On the evening of Oct. 24, 1998, downtown Detroit was quite literally ground zero. Breathless reporters were perched on rooftops. Every TV station was live. Video beamed across the country via satellite. And then, at 5:47 p.m., explosions ripped through the 87-year-old J.L. Hudson building, and it collapsed in a plume of dust. While crowds — and Mayor Dennis Archer — cheered, Miles O’Brien, then a rising star at CNN, felt something else entirely. “Oh, I cried. I cried like a baby when they imploded Hudson’s,” he says without a trace of embarrassment. “I’m a fourth-generation Detroiter. … My whole family worked at Hudson’s.”
Family connections aside, it’s a surprising revelation from a man viewed by millions of Americans as unflappable. It’s a reputation the Grosse Pointe Farms native earned during 16 years with CNN, where he was a versatile anchor and chief technology and environment correspondent — the go-to guy on NASA. Though it was heady work, he now admits it was often lacking. “I cut my media teeth in the 24-hour cable world where, unfortunately, things get narrowed down into these caricatures, cartoon-like representations,” he says from his New York office. “Every time I see a piece on Detroit, they go to the same burned-out building or shell of a building. It’s a two-minute piece, and it comes and goes and has no context whatsoever. You have no idea what this place really is all about.”
If these feelings had been festering for years, O’Brien found himself in December 2008 with an unexpected chance to do something about it. Dropped by CNN in budget cuts that claimed the entire science team, O’Brien landed in the world of public television as anchor of Blueprint America, a documentary series about America’s crumbling infrastructure. In the latest installment, Beyond the Motor City (PBS, Feb. 8), O’Brien turns conventional wisdom about Detroit on its head with the hypothesis that his hometown is not only poised for a rebirth, but could once again transform transportation in America.
In the beginning of the documentary, you say Detroit’s “decay could be the key to its salvation.” We love hopeful catchphrases here, but that’s quite a statement.
There’s actually a personal connection for me on that. Going back to 1967, I remember the fear I felt as an 8-year-old kid seeing the Huey helicopters flying overhead and the columns of smoke and the curfew and everything that was associated with the riots. And then I remember ’68 [and the Detroit Tigers winning the World Series] being an incredible counterpoint to that whole thing. And it taught me at a very young age how, when things look grim, it’s amazing how they can turn around. … It’s when things reach the bottom that people step up to the plate and start taking the kind of risks that are necessary to make long-lasting change.
But we’ve been sliding for decades, despite people stepping up.
I remember when the RenCen was built. Everybody thought, ‘This is going to save us.’ Then it was the Silverdome. And then it was, ‘OK, we’re going to work on Greektown.’ These misfires, these attempts, were halfbaked or in the wrong direction. After a while, collectively, that can be very discouraging. That’s why it was important [in Beyond the Motor City] to look at what’s really going on there right now.
You point to NextEnergy and Ford’s electric vehicle program as examples of how industry is reinventing itself.
You hear people say this country doesn’t make things anymore. Detroit makes things still. That’s something [the federal government] should really get behind here. This is a place that has tremendous capability to turn on a dime. It’s been proven time and again, it can turn on a dime and really make things that the country and the world want to buy. It can happen with the right equation.
At the same time, you’re especially enthusiastic about the light-rail project planned for Woodward Avenue. Streetcars played a big role in Detroit’s growth, but how can they save the Motor City now?
When you look at Detroit and you look at rail, it’s part of a whole notion of how do you eliminate the so-called jack-o-lantern effect, where a city becomes so disparate and there are so many spread-out pockets. … Rail plays an important role in clustering people. I think light rail inside the city, much like they had the old streetcar lines, would do an awful lot to condense the neighborhoods down and right-size the city such that they can provide the kinds of services they need to in a more efficient way. That’s what the vibrancy of a city is all about.
So you’re saying train tracks can provide the framework for restructuring?
Yes. It’s been proven. Go to Portland. They built light rail. If you build it, they will come.
One Detroiter in the documentary says a light-rail system into the suburbs could help bridge the racial divide. Do you buy that?
The freeways, or ‘ditches’ as they call them in Detroit, are a perfect metaphor for buzzing through the city and not being connected to it in any way, shape, or form. And that’s how you develop those great rifts. … Will having better buses and light rail solve the racial divide? No, of course not. But will it help? Yeah, I think it will.
Certainly, the most glaring symbol of Detroit’s crumbling infrastructure is the Michigan Central Station. Save it, or knock it down?
I’m sitting in a building right now, 1 Penn Plaza, right on top of [New York’s] Penn Station, one of the biggest architectural disasters ever. And if you look at pictures of the old Penn Station, you think, ‘What on earth were they thinking when they tore that down?’ … My thing would be, unless there’s some health hazard to it, don’t [demolish it].
Everything you describe requires a ton of money.
Entrepreneurship and the free market can go so far, but when you’re talking about things like infrastructure, the [federal] government has to take a leadership role. It’s too big. … Think Eisenhower. You need that kind of grand, big picture.
And where does Detroit fit in that picture?
Detroit is a little bit of the canary in the coal mine because it’s kind of been the vanguard, sadly, of [crumbling urban infrastructure]. But the good news is, if you go through it first, at the back end it could pay off. … Detroit has always been a peak-and-valley town with the rise and fall of the auto industry, but we’re in a deeper valley now. Once again, not to be sanguine about it, I really believe that’s where things can change. And so I’m hopeful that [in] this go-round, people will recognize what’s valuable here, that it needs to be saved for a lot of reasons — not just for the [region], but for the nation. It can be done. It’s not an easy thing. It just needs a little push in another direction.