Detroit’s unthinkable future

City of Detroit

Take a good look at Detroit. You’ll see a landscape in advanced stages of deterioration and an inept government pushed to the brink of oblivion.

There’s a good chance the Motor City you see today is not the city of tomorrow, or one you want to remember. Its inevitable slide into a municipal wasteland has also put it on an irretrievable path to bankruptcy.

Fifty years ago, no one could imagine the disintegration of Detroit. The 1960-70s had ushered in a slew of benevolent government programs designed to ease urban tensions and blight.

The city ravenously accepted money for anti-poverty programs in a fragmented and piece-meal fashion, often without clear expectations of what these funds should achieve. In fact, most of the largesse came with the false premise that the only thing ailing Detroit was a lack of cash. And for brief intervals, the city experienced various levels of prosperity, growth and optimism.

The 1980s bright spots included the Cobo Hall expansion, Stroh Brewery Park, the incinerator project, Madden office building, City Airport expansion and the Fox Theater and Chrysler Jefferson plan renovation. Most involved huge tax breaks or federal dollars.

Into the 1990s, the city experienced a mini-economic boom that included billions in new investments: new Tigers and Lions stadiums and development around Orchestra Hall. General Motors purchased the Renaissance Center, Chrysler Corp. expansion.

State-designated renaissance zones and federal empowerment zones were incorporated as business magnets. More tax breaks were thrown in for residents and companies that located and employed workers in the zone. Casinos were later added to the mix.

It all seemed possible then. But the boom went bust.

The array of benefits had served to discourage work, enterprise and invention. So by the late 1970s and the early ‘80s, an “underclass” emerged whose economic condition seemed utterly resistant to the booming economy that swept the rest of nation during the 1990s. Worse yet, the federal and state largesse began to dry up. The utopian promises of government-sponsored urban redevelopment proved extravagant and destructive.

Today’s Detroit is home to a functional illiterate population, a dysfunctional school system, an expanding poverty-prone populace, a labor force participation rate under 50 percent and a predominance of single mothers and absent fathers that is on the increase.

City officials can’t provide adequate street lighting, transportation or road repairs. Abandoned houses proliferate far in excess of new construction. Property values are in free-fall.

Government is hamstrung with mounting deficits. Residents are taxed to the max. Resident, recipients of poor services, are discouraged and vote with their feet to escape the inhospitable environment.

The nonstop exodus of businesses and the out-migration the white and black working class further erode the city’s ability to collect taxes, pay its bills or identify new revenue streams to support services. Nothing in the city works well and nothing fuels more fear and paranoia than legitimate concerns about crime and violence occurring on Detroit’s mean streets.

The most conspicuous of Detroit’s staggering disabilities is an assembly of elected officials completely disconnected from fresh ideas, sound financial management or public policy. So it won’t matter that the mayor and City Council approved a consent agreement with the state to oversee the city’s financial restructuring. For that matter, had Gov. Rick Snyder opted to appoint an emergency manager, it too would not significantly alter the course of the city.

All relevant social and economic and indicators are trending downward, an ominous omen that Detroit will get substantially worse under the best scenario, before it gets marginally better.

Nor is it comforting that those holding public office are in large part a reflection of the people who elected them. This isn’t likely to change until the city welcomes a new class of resident and voters. And that won’t happen anytime soon.

But even if we concede that a leadership crisis can be a byproduct of democracy, it’s still painful to accept that Detroiters get no more and no less than they deserve.