[NOTE TO READERS: We will resume the Friday Saloon next week; in the meantime, feel free to hijack this thread if you wish.]
When some of you asked me to write on Detroit, I wasn't sure I could add much to the many stories and columns that have been produced after the city filed for bankruptcy. But many were the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. Something big has happened, but what? How did things get so bad? And is this a foreshadowing of calamities to come? As one reader put it, "The Detroit default woke me up to the impending train wrecks we're facing elsewhere. What happened? Another oversight calamity?"
Back to the elephant, as in, the elephant in the room. No discussion of Detroit can avoid race and the city's toxic racial history. At a little more than 700,000 population, Detroit is the only major city in the nation with a staggering concentration of African-American poverty. It is 83 percent black compared with 14 percent for Michigan. The poverty rate of more than 36 percent is twice the state level. Median household income is 57 percent of the state average. There is no other American city so populous facing such an imbalance.
Unlike Atlanta, Detroit never made a good-for-business compact between the races. This was always a tough town, the assembly line warped some people — "Detroit, where the weak are killed and eaten," was a popular bumper sticker I saw when I was covering the auto industry. It was the city where the NAACP sued to stop de-facto school segregation in the metropolitan area. It won in the federal circuit and lost at the Supreme Court. After that, white flight to the suburbs accelerated, followed by better-off blacks. The city that in 1950 dominated its metropolitan area with more than 1.8 million people, fifth-largest in the nation, bled population, jobs and wealth into sprawling, segregated suburbs. In 2012, the Detroit metropolitan area held 4.2 million people and was the nation's 14th largest metro, just behind metropolitan Phoenix. But the city is the smaller, poorer part. In recent decades, metro Detroit has barely grown in population but sprawl has continued to expand, gutting the city. Detroit represents a massive tragedy of race and class.
As others have noted, it is cruelly or aptly ironic that the automobile helped destroy Detroit. At one time, the city had an extensive streetcar network, commuter trains and intercity trains. While a higher-speed train corridor is being built up between Detroit and Chicago, the rest was long ago ripped out. The Motor City lived up to its name, with the busy streetcar lines along Woodward Avenue were removed in 1956, replaced by a nearly exclusive reliance on the auto. Freeways proliferated. The bus system, never good, has become much worse as the city's fiscal crisis has worsened. A "people mover" downtown isn't particularly effective. One consequence is that as the city's factories died and most employment centers moved to the suburbs, much of the city's population lacked the ability to reach jobs.
While "Detroit" is a metonym for the American auto industry, General Motors is the only one of the Big Three to be headquartered in the city. Only a handful of major auto plants are inside the city limits, where once there were dozens, supported by hundreds of other manufacturing operations in what would today be called an "ecosystem." It was the birthplace of the modern industrial union movement. This produced a blue-collar middle class, along with wealth for the elite and the city through the first decades of the 20th century. It also led to complacency, as David Halberstam documents in his book, The Reckoning. Even as the auto industry adjusted — and was eventually bailed out by the Obama administration — the city of Detroit felt the worst losses. The metro area remains economically viable and full of pockets of prosperity — including supporting four big-league sports teams. This barely helps the city. According to the Brookings Institution, Detroit suffers from the worst "job sprawl" in the nation. While unemployment in the metro area is around 9 percent, inside the city limits it is more than 16 percent and barely fell below 15 percent all through the 2000s. Rather like warming temperatures thawing permafrost which in turn releases methane making warming worse, all these factors became a feedback loop dragging Detroit down.
Another is decades of malgovernance. Coleman Young, who served as mayor from 1974 to 1994 is widely criticized for alleged corruption and machine politics. Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of multiple felonies. Detroit and Michigan have a long history of both machine politics and shady dealing. This was the home of the Purple Gang (which established an outpost in Arizona) and a major conduit of illegal whiskey during Prohibition. But when the vast industrial base of Detroit was the colossus of the world and businessmen in the Financial District oversaw ever-increasing wealth, the stakes weren't as high. As Detroit faced its racial, spatial and economic hits, suddenly political leadership really mattered — and often failed. The widespread misuse of eminent domain often transferred land to politically connected fixers but failed to produce meaningful economic development. Ronald Reagan held a highly symbolic Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980; although Reagan did help the Big Three against Japan, he betrayed promises of urban policies that would help average Detroiters. Federal policy that encouraged freeways and sprawl, that undercut a fair deal for unions and pushed uneven trade deals — this was the worst government malpractice.
As for the details and gamesmanship of Detroit's bankruptcy, Cate Long of Reuters has covered them better than anyone (see here, here and here). But the basics are this: Decades of middle-class and business flight starved the tax base. The liabilities are nothing exotic — no light rail — but ordinary municipal obligations and the pensions and health costs of retirees. The exact numbers are open to debate. Should the city have reduced staff many years earlier? Perhaps. Is it immoral that retirees living on modest means, dependent on solemn promises made by the city, should take a haircut while Wall Street made big money off Detroit's debt — and the bankruptcy lawyers will continue to do so? Undoubtedly. Now there's no easy way out.
Detroit remains a real city, with architecture, historic districts and cultural assets that no Sun Belt city can ever replicate. A historic reuse movement is at work, companies have moved downtown and some startup entrepreneurs even welcome the bankruptcy. Detroit has given treasures to the world that no Sun Belt city can ever match. The city is hollowed out, but its density is still about twice that of Charlotte, a city of similar population. For all the ruin porn photos, Detroit also contains places that are still loved. Racism and racial dysfunction hurt Detroit badly. But this was also the place where white Mayor Jerry Cavanagh welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. in the fraught year of 1963, marching with him in a jubilant walk before 100,000 up Woodward. It's a complex story. Detroit is not a simple morality tale. It's not good enough to, sotto voce, say "It's just the n*ggers' fault and it could never happen where I live."
What kind of civilization would think that way? America, sadly.
You want lessons? Don't sprawl. That Ponzi scheme will catch up with you. Nurture real universities, constant reinvention and civic decency and opportunity that includes all citizens. Don't assume the "creative destruction" of the supposedly unfettered free market won't destroy your community, too. Or end up at the gates of your gated property (not for nothing do we have a zombie craze). Invest in your city. Beware of scare tactics by the right and some quarters of the media about the gazillions facing us in "unfunded liabilities." There is a gap between public pension promises and assets, but who the hell's fault is that? We're the richest country in the world. Wall Street is gambling with $600 trillion in nominal derivatives. And the retired garbageman is to blame?
What kind of civilization could abandon a great city to ruin, as exemplified by the majestic Michigan Central Station left to rot? Ours, apparently. "The greatest country in the world."