By John Counts
To average people with average amounts of money, the very wealthy can come off like the hereditary elite did to struggling and hungry pre-democracy populations. The super-rich are the object of both envy and derision. They control our economic fates to a certain degree, and the relationship takes on a paternalistic color. We smile when they coddle us and give us treats and howl with rebellion when they taketh away. What drives our fascinating is that unlike those of us limited by our incomes and access to power, the super-rich can buy whatever they want.
Like an entire city.
Gilbert is the only one playing in this game of Monopoly.That is what seems to be happening here in Detroit, where mortgage mogul and enthusiast of the slicked-back hairdo Dan Gilbert is snatching up buildings in downtown Detroit like he wants to drop a nice plastic red Monopoly hotel where there was once a wig shop. Except Gilbert is the only one playing the game.
Where are the other players? We have a “Caesar,” pizza baron Mike Illitch, but where are the rest of the investors looking to redevelop or even speculate on land values in the core of the Motor City?
On any given day we read a fresh headline announcing another Gilbert purchase.Gilbert’s various corporate ventures now own around 60 buildings downtown, according to a recent New York Times Magazine piece. In the piece, writer Ben Austen describes the giant model of the city in Gilbert’s office, a prop worthy of a James Bond villain. “Detroit is [Gilbert's] mission; he has gone all-in,” Austen writes, referring to Gilbert’s ownership of one of the casinos here in town. On any given day we read a fresh headline announcing another Gilbert purchase, including the soon-to-be-former Detroit News and Free Press building. He wants to build restaurants, put up Christmas lights to deter crime, and catch graffiti vandals.
Great. Downtown needs it.
Don’t get me wrong, at this moment in time, anyone with piles of cash who takes a benevolent interest in Detroit deserves a large measure of gratitude. We all know the city has problems: racism, crime, bankruptcy.
But is this how a city should be?
Cities are an economic agreement.Cities are an economic agreement. Let’s live near one another and trade our goods and services and pursue happiness. Detroit began as a democratic agreement when the natives first traded with the French for land, booze, and furs. Detroit and all of southeastern Michigan has been focused on black and white for so long we’ve forgotten the most important color in a city is green.
And Gilbert is flush with cash and is doing a lot of good downtown in a city where not many others want to stay after work, let alone make huge investments.
But the thought of having one city father is downright creepy.But the thought of having one city father is downright creepy. Will the city become Detroit-sponsored-by-Rock-Financial? Will it become Pottersville like It’s A Wonderful Life, where George Bailey’s mortgage firm (a far cry from Quicken Loans) never existed, and mean old Mr. Potter gobbled up the town?
Gilbertville, Michigan, the city formerly known as Detroit?
I don’t mean to diss Gilbert. In fact, I hope other billionaires, millionaires, and scrappy entrepreneurs see what he’s doing in Detroit and are encouraged to come here, eat coney dogs and invest in the city.
I want Detroit to be a place that attracts a dozen Dan Gilberts.I want Detroit to be a place that attracts a dozen Dan Gilberts from all over the world who compete against one another in the real estate market. Spur development. Give people jobs. Revitalize the neighborhoods where my grandparents and parents grew up. Provide good jobs for people in Detroit,. Jobs and stable income could curb crime, and in turn welcome more development, even more jobs, and better educational options.
Gilbert may be the top hat, but someone needs to be the shoe.Gilbert shouldn’t be allowed to have all the fun. A city should be a hodge-podge, makeshift reflection of everyone working and living in it. Not just the business and architectural plan of one man and his team.
So, anyone with any bit of cash, I implore you: Come to Detroit. Get into the game. Gilbert may be the top hat, but someone needs to be the shoe.
John Counts is a journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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