Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Dramatically Disappearing Detroit
DAY 14 OF 46
Yo! Will the last person to leave Detroit please turn off the lights?
If the electricity hasn't already been disconnected, that is.
This morning, the U.S. Census announced that within the past decade, Motor City's population shrank 25%; a loss of 238,270 people in just ten years. Which puts the population of Detroit at 713,777 in 2010, down from 951,270 in 2000, and 1.8 million in 1950, when it was the country's fifth-largest city. Motown is now smaller than Fort Worth, Texas.
If you're doing the math, Detroit has lost over 1 million people in the relatively short span of 60 years. More than half the population it ever had. In a stunning coda to what can only be described as the utter failure of a community which, in its prime, literally shaped the landscape of the industrialized world.
True, the automobile itself wasn't invented in Detroit. But if Henry Ford hadn't invented the assembly line there, the automobile revolution might never have happened. Or at least, not in Detroit. And if not for the automobile revolution, freeways would never have been invented. Suburbs would probably have never been invented, and the post-World-War-Two transformation of American society from city apartments to roomy split-levels with two-car garages would have looked completely different.
Dreary - On a Good Day
After my brother and his family moved to suburban Detroit several years ago, he took me on a grand tour of what's left of downtown Detroit. We drove by the towering, pock-marked Michigan Central Station, and through downtown's desolate streetscapes. Most of the office buildings betray dreary neglect from years of standing empty in Detroit's grueling weather. Some even had trees growing out of roofs, and through broken windows. Although downtown's streets and sidewalks are clean and traffic flows freely, that's because hardly anybody goes down there anymore.
The city's tallest office tower, One Detroit Center, was built in 1993 for Comerica Bank, which, just a couple of years ago, relocated its corporate headquarters to Dallas. It seems to be the typical scenario for Detroit, and Michigan as a whole: businesses just don't want to stay, even with new facilities.
As far back as the 1970's, Detroit's decline had sparked the development of another ambitious project downtown. Then, it was a Ford heir who spearheaded the multi-use Renaissance Center along the riverfront. Ford eventually sold his interests in the confection of tubular glass towers which, through a contrivance of public funding, became the headquarters for General Motors long before it got its government bailout. Ren-Cen, as the office and hotel complex is called, squats on the water's edge, anchoring what's left of downtown Detroit to the riverbank, like a stone trying to prevent the city from falling overboard.
The Incredible Shrinking City
Of course, much has been made regarding the very public demise of Detroit. After all, you can't hide the decrepitude resulting from a city losing over a million people over six decades.
Some people blame the Japanese, whose reliable cars decimated the Big Three's market share when Americans figured out Pintos shouldn't explode into fireballs just because they get rear-ended. Others blame Detroit's lucrative welfare system, which like socialized entitlement programs across the United States, has created and reinforced a particularly crude iteration of institutionalized poverty. Then there's Michigan's notorious weather, absurd tax structure, and militant unions. Not to mention a corrupt political machine which has ravaged Detroit's finances.
Some of these factors deserve more blame than others for causing Detroit to emplode, but I suspect another vile menace has been at play, even before the city's eroding socioeconomic fabric became manifest.
Consider this little factoid from PBS' video series on Detroit's race riots. Not in the 1960's, but in 1943:
By the 1940s Detroit already had a long history of racial conflict. Race riots had occurred in 1863 and as recently as 1941. By the 1920s the city had become a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization committed to white supremacy. The industrial plants provided jobs but not housing. White communities militantly guarded the dividing lines imposed by segregation throughout Detroit's history.
During the 1940's through the early 1960's, more and more blacks moved to Michigan from the South for auto plant jobs that whites thought were theirs. Detroit's whites who didn't want to live next-door to blacks bailed to the pristine suburbs, lured in part by the very automobile culture their city had spawned.
However, as whites left Detroit, starting in the late 1950's, the Big Three had already begun spreading their manufacturing base beyond Michigan, so job growth in metro Detroit began to stagnate. The tension only fueled white flight, a phenomenon that went white hot after the destructive riots of 1967.
Racism Can Run Both Ways
Indeed, just as racism isn't only a southern problem, it's not only whites who perpetrate it. These days, black racism against whites has solidified Detroit's decay. The vacuum created by white flight left voids in all aspects of city life, particularly in the public schools. Blacks came to despise whites for leaving, just as whites despised blacks for coming to begin with. By the time white leaders from the suburbs became alarmed at the appalling state of their urban core, black leaders in Detroit wouldn't listen to them or take their advice on anything.
Eventually, corrupt black-centric Detroit politics and the Democratic machine put Coleman Young in power, and through his ineptitude, the city pretty much finished itself off. Middle-class blacks who were holding out hope for better times, staying behind in Detroit's languishing neighborhoods on principle, began realizing that they couldn't sacrifice their safety and their childrens' education any longer, and they steadily moved out to the suburbs.
Detroit's legendary stores and hotels closed up shop, companies relocated to the suburbs or southern states, and the city's tax base shriveled up. Crime rates soared, corruption ran rampant through city government, and the city pretty much broke down. The few pockets of white and black elites left in the grand mansions along the city's prettiest boulevards became bizarre outposts of privilege in a desert of urban blight.
Even middle-class blacks who escaped Detroit during the last 30 years to the suburbs are getting fed up with all of the marginally-educated, socially-deviant, minimum-wage blacks now fleeing the remains of Detroit. The new generation of blacks that have grown up in this dysfunctional city may share the same skin color, but that's about it. Surprisingly, as suburban blacks begin to protest a new influx of city blacks seeking life beyond Motown, racism seems to have run its course.
Classism May Now Nail the Lid
In an unprecedented twist, the situation evolving in suburban Detroit today isn't so much a problem of racism any more as it is classism. MSNBC actually posted a piece last week talking about how middle-class blacks in Detroit's close-in suburbs are moving further away, themselves fleeing the neo-ghetto blacks which are moving in from Detroit, now that the foreclosure crisis has made modest suburban homes ludicrously affordable.
Even the black family my nephews and niece carpooled with back and forth to school moved to a nicer subdivision one town further away to avoid the dubious class of blacks coming in from the inner city.
So, as the crisis that is Detroit evolves from the blistering wounds of racism to the crusty scabs of classism, little comfort can be wrenched from the city's new population statistics. It's difficult to blame suburban blacks for not wanting to live next-door to the current crop of Detroit refugees. It's not like most of the people left in Detroit have the marketable skills that can lift them into the productive middle class. It's not like the gritty, survivalist thug culture these Detroiters have slapped together for themselves will translate well into life outside Motor City. Or, for that matter, even the plans some have for propping up what remains of the urban core: trendy havens of new urbanism among the ruins that Gen-X'ers love, or the semi-rural utopia some dreamers propose for those swaths of dormant space between the city's crumbling freeways.
I could play the role of hard-nosed right-wing Republican and point out that the Detroit we're faced with today is the direct result of every imaginable liberal fallacy: unions, welfare, Section 8 housing, political machines, anti-white vitriol, bureaucratic incompetence, affirmative action, taxation, and social promotion. Although these elements do share varying levels of culpability, there's even more to it, isn't there?
Detroit was built for convenience, located as it is near vital waterways and the crossroads of America's Northeast and Midwest. Not to mention most of Canada's population. Founded in 1701, the city experienced modest success as a trading port until the continent's expansion westward, coupled with the Industrial Revolution, began to validate it's geographic importance. Detroit grew rapidly after the turn of the 20th Century, climaxing, as we now know, in the 1950's.
However, unlike some other old American cities that figured out how to diversify and re-invent themselves as the country's fortunes waxed and waned, Detroit pretty much flamed-out over the manufacture of transportation equipment - not only cars, but planes and other vehicles, too. Adding to that flame-out was the searing racism that never wanted to let go of the city's soul. The additional baggage of liberals in denial - plus all of the social programming and suffocating taxation which came along with that denial - prevented Detroit from recovering and catching itself amidst its free-fall.
Today's Census numbers confirm a portrait of bleakness which both liberals and conservatives have been painting for the past 60 years. This means we should all be able to learn a lesson from the legacy of Detroit.
If that sounds like I'm nailing down the lid on the Motor City's coffin, you hear me correctly. Aside from deploying a fleet of bulldozers to consolidate the city's redundant infrastructure, shrinking its crippled political boundaries, performing a mass lobotomy on the entitlement group-thinkers at city hall, and conducting a cultural reindoctrination program for its gangsta-loving residents, I'm thinking we're hoping for too much to change for the better.
But then, what do I know? If the people still in Detroit will use this Census data as incentive to finally take responsibility for the future of their hometown, I wouldn't mind being proven wrong.
I just don't think Michigan's taxpayers should keep paying the light bill.