THE BLOG
05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rebuilding America From Ore to Assembly

On Thursday, within earshot of a big noisy rally against education cuts at California's public universities getting underway outside, I found myself inside the UCLA School of Public Affairs. What brought me to the leafy Westwood campus was a talk by Metro Manager of Community Relations Jody Litvak and Metro Executive Officer/LA City Planning Commissioner Diego Cardoso. Litvak and Cardoso's presentation to a group of urban and environmental planning graduate students and the lively conversation that followed focused on Measure R (the recently approved 1/2 cent transit tax) and the future of mass transit in Los Angeles.

Now both because education matters and as a parent who hopes his hard-working LAUSD-educated kids have the chops to get into a University of California school in just a few short years, I guess I should have been out there protesting too, but I wanted to hear the talk I'd come to Westwood for.

Nonetheless, as I listened to the interesting presentations mingled with the sounds of protest coming through the open window, I found my mind drifting back to my days at the University of Michigan, protesting cuts to the University's undergraduate program and smaller departments like Geography. Indeed, as a student I once had my head handed to me while testifying on behalf of the Geography department. You see, though I'm pretty good in the subject I'd never actually taken a college Geography course and a professor representing the University lost no time in discrediting me for as much and for taking too long to find the Cape Breton Islands on a map.

Though I didn't much like being made to look like a fool or reading about it the next day in the Michigan Daily, Ann Arbor was a great place for me to go to college. Not only did I love classes and all of the extra curricular activities, but it was also a chance to learn about Detroit and the rest of the so-called rust belt. My best classes were in urban history and politics. It was there that I came to the correct conclusion, subsequently disavowed for law school, that I should go to graduate school in urban policy or planning.

I'll never forget exploring Motown and southeastern Michigan, which in many ways still hasn't fully recovered from the 1967 riots and the multi-generational contraction in the auto industry. Most striking then (and now) was the perpetually sad state of the economy. For a while I worked as an after-school tutor in Ypsilanti, a nearby depressed and somewhat depressing city then with its own Ford plant. Some of the parents of the kids I tutored were even lucky enough to work off and on at Ypsilanti Ford, which I understand later became a Visteon plant and then an ACH factory before shutting down for good in 2008.

Even today, when people talk about Detroit, it's usually about the riots, its unparalleled musical heritage, the massive Ford plant at River Rouge in its varied incarnations since opening in 1917 as an automotive "ore to assembly" complex; or maybe Eminem and 8 Mile.

But Detroit says a lot more about this country's decline as an industrial powerhouse than just the closed auto plants like Ypsilanti that litter the landscape and the stunted careers that are the result of Motown's main industry's bad business decisions. It must have been the last gubernatorial election cycle when Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm called me in my role as a local political director. As we made polite chit chat about her upcoming race I couldn't help going off script and asking the Governor what she was doing to goose the auto executives into doing more about emissions and building more fuel-efficient vehicles. As Granholm launched into an unconvincing spiel about how she had just returned from an industry conference in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where they had discussed just that, all I could think about was the depressed cities and ruined lives I saw in southeastern Michigan that the misguided industry had left in its wake. Sure, for generations Detroit had offered a high wage long-term career, but for too many today that dream is just a Motown memory.

All those thoughts of Detroit, and the decline in the country's industrial might, have me thinking about Tom Friedman and how he got to be so good at what he does. I guess the answer is sort of like the punch line to the old Borsch Belt joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" This week Friedman's captured my imagination with this statement, "We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance," in an opinion piece entitled A Word From the Wise. The op ed, which goes on to talk about America's anemic investment in infrastructure, education and innovation and the consequences for the country's competitiveness, is must-reading for everyone in Los Angeles City Hall and in cities like Detroit. We all need to start thinking and acting differently if we want to extricate ourselves from the economic and educational malaise that ails us.

A public works project here in Los Angeles, as outlined in LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's 30/10 plan to build three decades' worth of mass transit projects in a decade, and smaller projects in the 80 other cities across the country looking to expand their light rail, subway, and bus systems, is an excellent start. And along the way perhaps Los Angeles and the other cities can learn a thing or two from United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works in Portland.

With cities across the country poised to construct or add trolleys to their mass transit systems, United Streetcar is building for the domestic market a product that many cities would otherwise have to import from Europe. And these are expensive babies, selling for over $3 million each, and requiring proud, skilled workers. Portland knows a good opportunity when it sees one.

One can only hope that going forward Los Angeles companies will be as successful as United Streetcar in leveraging the resources provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With a new deputy mayor focused on jobs and investment we are at least moving in a good direction.

As anyone who has tried to navigate Congress or City Hall knows, the sausage making of government and applied public policy isn't always a pretty business. But like becoming a great musician (or getting great at anything else) you have to practice to get to Carnegie Hall. This politically and economically divided country is out of practice and the signs of this are everywhere.

Don't think I miss the irony in calling for new investment as the states and cities further slash their budgets and payrolls and thousands protest deep cuts to education in California. So be it. Finding the money to proceed with job-creating infrastructure projects, like Mayor Villaraigosa's 30/10 mass transit building plan, and a renewed investment in public education, can get this city and country back on the right track.