Detroit on the Verge

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” ― Charles Baudelaire

I arrived in Detroit one day after the city filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city remained very much as I remembered it. Hart Plaza shown like a jewel in the Michigan sun, and the downtown bustled with summer energy. The awful and the unexpected still greeted me as I ventured into the city’s outer recesses. I saw both desolation and delight on the faces of the young and old in the neighborhoods. I thought of how easily one can drift into hyperbole when thinking of this beautiful and broken colossus of a city. Detroit is all too often reduced to metaphor. Like a Rorschach test, one can see almost anything when looking at Detroit.

The temptation to reduce Detroit to a symbol is great, but the city is many things. The Motor City made our love affair with the car possible. It was the largest manufacturing center in the world and the engine of the American middle class. The awesome might of Detroit’s industry crushed the Nazi war machine in Europe. Motown’s sound changed the face of American music forever. Even Detroit’s tragic racial history perfectly mirrors the country’s own “original sin” of the color line.

In the July sun on the day after the bankruptcy, I could feel the weight of all this, yet realize that Detroit still lives. Even broken and blighted, “The D” is a behemoth in the American imagination. People from around the world come to marvel at the city’s past and troubled present. Detroit is uniquely American, and the city’s state and its future development will weigh heavily on the nation’s mind.

Detroit is facing $18 billion in long-term liabilities. Once a city of 1.8 million, it is now down to a little over 700,000 souls. This is the same city that essentially invented the blue-collar middle class and once had one of the highest percentages of home ownership in the country. A labyrinthine landscape of industrial buildings dominated Detroit in the city’s salad days. Fordism, Taylorism, and unionism, three terms that define much of the twentieth century, were created or saw their full expression in Detroit. Yet, the Detroit of today began as early as 1943, when one of the worst white riots in American history broke out on Belle Isle. In the midst of a World War, federal troops had to occupy an American city to stop a race war from erupting. Race loomed large as tens of thousands of African Americans during mid-century moved into the city as part of the Great Migration. And it was in the 1950s that the next great migration began: the movement of people and jobs out of the Motor City.

The flow of auto jobs out of the city, along with the consolidation of the auto industry, marked the fifties. Packard Motor’s famed facility closed in 1958. A year later the company joined it in oblivion. The Big Three and their increasingly sclerotic leadership dominated Detroit and the American car scene until the 1970s, when the Japanese and other foreign competitors successfully penetrated the domestic market. However, the city’s decline is usually—and incorrectly—connected to the 1967 12th Street Riot, which was the worst riot in American history until the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. White flight and capital flight had long since begun by the time the city exploded that fateful summer.

The two decades after the riot brought woe beyond the neighborhoods to the cloistered offices of the city’s auto giants. Economist Richard Wolff succinctly describes the reaction of the Big Three to their failure to effectively compete with foreign car companies in the seventies and eighties: “And, perhaps most tellingly, they responded to their own failures by deciding to move production out of Detroit so they could pay their workers lower wages.” This type of strategy wasn’t limited to American car companies, nor to the Detroit area; the seventies marked the beginning of enduring wage stagnation for the middle class, and an outright decline for much of the working class. Detroit and Michigan’s problems accelerated with the signing of NAFTA in 1993. Michigan led the country in jobs lost to the free trade agreement, and the state suffered even further after the granting of most favored nation status to China in 2001.

Despite suffering a massive 25 percent drop in population between 2000 and 2010, some bright spots opened up for the city. Downtown Detroit saw a nearly 60 percent increase in college graduates during that time period. Population density in the greater downtown is now comparable to many cities in the Midwest. Crime in Downtown Detroit is far below the national average, belying the reality of much of the rest of the city. Nor is the rebound limited to just the downtown.

Over a thousand residents have moved into the Midtown area recently. Midtown is home to the Henry Ford Health Center, Wayne State University, Detroit Medical Center, and the College for Creative Studies. Organizations like Midtown Detroit Inc. and Live Midtown are working to attract professionals from abroad—and those who work, but who don’t live in Midtown—to relocate there. Midtown Inc. is also involved in local economic development and is a crucial part of the successful local partnerships between the area’s anchor institutions. Midtown’s major institutions have gone beyond token acts of charitable giving to actual partnerships with the surrounding community.

Clearly,  though, Detroit is in the grasp of enormous and longstanding social and economic problems. Prior to the era of the “Urban Crisis,” the poor in central cities were seldom totally detached from the labor market.  But with the impact of early deindustrialization in the 1960s, inner city communities experienced drastically increased rates of unemployment, which in the seventies and eighties left cities like Detroit with “jobless neighborhoods.” Crack and the rise of gang culture took a further toll on large swaths of the city already devastated by unemployment and massive economic disinvestment. According to sociologist and historian Thomas Sugrue, author of the definitive book on Detroit’s history The Origins of the Urban Crisis, the “structure of the economy has been the most important force in shaping urban poverty.” In Detroit that meant the outflow of jobs to the suburbs and massive white and capital flight from the city’s neighborhoods. These problems are entrenched and long-term. Their remediation will require proactive intervention from the entire metropolitan area, the state, and the federal government.

Many of Detroit’s difficulties are a result of the federal government’s total lack of an urban policy. During a brief period in the Johnson administration, the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was created as part of the “War on Poverty,” and initiatives like the Model Cities Program directed investment into troubled inner cities around the country. The Nixon administration, and especially the Reagan administration, reversed this trend during a time of ever-increasing urban blight and job loss in central cities. After thirty years of steady decline in Rust Belt cities, the federal government still has no real urban policy. The Obama administration, despite opening the White House Office of Urban Affairs, is no exception. Vice President Joe Biden responded to a question about how the federal government could help Detroit by saying “We don’t know.” This is a clear signal that unlike corporations or banks, cities facing long-term structural issues are on their own under the Obama administration.

Like many other industrial cities, the dominance of one major industry in Detroit impeded entrepreneurship. While entrepreneurs have begun to come to the downtown and Midtown, this movement is in its infancy. Low and moderate-income families already living in Detroit have to be part of any inner city revitalization. This will require what Jennifer Vey of the Brookings Institution calls “growing the middle class from within.” However, as Vey also mentions, cities like Detroit need a Strategic Neighborhood Investment Program, authorized by Congress, to attract long-term private investment to distressed neighborhoods. A key part of this process would be an investment bond program that could leverage billions to enable strategic acquisition and rehabilitation programs, repurpose vacant land, and speed up demolition of dilapidated and sub-standard housing. It also goes without saying that Detroit’s suburbs must be a part of a regionalization effort. The Greater Detroit area possesses one of the most skilled work forces in the country and is home to one of the largest clusters of high tech talent. Bringing workers back to the city and the sharing of revenue is crucial to a real Detroit renaissance.

If it is tempting for many to see Detroit in the most negative of lights, it is also easy to remain sanguine about the recurring pronouncements of a Detroit rebounding. In 1979, twelve years after the 12th Street Riot, National Geographic referred to “seeds of optimism” growing in Detroit. The construction of the enormous Renaissance Center, the Joe Lewis Arena, a new downtown shopping mall—along with announcement that Detroit would host the 1980 Republican National Convention—led many to believe the city had turned from the dark corner of the riots to the light of a new day. Instead, those seeds of optimism sprouted into days of discontent. Detroit became more known for Devil’s Night and decay than it did for conventions and shopping. A sustained and determined effort to turn the city around is needed if new opportunities for revitalization are to succeed.

Leaving Detroit, I went from the cozy confines of the Roasting Plant coffee shop in the downtown to the wreck of Woodward Avenue. I felt the despair of the city’s past all around me, while still seeing the growing glint of what the future of Detroit might be—not the dystopia of Robocop’s “Old” and “New” Detroit—but of a city where the old and the new resident, the black and the white, and the middle and working class could all have a “right to the city.” There is a dream of Detroit somewhere out there. And though I am not a Detroiter, I believe in that dream. Detroit is not an American aberration. Detroit’s fate, like its history, cannot be unshackled from America’s.

By Sean Posey

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