Welcome to all my new followers (thanks to highly recommended shortformblog!) Sorry this post is so long/such a downer. You can and should write to tell me how wrong I am!
“It was even worse than everywhere else.” - Jean-Ferdinand Celine’s description of Detroit in his 1932 pessimist masterpiece Journey to the End of Night.
“Detroit is the city of problems. We may not have them exclusively, that’s for sure. But we probably had them first…The city has become a living laboratory for the most comprehensive study possible of the American urban condition.” - Lawrence M. Carino, Chairman of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, 1972
Despite some architectural treasures Detroit never was a truly beautiful city…but it was a great one. It served as headquarters of what were once two of the three largest corporations in the world. It produced the Five Dollar Day and thereby an American middle class. It was America’s most unionized city. It was a place Franklin Roosevelt called the “Arsenal of Democracy,” producing 20% of the nation’s military material in WWII, and upon returning to civilian production placed a car in every American driveway. Then a second car. Then a third.
For the past 50 years, under a cascade of deindustrialization, middle-class flight, political mismanagement, and spiraling crime, Detroit has been dying. Should we save it?
But we should try to save its people.
The forces buffeting Detroit are broad and deep. Global competition, automation, new transportation routes, and the desirability of Sunbelt locales are all structural factors that have devastated Rust Belt cities from Allentown to Buffalo to Flint. Economists have found a strong correlation between average January temperature and urban growth (PDF). At some point, geography is destiny.
The death spiral is a familiar one. First the factories close. As jobs disappear and wages decline, middle-class residents flee, tearing apart the social fabric of their neighborhoods. Crime increases and so does flight. Perversely, cheaper housing attracts the poor to dying neighborhoods, straining social services and doing little to expand the tax base. The cycle continues until you’re left with a husk where once stood what every American city is: a grand experiment in capitalism and democracy.
(Image: Michigan Central Station, abandoned since 1988)
The governmental response should also be familiar. Blue ribbon Commissions are formed, redevelopment plans are drawn up, and billions in private and public dollars are spent to “revitalize” some marginal neighborhood. The result, as often as not, are white elephant structures that don’t justify their costs. Detroit’s Renaissance Centermay be sleek and modern, but it couldn’t restore a city that faces 500 arsons a month, a 30% or higher unemployment rate, and 40 murders for every 100,000 residents. A nicer riverfront won’t staunch the bleeding in a city that has gone from 2 million to perhaps 800,000 residents.
In fact, targeted development assistance may amount to a bribe offered to a city’s citizens in exchange for their immobility. Here’s a community center, a refurbished public housing complex, a shiny new office tower. Just stay. Stay, even as the schools have failed your kids and jobs haven’t materialized.
What’s the humane alternative? I think the answer lies in policies that help vulnerable people wherever they may reside. We can expand the Earned Income Tax Credit so that working people in Detroit (and Rochester, Troy, Lansing, Youngstown…) can save money from even the most low-wage job and perhaps acquire the resources to move someplace Citizen Kerry calls “a functioning democracy.” We can invest more in Pell Grants, so those that survive Detroit’s schools can learn a trade, go to community college, or get a 4-year degree and then…find a job wherever their talents are needed. We can do our best to make Detroit Public Schools havens from the chaos outside, and again, prepare students for life in the broader national economy. Perhaps, in the most extreme cases, we can offer relocation packages.
*And what of the city that’s left behind? It shouldn’t literally disappear, but it can shrink responsibly. Detroit may not be viable at its current size, but a smaller and denser city can be sustainable. Already, there are signs of life in midtown. A patchwork of neighborhoods are coming back, sustained by an influx of artists, students, and young professionals looking for low housings costs and a little bohemian thrill. Arab and Hispanic immigration have stabilized some neighborhoods. Thousands of black professionals and working families will remain or even return to a more compact and safer city. Detroit may yet reinvent itself as a diverse and vibrant city, joining the likes of New York, Minneapolis, and Boston in cold weather prosperity.
Or maybe these hopes won’t materialize. Whatever Detroit’s course, whatever sentimental attachment America’s old cities hold in our hearts, we have to remember what’s most important: people, not places.
I’ve made part one of my argument, now I’d love to hear what my followers have to say.