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Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

Can Detroit Be Saved?

The problems of Detroit are in part problems of national policy that has allowed cities to fall to the bottom of the priority list for the last forty years. Following a burst of spending on community development and social services in the 1960s and early 1970s, federal urban spending steadily fell as President Gerald Ford told cities to “drop dead,” Jimmy Carter focused on an anti-inflation agenda, Ronald Reagan reduced federal urban spending from 12 percent to 3 percent of the budget, and the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations followed suit by doing little to create new jobs or to support impoverished neighborhoods.™!

Any strategy for solving Detroit’s problems, however, requires the integration of city resources with the affluent surrounding suburbs in a form of regional reorganization and centralized planning that would serve the needs of all. Remapping Debate, a bimonthly online publication on public policy, devoted four issues to Detroit in 2011-2012, analyzing proposals since the 1970s that deal with the city’s ongoing and accelerating crisis of a shrinking population and eroding tax base. Its author, Mike Alberti, forcefully argues that any solution has to address the suburbs as well as the city.102 Steadily declining for the last half century, Detroit’s 2010 population of 713,000 is the lowest since 1910 and less than half the mid-century high point of 1.85 million in 1950. Interim census estimates indicate that this figure has already shrunk by 26,000, to 687,000.103 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Detroit’s population fell by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010 alone, the largest decline in any large American city except for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Even the dead are exhumed from Detroit cemeteries and relocated at a rate of three hundred bodies per year. Of the nearly 83 percent of black Detroit residents, a quarter are unemployed, less than 12 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree, and the 40 percent who live below the poverty level represent the highest percentage among the nation’s seventy-seven largest cities.™4 Detroit has the lowest per capita income in the nation, at just over $15,000, while the median household income in the wealthy northern suburb of Bloomfield Hills is more than $i25,000.™5 Based on FBI statistics released in September 2013, Detroit also has the nation’s highest crime rate among cities of two hundred thousand or more, followed by Oakland, St. Louis, Memphis, Stockton, Birmingham, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Milwaukee.™6

The result is that property taxes are continually raised as the tax base declines along with the taxable value of those properties. At the same time, the state has dramatically reduced funding to the city while the need for services, such as police, fire, trash pickup, maintenance, and lighting, in all i39 square miles of the city, continues. The primary way in which Detroit has grappled with its deficit is by issuing bonds, which are below investment grade and have high borrowing and debt-service costs. “Right-sizing” has been one of the proposed solutions, which would uproot, dispossess, and consolidate the city’s residents. A study from the Equality of Opportunity Project led by economists at Harvard and Berkeley suggests that America has more of an entrenched class system than other advanced nations, finding a strong correlation between high or low social mobility and residential segregation by class— that is, where different social classes live far apart, the ability of the poor to rise is significantly limited. City sprawl and ineffective public transportation simply strands workers without cars and families without multiple cars, while compact centers with access to public transit promote equality of opportunity. However, right-sizing, if it were to occur, must be done with the needs and interests of residents foremost, making it an expensive undertaking that would require improved housing for displaced residents. Moreover, it would need to be combined with reforms that would integrate Detroit into the regional economy, including the creation of a regional transit system. Otherwise, consolidation would run the risk of isolating the city even more while further


oppressing its citizens.

Although cities such as Indianapolis, Portland, Louisville, Nashville, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have successfully put in place some form of regional government or regional tax sharing, strong resistance from both suburban and city officials in the Detroit metro area has prevented any kind of tax-sharing plan. This makes Detroit one of the most polarized regions in the country, segregated by race and class. A regional master plan, first proposed in the 1970s, would have been especially beneficial for housing and transportation policy; with an economic and land-use plan, it could have arrested the deindustrialization of the city by incorporating the new factories built in the suburbs after the war. Instead, investment went to the richer part of the region, making those suburbs wealthy while poverty in Detroit greatly intensified.108

Moreover, from the 1930s onward, public schools were segregated, and federal housing and transportation policies encouraged white home owners and employers to defend neighborhood segregation. To address the effects of desegregation, in 1972 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued the state and the school board in federal district court in a case entitled Milliken v. Bradley, arguing that the state and school board had deliberately kept the school system segregated. While the district court found in favor of the NAACP, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling on appeal, perversely arguing that there were no housing segregation violations in segregated communities, while integrated communities faced mandatory desegregation. One justice even asserted that housing segregation was caused by “unknown and unknowable causes.”™9

The effect was enormous, making it nearly impossible to desegregate northern white metropolitan areas, which, by keeping blacks out, avoided mandatory desegregation of schools. The ruling instead provided incentive for white families to leave Detroit and many whites abandoned the city for the suburbs to avoid integration. John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University, asserts, “Everybody thinks that it was the riots that caused the white families to leave. Some people were leaving at that time but, really, it was after Milliken that you saw mass flight to the suburbs.”!™ After that, positions became hardened and there was little advocacy or appetite for a regional tax-base sharing system, which could have pooled new revenue for use in the entire region. Such a system would not have prevented industry from moving to the open- shop South, but it would have mitigated the structural problems of the city, including loss of taxes and city services, segregation in housing and schools, and the resulting decline in quality of life, while encouraging diversification and decreased reliance on the auto industry.m Neoliberal capitalism, which established itself in the 1970s, exacerbates problems that began long before.

The separate city and suburban narratives settled into opposing perspectives, which Alberti succinctly summarizes: “Historically, both Detroit and its suburbs have viewed efforts at regional cooperation with hostility: the suburbs have long been wary of regional tax policy proposals, because they see them as attempts to use suburban money to subsidize Detroit; the city, on the other hand, has tended to see proposals for regional governance as schemes aimed at diluting its political power.”112 However, a regional tax policy could be based on new growth only; it could take the form of a percentage of revenue from taxes on new growth from each municipality; in this way, growth anywhere in the region would benefit the entire region. It would also require the lingering segregation barriers to come down and a regional transportation system to be built so that people could get to jobs anywhere in the region. The alternative of further cutting labor costs and reducing services only contributes to the downward spiral of the city.”3

As most cities and states face huge deficits, they are legally prohibited from deficit spending, increasing the miseries of city and state populations. To make matters worse, the tax on employers to pay jobless benefits has fallen by 40 percent due to tax-cut policies supported by business lobbies and state governments competing for investments. This means that states are increasingly unable to pay jobless benefits, requiring cash infusions from the federal government while exposing the increasing irrationality of the entire system and the increasingly meaningless separation between city and suburb. Following this path, the prognosis for Detroit and other declining cities, such as Laredo, Camden, Dayton, Miami, and Cincinnati, looks grim, with chronic economic crises, at best, as the operative status quo even as the corporations and banks grow wealthier. Without major political and economic transformations, the ruination of Detroit may serve as the bellwether for the economic health of cities across the nation because the devastating effects of deindustrialization and privatization, racism, poverty, and the continuing explosive growth of social inequality cannot be resolved under the current economic system but only managed as a series of continuing crises in an attempt to avoid total collapse.

A successfully reorganized economy based on central planning ultimately would have to be calibrated on a national scale. In Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution, David Harvey asserts the need to “claim the right to the city” (following Henri Lefebvre) as an important demand in its own right and as a political way station on the road to a much broader anticapitalist movement.”4 Historically, the city functions as the critical site of political action and revolt—from the Paris Commune of 1871 and the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint (supported by the unemployed and neighborhood organizations) to Tahrir Square in Cairo; Madison, Wisconsin; Plaza del Sol in Madrid; and Syntagma Square in Athens as a few recent examples. These are the cracks in the system that offer moments of opportunity for revolutionary organizing. Unless spontaneous protest movements are organized on an anticapitalist platform, however, they will quickly fade away or be reabsorbed into dominant capitalist practices, and a tiny elite will continue to shape the city according to its own needs and desires, protecting its assets while subjecting the collective to the ongoing urban processes of displacement, decline, and dispossession. And unless an anticapitalist drive is consolidated at a general scale, it will lapse back at the state level into constitutional reformism that can do little more than reconstitute capitalist competition under regimes that may be as bad or even worse than before (as we have seen, for example, in Egypt). Claiming the right to the city begins with the reasonable demands for decent housing, jobs, food security, transportation, and access to education and health care, but realizing just these basic demands will ultimately require systemic reorganization.

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