Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Failure of Detroit, and Why It Won't Happen Here

A story is told that one day in the 1950s the Mayor of Detroit, the Governor of Michigan, and heads of the "big three" automobile manufacturing companies, and the President of the United Automobile Workers union, sat around a table in Detroit -- rather like the "board room" scene in the 1972 motion picture, "The Godfather" -- and decided how everything would run in the "Motor City." The story is apocryphal, but more about it later.

So what about the Detroit bankruptcy? Many conservative and Republican friends are indulging in schadenfreude over the failure of the experiment in liberalism that has been Detroit under the seven mayors, all Democrats, who have governed since 1962. Personally, I think it is in extremely poor taste to rejoice over the prospect that workers may lose their pensions, creditors will go unpaid, and basic public safety services are largely suspended in a city of a 700,000 souls. Furthermore, the facts do not support that narrative.

Boston, at 625,000 is, in population, nearly the same size as Detroit. We've had Democratic Mayor since 1930. Our political climate is at least as liberal as Detroit's. Ah, but the difference is Detroit was dependent on one industry and when it declined, so did the city. But if that were the explanation, what about Pittsburgh. Like Boston and Detroit the city government is of the "strong mayor" type, and since 1934 those mayors have been Democrats. At 300,000 residents it's smaller, but, like Detroit, it was, for many years dependent largely on one industry, steel. When steel production declined, so did the city. However, Pittsburgh is recovering, due to private industry and government investment in the core city.

Three things differentiate Boston from Detroit.

1. Race. Whites were leaving Detroit for the suburbs starting with the post-World War II suburban boom. After the Black riots in the summer of 1967 White-flight accelerated. After 1967 much of the White population of Michigan was afraid to cross Eight Mile Road, the division between Detroit and the northern, White suburbs. By the 1980 U.S. Census, the population of Detroit was just 34 percent White. If White Michiganders had any interest in returning to Detroit, Mayor Coleman Young's response to the census numbers made it clear they were not wanted. He declared White-flight a good thing, saying something to the effect that they rest should leave too, because Detroit is Black city. Whites heeded the Mayor's advice. Detroit is now 11 percent White.

2. Sprawl. Boston has nearly the same population as Detroit, but Detroit is half-again as large, in terms of square miles, 143 square miles compared to 90. Even when Detroit, in 1950, had a population of 1.8 million, many of the residents lived in houses set on large lots that you'd expect to see in the suburbs. It was ever thus. I recall, in the 1980s, reading a book about the history of Detroit that mentioned that, even before the city boomed with the automobile industry, earlier, nineteenth century visitors commented that everything was so spread out in Detroit, compared to other towns.

3. Big, big, big. Even if the story that begins this essay isn't the literal truth, it explains much of the problem of Detroit. One big industry dominated. The Chairmen of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, along with the President of union, and a strong Mayor decided everything. That means that when mistakes were made they were colossal, and difficult to remedy. From the 1970s on there was talk of, but no significant action on, diversifying the economy. As educated people left the city the remaining population elected worse and worse Mayors.

Put those three factors together and it was just a matter of time before Detroit failed.