Death of a city

City of Detroit

In 1996, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) used census trends to project that Detroit’s population would shrink from just over 1-million residents to 839,400 by 2020. SEMCOG, and the data it used, didn’t come close to predicting how far and fast Detroit would fall from respectability.

Mayor Dave Bing responded to Detroit’s population dip to 713,777 in 2010 from 951,270 in 2000 with a challenge to the Census Bureau to find a way to incorporate the homeless, illegal aliens, criminals and the poor, who really didn’t slip through the cracks, but who didn’t care to be either identified or counted.

Statistically massaging the city’s political geography, however, won’t stop the stampede across 8 Mile Rd. That requires the mayor and the City Council  coming to terms with the fact that population loss is a direct result of wrongheaded public policy, corruption and officeholders who have no realistic understanding how to create an environment where people want to call Detroit home.

In fact, contemporary Detroit – and I use the term lightly — is a world apart from the 1940s when the city was proudly known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” The 1950s were full of hope and progress as the automobile industry anchored entry into a thriving middle class.

The transformation from communities filled with promise to their current depleted state escalated in 1967 when Detroiters took to the streets to engage in one of the worst riots (civil disorder) of the decade. Cops, seen as an oppressive, occupying force were effectively handcuffed with the 1973 election of Coleman Young, the high profile civil rights-era mayor. Detroit subsequently became the “murder capital of America.”

In the 1970s, Detroit was still predominantly white when the city’s first black school superintendent was named. Although there was no black or white constituency for busing school children for the purpose of desegregation, the black leadership backed the court-ordered plan that fueled white flight and drained the city of wealth and talent. Today, overwhelmingly black Detroit is home to some of the worst performing schools in the nation.

A socialist and Black Nationalist dogma that prescribed race-based solutions for the city’s problems added to the self-inflicted destruction.  After rebuffing a revitalization strategy by corporate executives, Mayor Young declared that he wasn’t going to let a group of white businessmen from the suburbs tell him how to run his city. As such, he hung a shingle on City Hall that read: White investors need not apply. And they didn’t.

Through the ‘80s, grievance-driven social service providers came together for the purpose of lifting the downtrodden out of their miserable conditions. They siphoned for themselves millions of free-flowing city, state and federal dollars allotted to a variety of income transfer programs.

As public dollars dried up, these groups became less interested. The abandoned black underclass, no closer to the middle class or the American dream, was unwittingly victimized, not by a system of white oppression, but by a ruthless con job perpetrated by those who professed to save them.

Unknown-1The city’s greatest deficiency remains political leadership proficient only in high-pitched, empty rhetoric. Using command-and-control planning, the current cadre wants to build an expensive light rail system down an artery where few people live or work. It wants to relocate people from sparsely occupied sections of the city to areas that are rapidly being vacated.

The shell of a once-great city is still there. Missing is the substance. Burdened with high taxes and a loss of tax base, the city suffers from an unmanageable budget deficit, poor service delivery and abandoned buildings galore. A cogent, visible market-based development strategy is an afterthought.

Citizens justifiably see Detroit as the arena where political self-interest rules. Amidst the poverty, the top city elected official lives in a mansion and is chauffeured in a bulletproof luxury car. City Council members have bloated office budgets, perks and privileges to increase their electability. Although buses don’t run on time, members of the council drive city-funded cars that come with free gas, maintenance and insurance.

The exodus from the city is a crisis call to reckoning for the people that remain. Unless the policies and practices, the quality and integrity of their elected representatives substantially improve, cynicism and disaffection will hasten the exit of more Detroiters to a point beyond redemption.


5 thoughts on “Death of a city

  1. As a former Detroiter (and a person who comes to visit from his home in Texas (mainly to bury dead relatives) I read your article with great interest.

    Over the past week or so I have read 1000’s of words on the demise of Detroit and the failure of the political establishment (among others) to enact a sane and cogent strategy for reclaiming inner city growth. All are, to an extent, correct.

    But I’ve not read one article which even partially blames past city and state legislators for allowing a stifling ring of small communities which prohibit Detroit from growing and claiming extra-territorial tax base. Successful southern cities (excepting Dallas which some day may see similar problems to Detroit) have fewer restrictions on territorial annexation, as long as they preserve the racial and ethnic composition of the city (as hwaked over by the Justice Dept.).

    When is the last time Detroit tried to annex property to keep up with outmigration of ANY color to the suburbs. Sure, the 8 Mile is the general line of demarcation between the inner city and the burbs, but all you have to do is travel 3-4 miles north to find a plethora of fairly thriving, heterogeneous suburbs.

    The legislators who allowed the creation of all these small communities have blood on their hands with a vacant Detroit. Here in Houston, while NOT the ideal blueprint for a successful city, we nevertheless have the ability to annex (within reasonable limits) geographic areas that have a symbiotic relationship with the major city. It’s not perfect by any means but it’s working.

    But like a giant oak tree rimmed by a careless logger, Detroit is being suffocated in another significant fashion. Not having seen the figures, Id expect the Detroit metro area to still have well over 1.5 million residents. It’s DETROIT which is on the ropes.

    Houston, Tx.

  2. A lot of people and a lot of things have hurt Detroit in last 50 years, but maybe the biggest is the refusal to build a rail transit system. Rail transit builds density, vibrancy and walkability, and encourages preservation of older buildings (with their greater character), neighborhoods and business districts. See Boston, New York, San Francisco, DC, Chicago, Montreal, Vancouver, to some extent Philadelphia and New Orleans, Portland and Toronto. Rail makes cool, appealing places. Detroit has no rail, the Hudson’s Department Store building is demolished, Michigan Central Station is a ruin, the Renaissance Center is a fortification isolated from streets, hundreds of interesting buildings are gone, dozens of neighborhoods gone, and Detroit is definitely not cool.

  3. Mr. Johnson don’t forget the countless number of suburban addicts and johns who come to the city, do their thing and leave. Otherwise, I could not agree more with your assertions.

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