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If We Can’t Find a Way, Then We’ll Make One

July 21, 2013

Detroit’s decline has been well chronicled.  The city that was a post-war economic engine of nearly 1.9 million people in 1950 has steadily lost its positionDetroit motor city and is now unable to pay its bills.  The city limits of 139 square miles exceeds the combined area of San Francisco (47), Boston (48) and Long Beach (50) yet its population is a little more than a third, having dwindled to approximately 700,000.  Unemployment is 18%.  Fifteen percent of the city’s land parcels are empty and there are 70,000 – 80,000 vacant buildings.  The gambling taxes from the casinos exceed property tax revenues.

DetroitMayor Dave Bing, a former professional basketball player and Detroit businessman, has been on the job since 2008.  His term ends in December of this year and he has announced that he will retire then.  Consistently, he has urged the city’s various constituents, the surrounding suburbs, and federal and state agencies to work together to solve the city’s troubles and emphasized that the efforts would be doomed without such an approach.  This ability to work together seems elusive in Detroit.  In the last mayoral and city council election, only 17% of voters bothered to come out.  Keith Richburg, a Washington Post journalist who grew up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote yesterday how the city’s history of divisive and racial politics contributed to its demise and how the bankruptcy was a natural outcome.  He tells how his friend in Detroit puts it, “Some people would rather be the king of nothing than a part of something.”

Detroit 2.0, a coordinated effort led by Quicken and Dan Gilbert, its CEO, helped the past few years to revive downtown with jobs and development.  Earlier this year, Whole Foods opened a store in midtown, adding to the revitalization in that section of town.  There are clear and visible good things happening in that town and in some circles, there is nothing but determination and optimism.  The 2011 and 2012 Super Bowl ads funded by Chrysler weren’t so much about its cars, as they were commentary about the notion of Americans coming together to overcome severe challenges and how the efforts in Detroit could lead to a very bright future.  In the 2012 ad, Clint Eastwood, proclaimed that the city would thrive again, “…We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one…”

Still troubles persist and the challenges are crippling.  So what is the new way that they have made in Detroit?  Bankruptcy.  After the decades-long decline and insufficient responses, with last week’s filing, Detroit became the largest municipality to use the bankruptcy laws to reorganize its finances.  As distasteful as these things are, it seems that this approach was inevitable.  In his WaPo article, Richburg wrote: 

“My heart aches today knowing that my beloved home town of Detroit now has the notoriety of being the largest American city to officially file for bankruptcy. But the filing was really just a formality. Detroit has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades — a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots.tiger stadium

The Detroit I remember ceased to exist a long time ago. But it was kept alive by a pride, a nostalgia for its former glory, and an illusion that revival was just around the next corner. We who love Detroit — even people like me who abandoned it long ago — were all complicit.”

While Richburg and others may have wished that this wasn’t true about their beloved city, others wrote about Detroit’s ills over fifty years ago.  These words, written in October 1957, could very well have been written today. 

Upstairs, looking out from higher windows over the city’s sprawl to the inland west, you see the blight and chaos with which Detroit still has to contend. Beyond the immediate forest of business towers lies a vast surrounding belt of one and two family house slums or near slums strewn across helter skelter with factories, breweries, and warehouses, through which traffic moves in thick ribbons to three counties overhung with smoke. One tract, almost the size of a small town, has already been hacked out of the hovels near the core, and lies under several years’ growth of ragweed like some improbable meadow almost in the shadow of the skyscrapers.

What can a city do when it finds its patron industry and its middle class moving out, leaving it a relic of extremes? Detroit is trying to do two things: Restore enough amenities of city life to recapture some of the middle class, and diversify its economic base so as to provide sustenance for every class. Both projects are difficult to accomplish once centrifugal motion has gathered force, and some of the realty interests are far from cooperative… But urban deterioration offers at least one advantage. Once a city core has become as run-down as Detroit’s, you can start to rebuild fairly cheaply.   

Too many lives have been compromised, irreparably harmed or lost while one of this country’s great manufacturing centers and home to many has been destroyed.  I wish Mayor Bing and the others the very best as they try the new way. 

From → America

9 Comments
  1. Claudia permalink

    very well written. A nice way to get the cumulative facts in a quick read.

    Like

  2. Thank you, Claudia.
    What a sad state of affairs in that town.

    Like

  3. Good work Bruce. Great overview of the tragic situation that Detroit finds itself in. With its close proximity to the auto industry and a large educated middle class population, one hopes Detroit ( and Michigan) will find a way to resurrect the once thriving city

    Like

  4. Would you like me to re-blog this? Again, saying no will not hurt my feelings! Have you thought about putting some posts on reddit? 

    ________________________________

    Like

  5. Thanks, John. Agree – it’s pretty sad, It seems (from a distance) that some good things are happening, however.

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  6. Hi Barbara. Go right ahead – I’m flattered. Thank you.

    (My shadow’s never darkened the threshold of the door to Reddit.)

    Like

  7. Reblogged this on barbaramonier and commented:
    Another great blog from Bruce.

    Like

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. While Detroit Burned | Ram On
  2. Pre Post-Racial America | Ram On

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