The Tragedy of Detroit
by Tom aka Rusty Rustbelt
The Tragedy of Detroit
One of the great highlights of my life was my first visit to Detroit in 1962. I fell in love with the metropolis and of course the Detroit Tigers.
This week the governor of Michigan will appoint an emergency financial manager for Detroit, if anyone will take the job. Even the left-leaning Detroit Free Press is on board with a takeover. The alternative would be a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing.
Detroit has probably been bankrupt for a long time, but no one really knows. The City of Detroit, the Detroit Water and Sewer department, the Detroit pension plans, and the Wayne County government are all a mess. About sixty square miles of the city have been largely abandoned.
Detroit has been hit hard by economic deterioration and middle class flight (more than just white flight), but the core problem in Detroit is four decades of gross mismanagement and rampant corruption.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have attacked the corruption, and to Obama’s credit he redoubled the efforts to put Detroit officials and cronies in prison where they belong.
Why were huge obvious problems allowed to fester until Detroit is ready to collapse?
Political correctness and race politics. Even as Detroit is on the brink, race baiting is in full throat. And attempts to blame the GOP, although I can’t find any elected Republicans in major Detroit offices for at least two decades.
The people living in Detroit will continue to suffer for a long, long time.
There’s an interesting article in today’s NYT called “A Private Boom Amid Detroit’s Public Blight,” at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/05/us/a-private-boom-amid-detroits-public-blight.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&src=ig.
The governor of Michigan could be elected in Kansas. The state is run by GOteaparty types to the right of Wisconsin.
Detroit is a fiscal mess. Fed aid has been gutted starting with Bush II sending the money to the Global War on Terror for enriching the military industry complex.
Detroit suffered from state and local austrity which has been going on since the recession. Then auto went bust!
Jefferson warned that banks and standing armies are the bane of democracy.
Is it better to send war money to protect the King of Saudi Arabia, with US “forces for good” empire?
Btw, I do agree with you, rusty. From what I’ve been told, and of course from news reports, the mismanagement and corruption were just mind-blowing. In my opinion, the key to a real Detroit renaissance is a metro light-rail system. I’d love to see the really big money people in metro Detroit put together a public/private bond type of thing and get a metro light-rail system underway.
well, i don’t know anything about Detroit
and i certainly know that Democrats can be just as corrupt as Republicans.
but if you are going to make Detroit and Democrats the focus of “what to do about the economy”
you are fooling yourself. badly.
Approximately every large city in the US experienced a severe prolonged downturn at the same time, so the core problem is nothing unique to any particular city.
I believe that across the US public policy took a profoundly anti-urban turn in the 60’s, which manifested itself fully in the 70’s. Basically the rise of the automobile and all that it entailed. Massive subsidization of the suburbs at the state and federal level.
That Detroit fared worse and has not recovered while most cities eventually did may have something to do with unusual local corruption, but I suspect that the poor climate is a more important factor.
I saw an interesting documentary program about Detroit which said that the inner suburbs of Detroit are now experiencing urban decay in the same way the city did. Businesses are moving out to further suburbs, apparently at least in part because they can build on open ground there rather than having to demolish and rebuild. These suburbs are seeing their tax bases eroded and are left with a lot of underutilized infrastructure.
The most painful part is hearing the governor talk about all the liabilities of Detroit. Most of that is pensions, and of course he’ll shed that immediately and bust the unions. That’s what this is really all about.
Great post Jeffrey.
I might add that while Detroit is a mess there are signs of life. The CEO for Quicken Loans has snapped up buildings, and moved from the burbs back into the city, and artists are finding a cheap refuge. But these things take time, and you have to rethink the city. The biggest thing for Detroit to do is get rid of any senseless regulations that make living there annoying, and make sure you are tax competitive with the burbs. You also have to balance the services you provide. You cannot treat what residents are left there as a piggy bank to tap for your every local government need.
Baltimore had followed a similar path, but largely avoided it. Some of this is the proximity to DC. But, Baltimore blew up all the high rise slums, and replaced with less dense public housing (though some remains). People are now moving back into Baltimore, and the city as is vastly better than it was 15 years ago. However, you will have to deal with some very annoying city regs, and property taxes that are double the surrounding burbs – and you really don’t get double the services – in fact the schools are downright scary. Baltimore’s government at least acknowledges this issue, and has paid attention to better balance services provided to taxpayers.
Problems fester for two reasons. One is nobody acts until there actually is a problem; a really bad one. By that time, the ingredients needed are gone, and they won’t easily come back. Rebirth can take decades. Local governments must be careful to balance services for all taxpayers, not just the poor and government workers. There is a balance there.
In the future, I’d like to see better per capita revenue sharing from the feds to localities.
When unions have to be destroyed, cities get hurt. Just the way it is.
Suburbs. Corruption. Auto industry. Trading partners who manipulate their currency.
Detroit blew itself up by participating in all the changes that caused its destruction.
One of the key cities that won WWII. This is awful. And the black middle class that was part of the culture that gave us “MoTown” suffers along with it.
Good job on a lot of the comments. Jeffrey in particular.
Detroit, a place that once buzzed with the sound of factories and productivity is now a carcass.
New York, a world wide legal Las Vegas casino, no production, no factories, riches all around.
Pretty good contrast with the way the USA is going.
It’s all about the money, boys! Nothing matters now except who can shuffle the 1’s & 0’s fastest.
I did not generalize Detroit to anything else.
There are multiple suburban rings around Detroit. The inner rings are deteriorating just as Detroit.
Business is following the people and running from the street crime and political crime.
I should have pointed our that without a emergency manager a bankruptcy filing is imminent.
Detroit has been on the down slide since the 70s, through governors and state legislators dominated by both parties.
One thing we can blame on Dubya or some national conspiracy.
“can’t blame on Dubya”
I would suggest there is more to this than just corruption causing the decline in Detroit. Other cities faced similar corruption and somehow managed to survive in spite of it. The city that worked under white Mayor Richard Daley had its years of corruption and managed to survive.
Intertwined with corruption there are other key and more important elements to this decline in the status of Detroit which I have posted on before and I will reiterate here again. With a very clear economic basis; I can say without Detroit, those wealthy and white neighborhoods surrounding it would never have come into being and would be little more than truck farms today. In “White Flight to the Suburbs” http://www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/focus/pdfs/foc32a.pdf ;Frey was able to confirm partially his hypotheses.
– By far the largest total effect on white suburban movement in the 39 SMSAs can be attributed to the extent of postwar suburban development- although in these newer and more rapidly growing cities there tend to be large counter streams that balance and to some extent mitigate the effects of the outflow of whites.
– Next in influence was the percentage of the city population that was black-a factor that to some extent measures the degree of daily contact between blacks and whites in the central city. We cannot, therefore, wholly discount racial factors in our analysis of the causes of white flight.
– Of equal influence, however, were the suburb/city tax differential, and the degree to which employment opportunities had recently moved to the suburbs (measured by the percentage of city dwellers commuting to the suburbs to work).
Perhaps, you also missed the legal story of Milliken vs Bradley? This court ruling and the resulting deterioration of Detroit adds to Frey’s points. This ruling closed the door on Detroit early on and well before corruption became a synonym for Detroit. What was allowed to happen in Minneapolis St.Paul was closed to Detroit. I can not think of many other rulings having such a disastrous impact other than Marquette Nat. Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp or the Untied Citizens ruling. Economically Detroit was cut off from the rest of the state through arbitrary state policy and the court system. One can wonder why or just assume NIMBY when it comes to race.
Recognizing that segregation was also extremely prevalent in Detroit’s school system, and that largely black schools performed much more poorly than largely white schools, the Detroit Board of Education passed an order in 1970 that would have bused white children to black schools, and vice-versa. A locally based recall campaign followed, and the state passed a law that voided the plan and kept school districts under neighborhood control.
Later that year, the NAACP sued the state and the school board in federal District Court, arguing that, as in Brown v. Board of Education, separate was not equal, and that the policies of the state and school board had deliberately kept the school system segregated. The case was entitled Milliken v. Bradley.
The district court found in favor of the NAACP and ordered the school district to draft a desegregation plan. The city presented the court with three different Detroit-wide plans, all of which the court rejected. The court then ruled that it was not possible to desegregate the Detroit Public School System without including the suburban communities. The city was ordered to submit a “metropolitan” plan that would eventually encompass a total of fifty-four separate school districts, busing Detroit children to suburban schools and suburban children into Detroit.
On appeal, however, the Supreme Court ruled against the NAACP. Even though the organization had presented evidence of housing segregation that operated on a metropolitan level, Chief Justice William Burger claimed that “the case does not present any question concerning possible state housing violations,” and Justice Potter Stewart, who cast the key fifth vote dooming a metropolitan remedy, asserted that housing segregation was caused by “unknown and unknowable causes.”
The impact of the case was enormous. According to Gary Orfield and Susan E. Eaton in their 1996 book Dismantling Desegregation, “By failing to examine housing, the Court gave neighborhoods that had successfully segregated their housing an exemption from school desegregation requirements. City neighborhoods that had not excluded, blacks, on the other hand, faced mandatory desegregation.” The court effectively blessed suburbs with all-white schools as “refuges for whites fearful of minorities moving into their schools,” Orfield and Eaton wrote.
More generally, according to Dismantling Desegregation, the “Supreme Court’s failure to examine the housing underpinnings of metropolitan segregation” in Milliken made desegregation “almost impossible” in northern metropolitan areas. “Suburbs were protected from desegregation by the courts ignoring the origin of their racially segregated housing patterns.”
Detroit’s tax-base had already fallen significantly by 1970, while the suburbs were experiencing strong growth. In his 1976 State of the State address, then-Governor Milliken proposed that the Detroit area adopt a similar model. “There was a recognition that the unequal patterns of growth were going to continue unless something was changed,” said Robert Kleine, who served as the director of the Office of Revenue and Tax Analysis for the State of Michigan under Milliken.
But Milliken’s plan was never even taken up in the state legislature. According to Kleine, suburban municipalities were deeply resistant to the idea. He acknowledged, too, that no one advocated strongly on behalf of the proposal from the city, and that Milliken did not press the issue in the face of that resistance and apathy.
Had such a system been adopted, however, “What would have happened of course is that all the growth in the region, which was mainly in [neighboring] Oakland and Macomb Counties, would have been shared with the City of Detroit,” Kleine said. “That would have meant somewhat less revenue for some of the suburbs, but they would have done just fine. But Detroit would have had a substantial amount of additional revenue.”
As Remapping Debate has reported, the decline in Detroit’s tax base represents the greatest challenge to the city’s ability to sustain itself. It has responded to the loss in revenue by cutting services down to bare-bones and by raising taxes to the highest levels in the state. Kleine said that a regional tax-base sharing system would have mitigated the problem’s Detroit has faced with revenue.
Additionally, Orfield added, a fragmented system of taxation encourages individual municipalities to compete with one another by lowering taxes. “That competition has been very destructive in Detroit, because the city has had to keep its tax rates high to maintain services, while the suburbs have been able to draw people and investment out of the city by lowering taxes,” a process that encourages sprawl. Squandered Opportunities Leave Detroit Isolated” http://www.remappingdebate.org/article/squandered-opportunities-leave-detroit-isolated?page=0,3 “
In effect, the city has been isolated from the belt of suburbs around it by law, by race, by education, and by economics. Due to isolation, the city can not compete with the suburbs around it and grow its tax base to improves its schools and infrastructure leaving it little more opportunity than the destruction of abandoned buildings and a shrinking city limit.
Great posts, Bill. A huge problem for Detroit was that, unlike, say, Chicago, it was a one-industry town. Chicago’s always had a diversified economic base, and has been a major financial center, in no small part because of the two commodities trading centers. But also, a really big part of Chicago’s success has been its public transportation system, citywide and region-wide.
Pittsburgh was a one-industry town like Detroit, and it pretty much collapsed during the ‘70s and ‘80s when its one industry started being undermined by foreign steel. But the city’s been very much rejuvenated. Detroit, by contrast, saw no major attempt at rejuvenation until very recently. And without a modern regional transportation system, it’s very hard for it to compete with cities that have one.
i suspect your analysis is correct
and bev will call me a racist
but i think it is better to bus money than to bus kids.
All this reminds me of ROBOCOP back in the day. OPM corps, or whatever, loans a decaying Detroit all kinds of money that they know can never be paid back, so that the city can be leveled and turned into one giant factory for robotic law enforcement.
Or, something like that.
It amazes me how many of those 80’s sci-fi shoot-em-ups are proving prophetic.
Robo-Cop was little more than a B-Grade movie which did address the culpability of big business in the decline of cities. They literally milked the cities for tax breaks, favors, etc. Detroit still has many fine attributes which need to be developed the same as Chicago’s were.
I hope you understand much of this is attributed to two references and not me.
Detroit was the classic one business town that collapsed when that business changed. By the 1970s, all the car plants in Detroit were obsolete. The industry was undergoing a revolution in quality control and system design while Detroit management was just twiddling its thumbs. The automotive industry seems to have woken up, but even producing more cars than ever would mean a lot fewer workers. Detroit has to become a real city, not a one industry town.
P.S. One of my favorite comic artists, Matt Feazel is based in Detroit. Somehow, he makes it look like a surprisingly vibrant place. http://home.comcast.net/~mattfeazell/MOVIE/index.htm#Blog
run75441 hits it pretty well.
I grew up in the South Bronx and my parents and us kids left with the white flight Detroit needs aid not crushed.
Where would New York City be if the governor of NY in 1976 were a GOteaparty fanatic?
you have just made a great argument for ditching the two party system.
Perhaps but Wayne County is effectively a one party system.
And Detroit deteriorated during the Granholm (liberal D) administration.
Much of the black middle class fled Detroit in the past 30 years.
In eight years liberal Democrat Jennifer Granholm could not make any headway in Detroit, as her term overlapped much of the term of the hiphop gangster mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (currently awaiting another jury verdict).
And Detroit City council meeting clips are posted on Youtube as comedy pieces.
I guess Granholm could have reversed the great depression of 2009 in Michigan.
I spend enough tie in Detroit to see the GOteaparty shame game.
lending money that can never be paid back is THE time honored way to reduce people to slavery..
unfortunately by calling it slavery i will turn many people off because of “excessive” language… after all where are the chains and auction blocks..
they are there. you just can’t see them.
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Studying Urban design and planning as an amateur for several decades, I have discovered the subject to be a vast array of several topics: economics, politics, cultural, social and economic history and ecology and environmental studies. The major problem often forgotten when people take an overview of cities is that they are inhabited by people. Human beings have needs that need to be met and when the city designers and administrators taking care of keeping vital services running (land use and development, police, water, electricity, traffic) forget that, then the city falls into decay. What city governments and regional governments forgot several decades ago when Detroit faced crises brought about by race riots, was to plan for the future. They forgot draw plans that would increase the business density and went for boulevard and freeway density. They bought into (as did 50 other metropolitan areas) the pitch that the city needed vast expanses devoted to expressway interchanges; later they found the need for huge parking structures. Alas there was never enough parking, nor enough room off the freeways for all of the automobiles and a crisis built around automobile use. All because of a lack of planning; this idiocy stretched from Washington to Lansing to the Wayne County courthouse to the City Hall and resulted in Detroit becoming a zombie city.
There is no use pretending that the City we once knew as Detroit can be salvaged. It is moribund, an area filled with blighted lots that have no future, an area filled with people waiting to get out. Almost all of those able to flee have done so and perhaps some of the short term prosperity of the suburbs is actually the result of such a diverse group of people all at once ( in relative terms) deciding to grace the surrounding area with their income, their talents and their mere presence. I could say more about the depth of the blight but here’s the web site to go to for that: http://detroiturbex.com/index.html. Study the pictures well, gentle reader if you will please. You would do well to pull out Google Maps or Google Earth as well and look around at the surrounding area. That will show the future path, as one commenter has already pointed out, that the suburbs have already taken on a march to obsolescence. Suburbs contain much in the way of asphalt and pavement and little to assist in helping residents to meet their needs.
See this video for more on what living human beings actually need cities for and how urban areas should or should not be constructed. Urbanized -from the blurb at Netflix.com, “Urbanized looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design, explores a diverse range of urban design projects around the world, and frames a global discussion on the future of cities.”
Finally, if we continue to exclude well designed wilderness parks as part of our urban areas, people will continue to view the conglomerations of asphalt and concrete we call cities as short term evils to be lived with, not a permanent and lasting source of inspiration, delight and spiritual nourishment.
Long before your 30 years were up the borders were set and the die cast for Detroit. If you read into the words I recast at Angry Bear, it occurred before the seventies.
“neighborhoods that had successfully segregated their housing an exemption from school desegregation requirements. City neighborhoods that had not excluded, blacks, on the other hand, faced mandatory desegregation.”
Has the black middle class fled Detroit? Last night, there were masses of black people protesting in front of the Federal Court building. They did not appear to be the poor and homeless. They did appear to be the very same middle class defined by median household income. Perhaps you meant those who make substantially more than household median income? The likes of which may have a household income approaching $100,000 in order to afford the homes in the further out suburbs? If we use Household Median Income as the guideline, there are probably more middle class within Detroit after factoring out the 36% who live below the poverty line.
The mandate from the state and the courts was, Detroit will be segregated from the rest of the state. You cannot blame Detroit for the feifdom defined by the state, the court, and prejudice.