Detroit’s decades of decline

City of Detroit

It was difficult for the media to generate sustained interest in the announcement by the Kresge Foundation of its intent to kick in $150 million toward the Detroit Strategic Framework plan, modeled on Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works project. And it’s not surprising that public reaction was ho-hum, at best.

Detroiters have seen plenty of long- and short-term plans with promise that were either scrapped or rejected over the last 60 years. Some were even funded. And judging by the state of the city today, it is obvious that none came to fruition. The decades of decline  will only be reversed by immediate attention to the basics, not a far-flung blueprint for the future.

Not every effort on the drawing board is pie-in-the-sky. Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures is an active downtown renaissance participant. The latest potential acquisition by the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans is the 1001 Woodward Avenue office building, the 16th purchase of a downtown property by Gilbert’s company since 2011.

Gilbert deserves a pat on the back for putting his own money at risk to transform the city with information technology and knowledge as the prime economic drivers. But despite the fact that downtown Detroit is experiencing a mini-boon, cities typically are not defined by their skylines. A vibrant downtown, to some degree essential for a long-term recovery plan, does not a city make. Too many neighborhoods are being left behind.

To understand the history of the city, it’s important to acknowledge that since Detroit was built on the automotive industry, its transition into a new era has been particularly tumultuous. The city has been hit hard: population and income declines, poverty and unemployment increases, crime and social problems becoming more intense and intractable.

High taxation, declining services and education failure contributes to the city losing more than half its residents from a peak of almost 2 million – and most of its jobs, wealth and talent. For the city to succeed in this economic transition new skills, new strategies, new cooperation and new residents are imperatives.

abandoned houseDetroit historically was distinguished by its vibrant neighborhoods. Indeed, the city’s strength, diversity and vitality were all rooted in her neighborhoods, where community pride and cultures from all over the world were cherished and celebrated. Each neighborhood had its own personality and distinct appeal. That Detroit no longer exists.

Another contributor to the decline is city government, which has acted as if it were insulated from the powerful forces reshaping the regional and national economy. Confidence in government has been plummeting for decades.  The need to cut funding to meet the elusive goal of a balanced budget pressures elected officials to get the most bang for every taxpayer buck. Yet government can’t seem to find ways to downsize, consolidate or outsource to meet the demands of a city in transition. Its failings have made Detroit the poster child for inept government. Detroiters justifiably have a deep distrust and disgust with the way government fails to meet minimum but vital objectives.

That said, hats off to the Kresge Foundation for having a vision and a deep commitment to turn the city into a laboratory of experimentation and innovation. Unfortunately Detroit doesn’t have 50 years to complete the transition as projected by its plan.

Make no mistake, however. The Detroit recovery agenda for the future doesn’t begin with a diagram, it begins with providing hope and opportunity for those living in the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers with public safety necessities. That ultimately involves the prerequisite of a major infusion of cops to make streets safe today.

The role of government ultimately must be performance and product rather than process and perpetuation. There must be zero tolerance for waste, fraud and abuse. We can only hope that Kresge officials have the institutional courage to demand accountability from private-and public-sector customers – lest the future is abandoned to chaos.

2 thoughts on “Detroit’s decades of decline

  1. I live in the City of Houston. By and large, Houston was able to disrupt the decline in downtown by drawing back people who had vanished to the suburbs. What Houston has done is a model for other declining cities to follow. Simlply, making it attracrable in real estate living in downtown Houston. Attractable to businesses to services the masses returning in droves, living in and around downtown Houston. I don’t know how all it happened. By observation and I can see how some desolated areas are being rebuilt. To me that is a great feeling. Houston will become great again.
    Oh, by the way, I ws born in Detroit and despite its problems, Detroit is still my home town.

  2. Once again, Bill, I have to give you credit; you’re 90 percent on the mark. But if foundations like Kresge were a big part of the solution, wouldn’t Detroit be Nirvana by now? Think of all the foundations, charities and other non-profits that have poured heart, soul and money into Detroit over the last 50 years. And the $150 million Kresge has pledged is a drop in the bucket to what will be needed to transform Detroit and the region.

    Long-term city planners are even less significant. Remember that world-renowned Greek planner who blew into town years ago? He was certain that by now, Detroit would have grown northeasterly along the river and Lake St. Clair, making Mt. Clemens a metropolis. Read that plan again. It’s funnier than the Three Stooges.

    Over the decades, the auto elite have gradually moved production out of town, yet every year the local media grovel at their feet during the auto show. How do we get over that backward-looking mindset?

    How does the city attract more diversity when the Monica Conyers types are pointing out, loudly and resentfully, that the newcomers don’t look like them?

    In terms of the skilled workforce needed to staff all of the fantastic, new industry coming to town, are you going to rely on semi-literate, middle school dropouts? I don’t think so.

    As you say, Bill, it will take hope, opportunity, performance, product and accountability (and that’s just the short list) to get out of the hole. But before Detroiters start to climb out, they have to stop digging.

    — Jim Lang

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