The city of Detroit is $18 billion in debt and has filed for bankruptcy. There are two main groups of creditors: public employees and retirees, who may lose a large portion of their pensions, and bond holders. City residents will also likely suffer from a lack of any but the most rudimentary public services for a long time. They are, of course, used to it, for Detroit has been a basket case for several decades.
However, back in the 1950s some writers referred to Detroit (albeit hyperbolically) as the Paris of the Midwest. The auto industry was flourishing, and it created an affluent working class whose average income was 150 percent of the national one. Detroit was a boom town where white and black families who lacked high school diplomas could live decently and own their own homes. For blacks it had special significance. They saw it as the Promised Land, a city that provided jobs and escape from Southern poverty and virulent racism. But even in its halcyon years, Detroit had its share of corruption, crime, and racial tension.
Many reasons have been offered for Detroit’s precipitous decline. Two prime ones were the continued collapse of American manufacturing and the 1960s riots that burned down sections of the city and accelerated white flight to the suburbs, which gradually destroyed the city’s tax base. Leaving a city populated mostly by poor people made recovery almost impossible.
In a new book, "Detroit: An American Autopsy" (The Penguin Press), Charlie LeDuff, a white journalist raised in suburban Detroit, vividly and painfully captures the everyday hell of life in the city. Leduff himself came from a family that seemed to embrace self-destruction. His sister was a teenage runaway and sometime streetwalker who died a too-early death; her daughter died of a heroin overdose, years later; and his brothers were high school dropouts.
Given his familial history, LeDuff is a writer who is not frightened of extremity; in fact he seems to relish it a bit too much. In his Detroit -- the country’s poorest and one of the most crime- and fear-ridden cities -- there have been 11,000 unsolved homicides since 1960. Many police cars and fire trucks don’t function, so city life turns to anarchy. The city has 70,000 abandoned buildings and 60,000 empty lots, tons of uncollected garbage, 20,000 homeless people, and to top it off, it is the country’s "illiteracy and dropout capital."
Leduff has found his subject, and his reportage is merciless when dealing with black politicians like "the Hip Hop" mayor, the inept, totally corrupt Kwame Kirkpatrick who was forced to resign and went to jail. In Leduff’s trenchant words: "It was as sad as it was appalling: a black city in which the most prominent leader plundered, pillaged and lied, all the while presenting himself as its guardian angel against the White Devil." Obviously, Detroit’s politicians don’t have a monopoly on incompetence, corruption, and playing the race card. But I know how LeDuff feels.
It enrages me all the more when I see the most powerless and impoverished constituencies ripped off by their uncaring, often high-living representatives, who do nothing more than collect their paycheck and some kickbacks. LeDuff’s vision of a "toxic" Detroit may be over-dramatized and slightly unbalanced, but the city defies being described in a dispassionate and controlled voice.
He doesn’t try to provide a sophisticated analysis of the origins of the city’s decline, but he does know that "the disappearance of car jobs, and the raping of the middle class by Wall Street" played a role. However, what LeDuff, who can write that the city "was breaking my heart" and "driving me insane" unforgettably leaves us with, are visceral images of Detroit’s dysfunction and desolation.
A more complex analysis if a less personal and gritty treatment of Detroit’s crisis can be found in the updated edition of Dan Georgakas’ and Marvin Surkin’s "Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution" (South End Press). The preface of the book partially blames the United Auto Workers union (UAW) for what occurred. According to the authors, the union was "unwilling to plan for the future beyond preserving as much as possible of what is already in hand" -- protecting existing and retired workers.
Also, Detroit’s power elite predictably responded to the 1967 riots with luxury housing, an expanded sports arena, and a state-of-the-art hotel and office complex, the Renaissance Center, which was intended to attract conventions and tourists but turned out to be a monumental failure. It was typical of the blinkered responses that failed to address the breakdown of Detroit’s city services and infrastructure. For the authors, the prime responsibility for Detroit’s crisis lies with the nation’s corporate elite, who are no longer bound by any restraints on their profit-making, while "they build their new factories overseas and take an ever increasing share of the national wealth."
We can list many reasons for the apocalyptic state of present-day Detroit, but it will be hard to salvage a city that one of LeDuff’s favorite homicide detectives says is "a dead city." There are things that can be done, despite reflexive Republican opposition, if the political will and imagination exists -- such as rebuilding schools, roads, and neighborhoods with federal aid or through some form of regionalization. But it is doubtful that it will ever happen.
Still, I am not so pessimistic as to view Detroit as the future for most American cities. Nonetheless, it’s a portent that many Americans, urban and rural, are living close to the edge.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org