Motor City Decline

Named after the nearby river, Detroit began in 1701 being founded by 51 or so French Canadians.  The city would evolve, at its height, to represent an intrinsic part of the American DNA.  In the early 1900s industrial age (where the Ford Motor Company began in 1903), the Motor City could very persuasively represent a symbol of the famous American individualistic spirit.  The automobile became available to more and more Americans and launched a more mobile society that was consistently on-the-go.

In 1959, Berry Gordy would purchase property in Detroit that would become Hitsville U.S.A Studio. Motown was born and would launch the legendary acts:  The Four Tops, Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Jackson 5, and others.  America’s independent mobility and a large chunk of its soul were tied to the Motor City.

How sad the news was when the announcement of bankruptcy permeated the airwaves on July 18, 2013.  The Motor City had become the largest American city in history to declare bankruptcy.  The details are still being worked out by a judge.

What went wrong?  A lot of commentators have offered their counsel:

“Corruption of the criminal sort was legendary. The former mayor currently serving time engaged in a breathtaking range of fraud, extortion and racketeering. And he didn’t act alone. The legal corruption was the cozy symbiosis of Democratic politicians and powerful unions, especially the public-sector unions that gave money to elect the politicians who negotiated their contracts — with wildly unsustainable health and pension benefits.  When our great industrial competitors were digging out from the rubble of World War II, Detroit’s automakers ruled the world. Their imagined sense of inherent superiority bred complacency. Management grew increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible. Unions felt entitled to the extraordinary wages, benefits and work rules they’d bargained for in the fat years. In time, they all found themselves being overtaken by more efficient, more adaptable, more hungry foreign producers.”  -Charles Krauthammer (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-steins-law/2013/07/25/f45acb30-f567-11e2-aa2e-4088616498b4_story.html)

“Americans are segregating by income more than ever before. Forty years ago, most cities (including Detroit) had a mixture of wealthy, middle-class, and poor residents. Now, each income group tends to lives separately, in its own city — with its own tax bases and philanthropies that support, at one extreme, excellent schools, resplendent parks, rapid-response security, efficient transportation, and other first-rate services; or, at the opposite extreme, terrible schools, dilapidated parks, high crime, and third-rate services.  The geo-political divide has become so palpable that being wealthy in America today means not having to come across anyone who isn’t.” -Robert Reich (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-reich/detroit-bankruptcy_b_3629782.html)

“True, in Detroit’s case matters seem to have been made worse by political and social dysfunction. One consequence of this dysfunction has been a severe case of “job sprawl” within the metropolitan area, with jobs fleeing the urban core even when employment in greater Detroit was still rising, and even as other cities were seeing something of a city-center revival. Fewer than a quarter of the jobs on offer in the Detroit metropolitan area lie within 10 miles of the traditional central business district; in greater Pittsburgh, another former industrial giant whose glory days have passed, the corresponding figure is more than 50 percent. And the relative vitality of Pittsburgh’s core may explain why the former steel capital is showing signs of a renaissance, while Detroit just keeps sinking.     So by all means let’s have a serious discussion about how cities can best manage the transition when their traditional sources of competitive advantage go away. And let’s also have a serious discussion about our obligations, as a nation, to those of our fellow citizens who have the bad luck of finding themselves living and working in the wrong place at the wrong time — because, as I said, decline happens, and some regional economies will end up shrinking, perhaps drastically, no matter what we do.” -Paul Krugman (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/opinion/krugman-detroit-the-new-greece.html?_r=0)

“There (Detroit) you have today’s liberalism: Human agency, hence responsibility, is denied. Apart from the pesky matter of ‘voting in elections’ — apart from decades of voting to empower incompetents, scoundrels and criminals, and to mandate unionized rapacity — no one is responsible for anything. Popular sovereignty is a chimera because impersonal forces akin to hurricanes are sovereign. The restoration of America’s vitality depends on, among many other things, avoiding the bottomless sinkhole that would be created by the federal government rescuing one-party cities, and one-party states such as Illinois, from the consequences of unchecked power. The consequences of such power — incompetence, magical thinking, cynicism and sometimes criminality — are written in Detroit’s ruins.” -George Will (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-31/opinions/40912818_1_loaves-and-fishes-democracy-caterpillar)

“It’s not just the economic issues of Detroit’s bankruptcy that need to serve as a lesson but also the impact of dysfunctional urban race relations. The real challenge now for the once-great city of Detroit is to view its fallen stature as a great opportunity to rebuild communities by creating new and positive examples of recovery. Detroit has an opportunity to revisit the racial problems of the past and to build a strong foundation of fiscal responsibility as well as business and civic partnerships that cross the racial boundaries that have become one of the city’s most destructive elements. That would be the true victory. It won’t be easy to undo 46-plus years of decline, anger, fear and prejudice. But cities have to learn to embrace and thrive under racial diversity in order to survive.” (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-21/opinions/40713628_1_white-flight-riots-first-black-mayor)

As one can see, there certainly is a lot of blame to go around.  More conservative commentators are pointing out that there hasn’t been a republican elected official since 1957 and emphasize that the politics of Detroit favored expansion of the social safety net and entitlement programs (specifically pension benefits) for public sector workers (see George Will’s editorial).  In general, when the bills come due, Democrats favor raising taxes rather than cutting government expenses.  The raising of taxes (or the threat to do so) may have been one of the many complex reasons why people and businesses moved out of the city.  Why face escalating costs of living (or doing business) when one can move out of a city or to another county or another state altogether?

Regarding the issue of “white flight” which has definitely been a phenomena in the motor city’s past history, there is an argument to be made that in contemporary times “white flight” is perhaps a little less of an issue.  The Chicago-Sun Times (http://www.suntimes.com/business/4045521-420/foreclosures-helping-change-color-of-some-suburbs.html) has reported that African-American families have also moved out of Detroit and into the suburbs.  There are people of all races and backgrounds moving out of Detroit.

Reich’s above quote seems especially sad to me.  One of the apparent generalizations that can be made is that middle class and wealthy families do not want to live around poor people.  When more well-to-do people move out of working class neighborhoods, those communities lose massive portions of their tax base to pay competitive teacher salaries and other needed services (such as street lights and roads and more).  Communities are left to rot.

In my mind, there doesn’t (and should not be) a legislative way to coerce or force people to live somewhere.

What can be done to save Detroit, a great American city?  Economists, politicians, citizens and other reformers are all trying to figure that out.

I was thinking about that last question for awhile upon hearing the news from the perspective of the Christian church.  What if groups of Christians chose to move back into the city, starting paying their share of the property taxes and sincerely seeking to be a part of the community?  Now, this should not be with the mentality of being saviors (there is only One Savior) or with an attitude of forceful conversion but just to seek to live out one of the greatest commandments:  “Love your neighbor like you love yourself”.  What if people sought to live this most important instruction from Jesus in a genuine and sincere way?  What if they humbly wanted to learn from the existing community and listen carefully to their experiences?

The paragraph I just wrote is probably pie-in-the-sky idealistic.  Obviously, there are complicated economic and social issues involved in Detroit and whatever the path the current reformers place the motor city upon is fraught with challenges.  Still, the thought of a diverse, major city community with people of all races and incomes living together is a powerful thought.

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About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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