It’s easy to get lost in the sea of staggeringly disturbing numbers coming out of Detroit.
The best estimates put Detroit’s debt around $18 billion. There isn’t enough money in city coffers to run buses in many neighborhoods after 8 p.m., according to city financial reports. Forty percent of the city’s streetlights don’t work. The average emergency-response time for police is a stunning 58 minutes.
But beyond the big debt and municipal dysfunction, the story of Detroit is one to which a growing group of historians, municipal financial analysts, economists and urban-management experts argue that America, particularly black America, ought to pay close attention.
Detroit’s downfall is not just the story of a once-great American city brought to its knees by global economic forces, mismanagement, corruption and unsustainable levels of debt. Nor is the Motor City’s financial mess unique. Cities around the nation are struggling with their own crises of debt, vacancy and physical decline that will make it hard to sustain workforces, pay retirees and foster the kinds of schools, businesses and institutions that once made Detroit a center of economic, political and artistic opportunity for working-class Americans.
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What happens in the effort to save or at least salvage Detroit could eventually shape the lives of people living in major cities across the country, economists and historians say.
To understand the depths of Detroit’s decline, you first have to look at the Motor City’s past, said Kevin Gaines, a University of Michigan historian.
“Detroit was once the greatest of American cities,” Gaines said. “It was a place where working people, ordinary people, could achieve the good life.”
For Detroit, a community founded 313 years ago, industry has long been its lifeblood, Gaines said. First auto manufacturing and later, during World War II, the work of creating war equipment and munitions led to successive waves of people streaming into Detroit.
The city quickly became a leading front on the battle to organize labor and make the promise of universal civil rights real, Gaines said. But African-Americans who arrived seeking safety, freedom and economic opportunities not available in the Jim Crow South faced so many struggles with housing, political representation and access to public resources in Detroit that the city erupted in riots in the 1940s and 1960s.
Detroit built once-legendary public schools and attracted the talent and resources that created not just iconic American cars but also distinctive African-American music and companies such as Motown Records.
City government and control remained all-white into the 1970s, Gaines said. There was little interest in distributing the spoils of public power – or the resources that keep cities clean, safe and generally livable – to overwhelmingly black sections of Detroit.
The situation stoked racial tension and nurtured the seeds of massive white flight to nearby suburbs when the city elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974. As Detroit’s city government and population became overwhelmingly black and affiliated with the Democratic Party, both the population and politics of surrounding suburbs, the state government and Congress moved in the opposite direction.
Around the same time, Motown Records decamped to Los Angeles. The city’s suburbs grew far more populous than Detroit itself, and auto-manufacturing job losses and growing commercial and residential vacancies became increasingly common, reaching what seemed to be a series of crisis points.
What’s happened in Detroit is widely understood as a function of mismanagement, incompetence, corruption, and excessively generous wages and benefits demanded by greedy unions, said Thomas Sugrue, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 1996 book “The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.”
But Detroit is also the nation’s largest majority-black city, and one where city government has, since 1974, been dominated by African-Americans. So the popular understanding of what went wrong and is wrong in Detroit has also been shaped and understood through the lens of race, said Sugrue.
“Is Detroit really any worse than Chicago in terms of municipal corruption? No,” said Sugrue. “In fact, there are lots of other cities that have similar, even deeper, histories of mismanagement and corruption than Detroit. But if you were to just go to a shopping mall in one of Detroit’s northern suburbs, just right outside of town, and ask about Detroit’s decline, you would get corruption and mismanagement or, ‘It was great until Coleman Young became mayor.’”
Detroit’s downfall began at least 60 years ago with de-industrialization, the decline of the auto industry and depopulation, which destroyed Detroit’s tax base, said Andrew Reschovsky, a public affairs and applied-economics professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty.
Other cities have already come very close to the financial edge, including Philadelphia, Cleveland and, perhaps most spectacularly, New York, said Sugrue. But each time, some combination of state, federal and regional financial bailouts made a critical difference.
In most cases, the kind of racialized tension that exists between Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, Michigan and Congress wasn’t there. That tension and the prevailing political climate that opposes public spending and advocates for government workforce to be slashed make any kind of sharing of the burden anathema.
On Wednesday, when President Barack Obama made what the White House billed as a major speech outlining his ideas on ways to jump-start the economy to benefit the middle class, Obama did not mention Detroit’s woes.
“The problems in Detroit were a long time in the making,” Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told MSNBC hours after Obama’s economic speech. “The president’s vision . . . will help prevent future problems like the ones we have seen in Detroit. The Obama administration is in contact with the authorities in Michigan. We are monitoring the situation, but fundamentally this is a situation between Detroit and its creditors.”
To fix Detroit, the city’s emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr – an African-American bankruptcy attorney appointed to take hold of the city’s finances by the state’s white Republican governor, Rick Snyder – has indicated that the city will work during the bankruptcy process to secure agreements from investors, employees and its retired workers to take less money than has been previously promised. Some city services may also be cut back or eliminated; others will be enhanced to get the city back to a more functional state.
“What may come next, the new cuts, will have tremendous ramifications for African-Americans,” said Margaret Simms, a fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Simms points out that wealthier Americans can hire extra security, lawn and street-maintenance crews or build their own backyard pools. But African-Americans – who on average earn less and have less money or other assets that they can depend on in times of crisis – frequently cannot.
So any cuts in city services – everything from police and fire to the decision to mow city medians less frequently – will likely be more visible, and their effects more severe, in Detroit communities where mostly African-American residents live, Simms said.
Detroit may also trim city staff and slash the pensions that it pays retirees, already growing trends across the nation.
“Listen, the ideas out there – the stuff that is supposed to fix Detroit – will, on a local level, create enormous pain and involve truly painful cuts,” said Steven Kreisberg, a collective-bargaining director for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, a government-workers union based in Detroit. “We’re talking about taking the final steps to just decimate Detroit. But we’re also talking about a set of ideas that, should they spread, will undermine really essential American ideas, the few opportunities for a decent life, a secure retirement and thriving communities where those of us who were not born rich are included.”
And, Sugrue warned, if Detroit’s cost-cutting measures gain traction and government-job cuts continue, the already-shrinking black middle class will be in serious danger. Government jobs remain an essential source of employment for black men and women. In many major cities, these are some of the few jobs that offer benefits, security and middle-class wages.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that if what is happening in Detroit spreads to other cities and the current trend of public-sector job cuts continues, the very existence of the black middle class itself is in peril.”
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due out next year. She wrote this for The Root, an online source of commentary from a variety of black perspectives.