Sunday, July 21, 2013

Detroit: the Mines of Moria in Michigan

"Speak Friend And Enter." So it was written above the western gates to Moria--the Doors of Durin--across from the Mirrormere, whose fabled crystal-clear waters would eventually become unclean and murky. Built in the Second Age of Middle Earth, the doors were not meant as protection, for the the words above it were quite literal: all one needed to do was say "friend" (mellon in the Elvish tongue) and the doors would open, allowing entrance to all.

Moria itself--named Khazad-dûm in the Dwarvish tongue--was founded by the dwarf-lord Durin before the First Age and the awakening of the Elves. Over time, it became the wealthiest of all Dwarven strongholds, largely because it was the sole source of mithril (a fabulously valuable metal, stronger than steel but more beautiful than silver), along with many other metals and precious stones. It was, in a real sense, the industrial center of Middle Earth. Elves and men freely journeyed to and from the region. The Dwarfs of Moria traded with all and the influence of their wealth reached far and wide. Still, during the Third Age, the Dwarfs became steadily more distrustful of outsiders, men and Elves alike, and relations between the groups were strained as the Dwarfs grew protective of their wealth and success.

Moria came to an abrupt end when the Dwarfs--eager, if not greedy, for more and more wealth--mined too deeply and uncovered and ancient evil, a Balrog, deep below the Halls of Moria. The Balrog proved too powerful for the Dwarfs and the remnants of the population--after their battles with the creature--were forced to flee Moria forever. Many, many years later, several attempts were made to return to Moria by the ancestors of those who fled, but these attempts all failed. It was not until after Gandalf the Grey vanquished the Balrog at the end of the Third Age that Moria could be repopulated by the Dwafes.

Those aficionados of J.R.R. Tolkien out there know this story backwards and forwards, I am sure. For it is a critical bit of history, of backstory, both for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But the tale cries out as a more general cautionary one as well. Due to the wealth created by the mining of the Dwarfs, by their industry, Moria achieved an unparalleled level of success in all of Middle Earth. Yet, the Dwarfs learned a costly lesson from that success: nothing lasts for ever. Not content with what they had achieved, they forever wanted more and more. And when the veins of mithril began to run dry, they dug deeper and deeper, ultimately leading to the destruction of all they had achieved thanks to Durin's Bane, the Balrog.

Nothing lasts forever. A hard lesson, to be sure, but one that bears repeating.

The similarities of this tale with that of Detroit, its steady decline and impending bankruptcy, are too juicy to ignore. Founded near Lake Saint Clair along the Detroit River, the city and the area around it became one of the wealthiest and most productive regions in the entire world following the the massive growth of the automobile industry in the early twentieth century. Detroit was, for a time, a land of plenty. People of all persuasions throughout the land moved to Detroit, not away from it, in the hopes of better jobs and better lives. And for several decades, this is exactly what they got.

But by the mid-twentieth century, all was not well, despite the wealth that flowed out of the great city. Race relations became strained, to put it mildly. Yet the powers-that-be pushed on, certain there was no limit to the area's primary source of wealth, the automakers, that had powered Detroit's economy for half a century.

In the 1970's, the world auto industry began to change and Detroit, already beset by population loss from the aforementioned racial issues, began to decline in earnest. Yet still, its leadership ignored such signs for the most part and continued to assume the future of Detroit was bright.

The end came at some point in the last decade; it's difficult to exactly pinpoint the when. But the consequences are obvious: a city so deeply in debt because of its own spending habits, of its own greed, that it had been forced to declare bankruptcy. And there is no Gandalf in sight, as of yet, to slay that demon and save Detroit.

Cheers, all.


  1. "Long before the awakening of the Elves it is said that Aulë, yearning for the Children of Ilúvatar, fashioned the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves in a hall under the mountains in Middle-earth. Pleased with his work, Aulë was instructing his creations in the speech he had devised for them when Ilúvatar rebuked him, pointing out that they were mere counterfeits that would only stand idle without Aulë’s will. Aulë humbled himself before Ilúvatar and prepared to destroy the Dwarves, but at that moment Ilúvatar gave them independent life. However, Ilúvatar would not suffer their arrival in the world before the Firstborn, so the seven fathers were laid to sleep until after the coming of the Elves."

    You drew me out of the woodwork. But I am fully able to appreciate a Tolkien Reader ( Very Bad Pun ).


    Don't remember, but I may have mentioned another book before. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. There are only a handful of people I know of to whom I would recommend this tomb. You would be among them.

    It needs to be read, abstracted, and remade into familiar examples by the reader. Or, at least that is what I need to do. Many of his best examples originated in his work as a risk predictor. The math is probably beyond me, but worse, not presented in a form where I could attempt learning it.

    Nevertheless. Detroit was / is a classic example of Fragile on so many levels, across so many domains. It would always fall, just a matter of when.

    And as to the finger pointing, every pundit has a chance to look good, since you almost cannot miss.

    IF you read the book I suggest, and if as I might hope, it becomes a lens to you, I would like to know what you see through that lens.

  2. Thanks for all of that, Roy, I've just ordered Antifragile on Amazon.