The decline and decline of Detroit

The city of Detroit used to be one of the most dynamic in the United States, but it has suffered a steady decline over a period of 60 years and it has now filed for bankruptcy. Detroit is the US’s 18th most populous city and the largest by far to go into bankruptcy. The figures are shocking:

  • Detroit has long term debt of $18.5 billion (£12 billion).
  • In 1950, it was a city of 2 million but it is now home to about 700,000.
  • Since 2000, the unemployment rate has nearly tripled and is now more than double the national average.
  • Some 36% of Detroiters live below the poverty line.
  • The city’s murder rate is at the highest level in nearly 40 years.
  • It has been named one of the most dangerous cities in America for more than 20 years.
  • Citizens wait 58 minutes for the police to respond to calls compared with a national average of 11 minutes.
  • Only a third of ambulances were in service in the first quarter of 2013.
  • Around half of all the 85,000 street lights are out of service because thieves have stripped them for copper.
  • There are about 78,000 abandoned buildings in the city.
  • One third of its 140 square miles is vacant or derelict.

Clearly there has been industrial decline and municipal mismanagement on a large scale, but I can’t help feeling that the basic collapse of a major city in the world’s richest nation tells us something about the economic and political governance of the United States. Perhaps my American friends can shed some light on the appalling situation.


  • Art Shostak

    Detroit, much as in the case of an alchoholic, has had to fall to the rock bottom, and exhaust every possible excuse for its addictions, before it can begin the slow and costly climb back toward a semblance of urban normality. Ilusions concening ease of recovery have hampered all such efforts to date, and that phase is now, thankfully, past.

    Federal intervention, long made untenable by highly valued separation of levels of government, is now indispensable. Far too big to fall beyond its present state of bankruptcy Detriot can be expected to leverage emergency Federal aid and overdue municipal reforms to slowly improve key indicators of urban life – and in the spirit of regression to the mean, Detriot is likely over the next five to ten years to win plaudits for recovering.

  • Michael Grace

    I remember my first trip to Detroit some 30 years ago to attend a convention of the Communications Workers of America. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland had asked unions to hold conventions in Detroit to help the city and support the jobs of United Auto Workers. The auto industry and Detroit were in deep trouble even then.

    The glittering Renaissance Center, a skyscraper- hotel-convention-shopping complex built along the Detroit River by GM, had only been completed for a couple of years. The complex was developed to revitalize downtown Detroit. We had the convention there. We were warned not to walk more than a few blocks beyond the complex because of unsafe conditions. I rented a car for a day to drive around. Blocks and blocks looked like a war zone. This was around 1985.

    Detroit’s fate is inexorably tied to the health of the US auto industry which has downsized by hundreds of thousands of jobs. Race relations are among the worst in America here as southern whites and blacks migrated north for auto jobs and cultures collided. The vicious race riots of 1967 drove remaining whites out of the city. Detroit will survive by shrinking its geographic boundaries and with state aid (expect nothing from the federal government because the nation no longer has an urban policy.) But recovery will be slow and painful.

  • Nick

    I was astonished to learn that Detroit has had a Democratic mayor since 1962. Might that also be a factor in its decline?

  • Nick

    See also The Decline and Fall of Detroit.

  • Roger Darlington

    New York Magazine
    July 23, 2013

    How Detroit Really Is Like America
    By Jonathan Chait

    Detroit’s collapse into bankruptcy has been held up by conservatives as a synecdoche for America’s future under Barack Obama. In its literal sense, this is totally wrong — Detroit’s troubles are unique in their severity. In a broader sense, though, there is some truth here. Detroit is a synecdoche for America — not America’s future, but its past.

    Everything that happened in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century happened in and around Detroit, but moreso. The enormous mobilization of industry during World War II (“Detroit is winning the war,” said Joseph Stalin in 1945); that industry’s creation of the world’s first mass-affluent working class, a place where families lacking high school diplomas routinely had nice things; and finally the collapse of that economic paradise and the racialization of American politics that split the New Deal coalition.

    The 1967 riots were an event so traumatic they still hovered over the city when I grew up there in the eighties. The city burned down, and kept burning for years and years. The owners of its huge stock of abandoned, worthless properties would set arson fires, usually using the cover of “Devil’s Night,” a night-before-Halloween folk holiday of pranks and vandalism that as a kid I thought was observed everywhere but turns out to be mainly a Detroit thing. The city would have hundreds of fires of Devil’s Night, up to 800 a year at its peak.

    Ze’ev Chafets, a native of the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, borrowed “Devils Night” for the title of his 1991 book about the city and its political culture. He compared Detroit to a liberated colony, whose politics was defined by continued resentment of the departed white occupier. White and black politics were locked into mutually reinforcing pathologies. Whites fled the city, blamed blacks for its destruction and, in many cases, gloated in its failures. Hostility toward the white suburbs shaped Detroit’s politics, which frequently amounted to race-to-the-bottom demagogic contests to label the opposing candidate a secret tool of white interests, with the predictable result on the quality of government. The worse Detroit got, the more whites hated and feared, fueling black racial paranoia, which made the city worse still. (Some national commentators recently suggested that Mitt Romney be brought in to turn around the city, which is a bit like suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu would make a great Prime Minister for the Palestinians — hey, he’s from around there!)

    In the mid-eighties, political scientist Stanley Greenberg traveled to Macomb County, a largely white, blue-collar Detroit suburb, which was also an epicenter of “Reagan Democrats,” who had abandoned the party. What he discovered was that these voters had come to see most all of politics through a racial prism. The Democratic message of economic fairness meant, to them, taking from whites and giving to blacks. Bill Clinton adapted Greenberg’s findings into a national persona — a “different kind of Democrat,” who was tough on crime, and who would “end welfare as we knew it” — that could rebuild a trans-racial Democratic coalition.

    Detroit had one of the most racially segregated housing patterns in the country. I never recall hearing or seeing any expressions of anti-black racism, but this was probably because African-Americans were just so few on the ground. Paul Feig, who grew up in Macomb County, created Freaks and Geeks, a brilliant cult classic about a suburban Detroit high school in the early eighties, which captures the racial dynamic we experienced pretty well.

    I grew up in Oakland County in the eighties. Many of my classmates’ parents forbade them from venturing south of 8 Mile Road, the Detroit city boundary, when they got their drivers’ license. Even those of us under no such restriction felt little pull toward the city. If you weren’t going to a Tiger or Red Wings game (the Lions and Pistons already having relocated to the suburbs), going to the city, going to Detroit was more an act of civic boosterism — charity, almost — than something you did for fun. It wasn’t, Let’s go to such-and-such, in Detroit!, but, Let’s go to Detroit! What should we do there?

    The city has been in decline for so long that its residents, or the suburbanites not cheering for its failure, always assumed it had to have hit bottom. Ten years ago, while visiting my parents, I attended an improv comedy show infused with booster-ish cheering for the city’s new mayor, who the actors celebrated half-ironically as “black Jesus.” It didn’t work out so well. The Renaissance center — the hoped-for catalyst for Detroit’s rebirth — started in 1971.

    The bitter racial polarization of the seventies and eighties did not disappear, but it receded into the background. Jennifer Granholm, the governor of Michigan, elected in 2002, embraced a message of reconciliation. (“The only thing that should come between Detroit and Michigan is a comma.”) Barack Obama won Macomb County, prompting Greenberg to declare the epoch over. But the crisis of the city of Detroit itself only deepened. White flight had petered out by 1990 — virtually all the whites had left the city by then — but the flight of the black middle class only accelerated.

    Detroit’s crisis began as primarily a racial problem, but it has long since ceased to be one. You simply can’t maintain a municipal economic base consisting mostly of very poor people, who can’t afford to pay much tax and who require high levels of government services. The functionality of government — its capacity to do basic things like light the streets, deploy firefighters and police, send ambulances — teeters close to anarchy. Compounding matters is the fact that Detroit was already one of the most spread-out cities in America at its peak, when three times as many people lived in it as they do today.

    It’s hard to imagine any plausible way to pull the city out of its death spiral. New jobs would help, but there’s nothing compelling the workers who got those jobs to reside in the city. The conventional urban policy solutions never intersected with the reality of Detroit’s crisis. As Ed Glaeser points out, urban renewal centered on furnishing housing and transportation, both of Detroit had in excessive quantities. The city needed better governance and education. The major renewal project of my youth was the “People Mover.” It was initially conceived as a light rail project to connect the suburbs to the city, a massively expensive undertaking in a huge area with abundant freeways. It shrunk to a small downtown monorail loop. It became a stop on the downtown field trip, for suburban schoolkids — you’d visit the art museum, eat lunch in Greektown, ride a loop on the monorail, and pile back into the schoolbus. The People Mover operates at about 2 percent of its planned capacity. The People Mover is a relic to a time when it was possible to imagine a simple construction project could save the city. The sorts of solutions imaginative reformers contemplate today are vastly more radical.

    Detroit is not the future of the United States. It is the residual wound of the rise and fall of postwar America, the place where the egalitarian economy was born, and it where also died.


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