Sunday, March 3, 2013

Detroit: A Quick Lesson in the End Result of the American Dream

As of March 1, 2013, the City of Detroit is no longer in control of its own affairs.  On Friday, the state government of Michigan, led by Republican governor Rick Snyder, stepped in and decided to appoint an Emergency Manager to take over and manage Detroit's day-to-day business and finances.  Decades of corruption, decline, decay, greed and graft finally culminated in one of America's most historic and significant cities being reduced to a bankrupt debtor unable to pay its bills.  Detroit is to date one of the largest cities or towns to have ever gone into receivership. 

But how did it get to such a dire point?  How did the former "Paris of the West," the former "Arsenal of Democracy" or so it was called during World War II, the Famed "Motor City," become a city teetering on the brink of ruin?  I am 31.  For me, I cannot remember a time when Detroit wasn't having some sort of financial, social, economic or racial problem.  Detroit has been a city facing difficult problems for so long that it's become a bit of a fad to document the huge amount of urban decay found throughout the city.  Beverly Hills Cop, a movie depicting Detroit of the early 1980s as a place rife with crime and poverty, was made nearly thirty years ago.  RoboCop, which depicted a fictional, dystopic future Detroit on the brink of being "bought" by a large corporation interested only in razing it to develop an idyllic supercity for wealthy elites was released twenty-six years ago.  Point being?  Most Americans struggle to think of Detroit as something other than a hard scrabble place on the wrong end of history, a place gradually decaying bit by bit.

But there was a time when Detroit was one of America's most prosperous and most important cities.  Situated on the Detroit River and between two Great Lakes, its strategic importance led the British to capture it during the War of 1812.  By the end of the 1800s it was a transportation hub, and during the Gilded Age, many of its most beautiful buildings and mansions were constructed.  Some of its main boulevards were electrified by Thomas Edison.  Its status as a hub of industry allowed a young Henry Ford to open a small shop there and begin building one of the first automobiles in America.  In the decades to come, many more would follow.  Little did the residents of Detroit know that this seemingly good development foretold the city's death in years to come.

The new prosperity brought on by businessmen like Henry Ford, and later other automotive pioneers like William C. Durant, the Dodge brothers, James Packard and Walter Chrysler, caused Detroit to expand tremendously and gobble up several of the towns and villages that had sprung up around it.  Greater prosperity and an increasing influx of workers eager to cash in on the automotive craze pushed Detroit to be the nation's fifth largest city by 1950, with nearly 2,000,000 residents calling the city proper home, along with many more in the surrounding towns and suburbs.  In the early 20th century, Detroit was also home to one of the nation's finest urban streetcar systems, but by mid-century, the more prosperous residents demanded highways to be built which would allow expansion into suburbs that offered more open space and less noise and traffic.  Coupled with easy highway dollars from the federal government, several interstates were constructed and the streetcars fell into disuse before being shut down altogether in 1956.  For all intents and purposes, the streetcar was dead in Detroit, and would remain so ever since, despite many attempts to establish a new one.

In many ways, this was the beginning of what now can be seen as a precipitous fall from grace for Detroit.  White flight began in earnest, and outlying suburban cities around Detroit saw population surges while the city proper lost over a quarter of a million people by 1970, with the overall metro area population swelling to 4.5 million that same year.  The remaining urban areas were now slowly being abandoned, and the urban poverty that had existed for decades in the city proper began to be the most dominant way of life.  Riots, fueled by decades of racial tension, famously occurred in 1943 and 1967.  Fleeing residents left huge swaths of empty neighborhoods in what used to be nice areas, which soon became slums as the city's population continued to dwindle, alongside city coffers that found it more and more difficult to fund and service a city that was rapidly losing residents.

History will likely see the fall of Detroit as being part of the failure of the domestic auto industry itself, which culminated in bailouts for GM and a buyout of Chrysler in 2008.  During Detroit's peak as a city in the 1950s, over half of the cars sold in the United States were made by General Motors, whose headquarters was always right in downtown Detroit.  Today that number stands at 18.4%.  It was the automakers, primarily GM, that wanted Detroit to be built to allow for people to drive their cars around and be able to live in one place and work in another.  It could be said that Detroit's greatest contributing industry also was its greatest downfall.

But it wasn't all the automakers' fault.  Detroit has long been a home for corruption, going back all the way to Prohibition times when the Purple Gang dominated local crime as liquor was moved across the river from Canada.  Several bloody gang wars and massacres occurred from the 1920s until well after Prohibition ended in the 1940s and 1950s.  The decimation of the Purple Gang left a void that was soon filled by Mafiosi from nearby Chicago and New York.  In short, Detroit politics has long rivaled the more well-known corruption found in bigger cities like Chicago, and the public coffers were always open to both reputable and non-reputable businessmen who had enough "pull" with local lawmakers.  In the 1950s and 1960s such excesses were hardly noticed, but as populations dwindled and tax revenues followed suit, there was gradually less and less money to steal and more modern corrupt mayors and the like tended to stand out more.  The most recent former Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, was convicted of, and accused of, so many breaches of mayoral power and corruption I won't even bother repeating them here (go click that link if you're curious!).  The current mayor, former NBA hall of fame player Dave Bing, seems to be on the up-and-up but in Detroit you never really know.

To me, all of this is a culmination of the American way of life in many ways.  When one surveys the nation as it is today, they see many of the same problems plaguing other cities from coast to coast.  Many other large cities are also being robbed blind by thugs and charlatans.  Many other large cities are far too big, with nicer suburbs surrounding a rotting central urban core.  Many other cities are plagued by chronic poverty, corrupt law enforcement, broken education systems and a collapse in property values.  One could say that the American system breeds an unholy union of wealthy business interests and government bureaucrats, causing a culture of corruption that has frequently existed for so long, it's an ingrained and inextricable way of life for the governments of many cities.  One can only rob the piggy bank so many times, after all, before there is simply nothing left to steal.  An urban population of neglected poor, many of whom do not or cannot work, many of whom do not have access to proper healthcare or education, many of whom are sucked into an inescapable cycle of crime and incarceration, which further prevents them from ever bettering their situation, they cannot be expected to carry the financial load of a city that was once big and prosperous and that now teeters on the brink of insolvency and crushing debt.  Detroit kept borrowing against the future and did not ever see a time when perhaps the future would have no money to lend.  One can easily see the parallels to the "this gravy train is never going to stop" excesses of the early and mid-2000s, and that's when the lesson of Detroit hits home: anyplace in America, even America itself, could be the next Detroit.  Growth cannot, and should not, be constant and infinite.  Eventually such excesses correct themselves, often painfully.

Detroit is the canary in the coal mine.  What has happened there could happen in lots of places.  Wealthy business interests do not have the population of a city in mind when it makes its decisions.  Nor do politicians that collude with them.  I'm not sure I could ever envision a system in which this unholy alliance would not be the natural order of things, but I feel like I have enough intelligence to look at a series of events and understand cause vs effect.  Detroit's bones were picked clean and now it staggers along as a once-great city that has long ago fallen into neglect and decay. Its future?  Well, if recently approved plans to construct urban farms in large swaths of the city that were razed due to blight and disrepair come to fruition, Detroit could end up being a beacon, a new way forward for many other cities that grew just a bit too big for their britches.  Let's just all hope that their future turns brighter in the coming years, giving hope to other cities experiencing similar problems.  Perhaps Detroit's problems could prevent similar problems elsewhere.  Here's hoping.