government. And yet, the courts are gradually giving way before the bridge project, and local government lost much of its base for negotiation when Canada volunteered to pay for the entire project. Eventually, in the face of persistent obstruction by the city, President Obama issued a special permit by executive order (since contested on constitutional grounds).
This new span would be located south of the Ambassador Bridge, routed through an industrial wasteland just north of Zug Island (that’s the black smutch on your satellite map, noted for its steel production and also as home to a massive population of rats, feral cats, and peregrine falcons which have doubtless adapted to the polluted atmosphere by growing natural gas masks.) Interestingly, one of the few functioning businesses along its proposed path, and one that would cost tens of millions to purchase, is a freight terminal owned by — you guessed it — Matty Moroun.
Before we get carried away now: It’s easy to cast blame for all Detroit’s problems on one man, a billionaire linked (however tenuously please don’t break my kneecaps) to organized crime. And yet it must be observed that Moroun is a sentimentalist who loves the city as it was in its heydey, the Detroit that once was: a bustling industrial center. He gives generously to local universities, and among other properties he owns the decayed Michigan Central Station (you may have seen it as the battlefield in a recent Batman vs. Superman movie) and hopes to repurpose the structure for modern use. And he did purchase the Ambassador Bridge and convert it, at a high price, to the present highly profitable structure, complete with costly connecting ramps to Interstate 75. One can almost sympathize with the old tycoon — especially if one happens to be an old tycoon oneself.
Welcome to the present day.
Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with President Donald Trump in Washington D.C. They had a meeting, the details of which had already been thoroughly discussed beforehand, followed by the obligatory photo op and meaningless statement. Except the statement this time contains some teeth, and before we get overwhelmed by discussions of the latest confirmations and resignations in Trump’s Cabinet, it’s worth taking the time to explore this.
“In particular, we look forward to the expeditious completion of the Gordie Howe International Bridge…”
“…analysis of the feasibility of co-locating border officials in common processing facilities.”
There were many notable lines in the joint statement, including mutual commitment to the Keystone XL pipeline, women as entrepreneurs, and military cooperation in northern Europe on the border with Russia. These are all worthy of your attention (though not, to be sure, mine in this article).
Instead, I’d just like to conclude with the following completely unfounded speculation: During the completion of the Gordie Howe International Bridge over the next few years, vast Federal funds will be expended on the revitalization of that noted Detroit landmark, Michigan Central Station, which will act as an office center for… oh, I don’t know… the American-Canadian Homeland Security and Customs Liaison Office, perhaps?
Now, all this seems inevitable to me, the unavoidable result of massive forces marching in tandem toward a single desired future. Big money meets big government, shakes crisp crackling hands, and becomes International Commerce. Which perhaps is the way it ought to be; the Howe Bridge needs to be built, and the obstacles should be removed as cheaply and expeditiously as possible.
But this solution smacks of very obvious bribery, the public acceptance and indeed institutional subsidization of that very corruption which helped bring Detroit down from industrial center to rusted slum and ruin. It’s very probably the most efficient path forward; that’s tough to argue against — but is it right? Is this the way we should do things?
Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble, seeing connections that aren’t there. Perhaps the Howe Bridge will go up, Moroun and family will go down in flames, and incidentally maybe someone’s going to finally dig up Hoffa’s remains. Who knows?
But I doubt it. This is Detroit, after all.
(Image credit Wikipedia user Flibirigit; in the public domain. Credit should accompany photo.)