Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? by Pete Saunders

[ In this post, Detroit native Pete Saunders pulls no punches in assigning the ultimate blame for Detroit’s demise. You can read more of his work at his web site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]

Thou wouldst fain destroy the temple! If thou be Jesus, Son of the Father, now from the Cross descend thou, that we behold it and believe on thee when we behold it. If thou art King over Israel, save thyself then!

God, My Father, why has thou forsaken me? All those who were my friends, all have now forsaken me. And he that hate me do now prevail against me, and he whom I cherished, he hath betrayed me.

Lyric excerpts from the Fifth and Fourth and Words, respectively, of the Seven Last Words of Christ orchestral work by Joseph Haydn.

I’m pissed.

Ever since the announcement late Thursday that the City of Detroit was indeed going to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection, the Internet has been overflowing with commentary on the matter. The commentary has come from all places and taken on by all comers – from the political left and right; from hard news and general interest sources. And all usually with the same scripted and lazy tripe about how Detroit reached its nadir:

  • Single-minded dependence on a collapsing auto industry doomed Detroit.
  • An inability to diversify economically doomed Detroit.
  • Public mismanagement and political corruption doomed Detroit.
  • An inability to effectively deal with its racial matters doomed Detroit.
  • The dramatic and total loss of its tax base doomed Detroit.

That’s it, people, they seem to reason. The Motor City’s fall from grace is as simple as that. You do the things Detroit did, and you get what Detroit got. You defer decisions just as Detroit did, and you too will suffer the consequences. The speed with which the various articles on Detroit came out proved to me that many writers anticipated the announcement with at least a twinge of glee.

As I’ve written before, Detroit’s narrative serves everyone else as the nation’s whipping boy, and that came through in the last couple of days:

You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can even find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

But let’s leave that aside. I’m pissed because no one seems to acknowledge the central reason Detroit is filing for bankruptcy now. It has endured abandonment – white flight abandonment – on an absolutely epic scale. Before there was auto industry collapse, before there was a lack of economic diversity, before there was mismanagement and corruption, there was abandonment. People skirt and dance around the issue when they talk about the loss of Detroit’s tax base. What Detroit lost was its white people. The chart above illustrates how Detroit’s unique experience when compared to similar cities.

Detroit is what happens when the city is abandoned. And frankly, there is a part of me that views those that abandoned Detroit with the same anger reserved for hit-and-run drivers – they were the cause of the accident, they left the scene of the crime, and they left behind others to clean up the mess and deal with the pain. What’s worse, so many observers seem to want to implicate those left behind – in Detroit’s case a large African-American majority community – for not cleaning up the mess or easing the pain. Their inflicted pain which they’ve made ours.

White abandonment of Detroit did not start with the 1973 election of Coleman Young as mayor, or even the 1967 riots, yet those two events accelerated the process. And indeed, Detroit had a very unique set of circumstances that caused it to veer down a troubled path. The very first piece featured in this blog was about the land use and governing decisions that were made more than one hundred years ago in Detroit that literally set the city’s decline in stone. I identified eight key factors:

  • Poor neighborhood identification, or more broadly a poorly developed civic consciousness.
  • A housing stock of poor quality, cheap and disposable, particularly outside of the city’s traditional core.
  • A poorly developed and maintained public realm.
  • A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
  • Freeway expansion.
  • Lack of or loss of a viable transit network.
  • A local government organization type that lacked accountability at the resident/customer level.
  • An industrial landscape that was allowed to constrain the city’s core.

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic wrote perhaps one of the best recent articles I saw on Detroit when he acknowledged that even a half-century ago, journalists were predicting a dire future for the D. Take this quote Conor found from The Reporter, published October 31, 1957:

The auto industry created modern Detroit simply as its dormitory and workshop, attracted polyglot millions to it, used it, and now threatens to abandon it. Civic consciousness played little part in the lives of the masses of Irish, German, Poles and Italians who flocked to Detroit in search of a Ford or Dodge or Packard pay check, and who settled there in islands of their own – any more than it played a part in the managements of Ford or Dodge or Packard themselves, or in the crowd of Negroes who also descended upon the city during the boom years of the Second World War… Indeed, it is remarkable that any sense of civic responsibility at all should have been generated in so rootless and transient a community.

What can a city do when it finds its patron industry and its middle class moving out, leaving it a relic of extremes?… But urban deterioration offers at least one advantage. Once a city core has become as run-down as Detroit’s you can start to rebuild fairly cheaply.

Yes, that is from 1957.

The chart at the top of this article was done for an article I did more than a year ago, looking at U.S. Census data for several peer cities over the last seven decennial censuses. In it, I concluded that Detroit’s experience of abandonment was entirely unique:

Between 1950 and 1970, the decline in Detroit’s white population was on the low end of the spectrum of cities on this list, but it was in the ballpark. Prior to 1970, Detroit and St. Louis were the white flight laggards. After 1970, the bottom fell out and Detroit stood alone. While there certainly are economic reasons white residents may have had for moving, this graph may lend credence to the twin theories of Motor City white flight – the 1967 riots and the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman Young.

I’m not trying to persuade anyone of the invalidity of their decision to move from Detroit. There were good reasons and not so good reasons. I’m only trying to describe its impact relative to other cities. And where exactly are those white residents who left over the last 60 years? Certainly many have passed on. Some are currently in the Detroit suburbs or elsewhere in Michigan. Some are part of that great Detroit Diaspora that took them to New York, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. There are clearly at least 1.5 million reasons why white residents left Detroit.

But the fact is, had Detroit experienced white flight at the same combined rate as the other cities on this list, and not experienced any other changes, there would be nearly 350,000 more white residents today. Maybe 140,000 more households. Maybe more stable neighborhoods.

Can you imagine that? An additional 350,000 residents means Detroit would still be a city with more than one million people. It would likely be viewed in the same way that a Philadelphia or Baltimore is now – challenged but recovering – instead of the urban dystopia it’s widely seen as today. What impact would that have had on the city’s economy? On the metro area’s economy? On the state’s economy? Or simply the city’s national perception?

I’ve mentioned here on several occasions that the reason I chose the planning profession is because I grew up in Detroit during the 1970’s. I looked around and saw a city with an inferiority complex and saw people leaving in droves. My naïve and childish thinking was, “instead of leaving the city, why don’t people stay and work to make it better?”

Silly of me. Abandonment is the American way.

Nonetheless, I view Detroit’s bankruptcy announcement positively. It acknowledges that its troubles are far deeper than most realize. It can be the springboard for fiscal recovery, a re-imagining of the city and an actual and complete revitalization. Detroit indeed is in uncharted waters, and its abandonment means that in many respects it could be viewed as a frontier city once again. I would not be surprised if, after restructuring and reorganization, after recapturing its innovative spirit, the city could see growth almost like it did at the beginning of the twentieth century, mimicking what, say, Las Vegas has done for the last 40 years. Even at this dark moment, Detroit has assets that are the envy of other cities.

But let no one forget that it is abandonment that brought Detroit to this point.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on July 20, 2013.

Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Detroit

97 Responses to “Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? by Pete Saunders”

  1. MichaelSchwartz says:

    Pittsburgh and all of upstate New York recovered from the recession? I mean really, are you serious? Heve you seen some of the abandoned towns along I-90 in upstate New York? And having been recently to Pittsburgh, I would have to say that its infrastructure,(the bridges, roads, sewers, etc.) are perhaps the worst in the country. It is literally falling apart. Are these areas as bad as Detroit? Maybe not as blatant as a banruptcy filing but they are in many ways just as bad but they have one advantage: A better PR machine.

  2. John Morris says:

    Honestly Michael, that’s like saying Manhattan is going down the drain because Elizabeth, New Jersey is falling apart.

    On average, the decline in Pittsburgh’s regional infrastructure was – The result of previous decline & a potential net positive for the city itself that may help drive investment in the core.

    Sprawling road infrastructure never fit well with the region’s geography.

  3. John Morris says:

    I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of truth to what Michael says, but in the end it only proves what makes the cities so different. Pittsburgh is seeing an amazing amount of stickiness in places like Millvale or even Carnegie with serious flood problems. There is a deep love for community and built up social capital.

  4. MichaelSchwartz says:

    I don’t follow your Manhattan comparison. I still maintain that in the recent post/thread about eds/Meds that both Cleveland and Pittsburgh have continued to benefit unlike Detroit with their outstanding institutions. If they didn’t have those they would be Detroit or as I suggested Hamilton , Ontario. I also went on to say that why would any facilities mgr. pick Pittsburgh over say Raleigh? All one needs to do is compare a side by side picture of the roads. There is no comparison. The same could be said of the sewer system, etc. Unless these older cities like Pittsburgh start addressing basic services immediately they will be Detroit in the near future. NO PR hype will be able to overcome what they say and what is actually there to see.

  5. John Morris says:

    The comparison is that a lot of NYC’s outlying areas look really bad. You can’t judge Pittsburgh itself by looking at Glassport, Braddock & McKees Rocks.

  6. John Morris says:

    I don’t think people move to NYC cause The Cross Bronx Expressway, BQE or Belt Parkway are great roads.

    How about you speak for yourself, Michael. Pittsburgh is a certain type of city with a certain type of assets and Raleigh is completely different.

    No amount of road infrastructure investment will turn one into the other. Already, is Pittsburgh suffers from the capital cost of repairing lots of roads that shouldn’t have been built or which have a net negative impact on the city itself.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, your thoughts might explain the middlin’ recovery in Indiana, compared to Michigan/Detroit’s utter failures.

    Long the #1 auto PARTS state, Indiana has attracted more Japanese-owned auto assembly plants (3 separate companies) than any other state. It has thus also attracted suppliers.

    Indiana’s existing supplier base didn’t necessarily make a direct transition from supplying GM, Ford, and Chrysler to supplying Subaru, Toyota, and Honda…but the employment base did (engineers, managers, factory workers).

    Overall evidence would suggest this happened at somewhat lower wages, as seen in the loss of parity in the Indiana median wage compared to surrounding states…even as “domestic” suppliers shifted work to lower-wage countries and “transplants” hired those left behind.

  8. Chris Barnett says:

    My point: no one came in and hired those “left behind” in Detroit. Some/many of the educated engineers and managers that make up the corporate backbone of the Detroit 3 and their top tier suppliers continued to have good jobs, but the factory/assembly workers didn’t.

  9. John Morris says:

    Normally, Alon makes good points, but Detroit as a city long ago decoupled from the auto industry, as can be seen from the decades long decline.

    In terms of tax revenue, the city itself gets far more from casinos than cars.

    The mini downtown investment boom seems to run exactly counter to auto industry health.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Pittsburgh and all of upstate New York recovered from the recession?

    Check the unemployment rates in 2009-10. Or the per capita income growth trajectories. The secondary Northeastern cities have been doing well since 2000. Pittsburgh and Buffalo have had multi-decade population decline (but Rochester and Syracuse didn’t), but in recent years they did not have the negative per capita income growth of Detroit.

    Alon, your thoughts might explain the middlin’ recovery in Indiana, compared to Michigan/Detroit’s utter failures.

    What is Indiana’s union situation? Elsewhere in the US, Japanese plants specifically south out anti-union environments, and Nissan’s Smyrna plant screened job applicants for any UAW history, rather than hiring laid off American auto workers.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    *specifically sought out anti-union environments.

  12. John Morris says:

    Alon, I think most people here know that places like most of upstate New York have been in a decades long decline. In that context, little chart wiggles are not important.

    Likewise, Detroit’s downtown boom is all the more impressive in the context of a weak regional economy.

  13. MichaelSchwartz says:

    Why check 2009-2010 unemployement rates? Using that train of thought why not check 1960? I just checked the web site for unemployment rates for large metro areas for May 2013 which would seem to be a more accurate discussion point, wouldn’t it seem? At any rate Pittsburgh and Cleveland metro area is virtually identical at 6.6 and 6.7% unemployed. And both Cleveland and Pittsburgh unemployment is significantly better than Rochester, Syracuse or Buffalo unlike what your post suggests. It is sometimes worthwhile to check the facts before posting.

  14. MichaelSchwartz says:

    I no longer wnat to argue off topic minutia. All I can say is that as some other blog said earlier today and that is Detroit is just the canary in the coal mine and all the cities mentioned above are just another recession away from being in Detroit’s shoes.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Why check 2009-2010 unemployement rates? Using that train of thought why not check 1960?

    Because 2009-10 tells you something about the recession and where it hit, while 2010-3 tells you something about the subsequent recovery. Detroit and Cleveland have rebounded with the auto rescue. (And Cleveland never had a particularly high unemployment rate to begin with, but it did have a housing crash and glacial income growth. It’s the anti-Providence, since Providence had and still has very high unemployment but good income growth.)

  16. Alon, can you say “dead cat bounce”?

    Growing up in Indiana, I’ve seen this movie before. Economies geared to manufacturing are pro-cyclical and roar back out of recessions. But when the dust settles every business cycle has ended up leaving these places further behind.

  17. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, Indiana used to be a heavily union state. This was especially true in the north-central auto-parts manufacturing cities of Muncie, Anderson, New Castle, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Logansport…to say nothing of heavy industry (basic steel and oil refining) in “Da Region”, the 3-county Indiana part of the Chicago metro.

    The transplants are in Lafayette, Princeton, and Greensburg. Lafayette is an interesting choice, as Cat and Alcoa have old unionized operations there. But the other two are in Southern Indiana, pretty far from other manufacturing centers. Greensburg and Lafayette are within commuting distance of the Indianapolis metro…which once had UAW operations of all Big 3, plus RCA (IBEW), International Harvester (UAW), and many others. Princeton is commuting distance from Evansville, which had (union) Whirlpool and barge-manufacturing operations.

    AFTER the transplant companies established operations here, Indiana passed a right-to-work law last year.

    Aaron, it isn’t the business cycles that leave Indiana manufacturing behind. It’s increasing competition.

    When the auto industry was still national in scope and scale, Indiana did pretty well. When the industry became continental (mid-70’s), Indiana had some trouble competing with Mexico but fought back against low hourly wages with automation, which reduced the unit-labor content to competitive levels. When the industry became fully global (mid-80’s), the trouble was a whole lot worse. Even the Deming methods (primarily statistical process control) couldn’t save Indiana manufacturing.

  18. Chris Barnett says:

    Here’s the “special” part about Detroit. It remains the design, back-office, and command-and-control node for two and a half of the world’s seven biggest automakers (Marchionne makes some noise about moving the HQ of a combined Fiat-Chrysler to Detroit). This is distinct, of course, from being the North American center of vehicle manufacturing.

    Rankings of “tech” jobs always have the Detroit metro high, partly because these worldwide behemoths require so much IT support, and partly because of the technical innovations inherent in automotive progress.

    This is probably what keeps the whole metro (as opposed to the city) from economic collapse.

    Between this clear building block/advantage and the freshwater advantage, is there something to rebuild on when the bankruptcy reorganization is done?

  19. Jim Russell says:

    When looking at unemployment rate, it is important to also consider the labor force numbers. Contrast Pittsburgh’s labor force with Cleveland’s.

  20. Kay says:

    Your point about “local government organization type” is one of those eye-glazing subjects for many, but for me strikes at the heart of Detroit’s lack of recovery.

    The “strong mayor” model of local government, which Detroit and many other larger cities have, has been shown to be less effective in running a city, especially when it comes to making the difficult, often politicized decisions needed to properly manage decline. A local government is a business, and that’s why more cities now use the “council-manager” form—it closely resembles a corporation, where the elected board (council) hires a competent, trained CEO (city manager). With the strong mayor form, Detroit has chosen to continue a system where the CEO (mayor) is directly elected by the residents.

    Suffice it to say, many fewer city managers have been put in jail than strong mayors. Let’s hope that Snyder insists that Detroit—or any city coming out of emergency management or bankruptcy—must change its charter to ensure at least someone trained in running a city is the CEO. It would be a start.

  21. @Kay, the council-manager form of government has its own deficiencies, such as a lack of checks and balances and no clear authority who speaks for the city. Is there a single large city in America that still uses council-manager? The trend seems to be away from it (e.g., Cincinnati)

  22. AIM says:

    Eight of the top 20 US cities by population have Council-Manager forms of government. It could be argued that they are among the best run as well.

    Phoenix – 1.4 million
    San Antonio 1.3 million
    Dallas – 1.1 million
    San Jose – 980,000
    Austin – 842,000
    Fort Worth – 778,000
    Charlotte – 775,000
    El Paso – 672,000

  23. Charlotte at least has a separately elected mayor even if they have a city manager too. (Cincinnati still has a city manager as well).

  24. AIM says:

    Aaron – That’s true of most Council-Manager forms of government. The distinction is usually over what powers the Mayor exercises independently of the Council as a whole. Also, many Mayors in Council-Manager governments can wield quite a bit of power even if the office itself doesn’t come with the same levels of power that a Strong Mayor can exercise.

  25. John Morris says:

    This gets to a deeper issue about the limits of democracy. Should being elected alone protect one from gross acts of negligence and often fraud as it so often does?

    If lying and hiding material facts gets one in office, did people really have an honest choice?

    Many of the pension and budget problems facing cities come from actions that if placed in a different context would be construed as fraud.

    The rewards for evading problems are much greater than any penalties one might face.

  26. Kevin says:

    I find the author’s anger a bit misplaced. Technically he is correct that abandonment is the problem, but he spends most of his time arguing against other theories about why there was so much abandonment, and less on why he thinks there was catastrophic levels of abandonment.

    Personally, I think many of the theories hold water, and just because other cities had some of the elements that brought down Detroit and fared better, doesn’t disprove those theories. I can’t speak for the roughly 1.5 million who left Detroit, but I can speak for five. Their reasons were generally fear of violence. My parents arrived home to find tanks in front of their apartment. A former boss and his baby were shot at during the riots, and were later both shot by a, soon to be, city councilman. My grandmother’s house was broken into, and her sister, my great aunt, was attacked and beat up.

    While I didn’t live in Detroit, I did live close by. I got so incredibly fed up with the ineptitude, and refusal to change that I just couldn’t take it anymore.

    I don’t think there is any one issue, nor do I think it’s difficult to find many, many causes. All you have to do is ask people.

  27. Bigglesworth says:

    I think you’re mixing up ‘white flight’ with abandonmentWhite people abandoned the downtown core years ago but they manage to thrive because of upwardly mobile blacks and Hispanics. The problem with Detroit was pure abandonment by everybodyad create a community where people actually wanted to live. There are none if the advantages to living downtown that most other cities enjoy– good public transportation, good nightlife, easy access to restauand other places. No one had a reas live downtown, and you can blame the city for that. Hell even Barry Gordy and Motown records left.

  28. pete-rock says:

    There are pros and cons to the council-manager form of government as well as the mayor-council style. However what made Detroit unique is that all council members since about 1915 have been elected citywide, not from districts or wards. Even the council-manager cities listed above currently elect council members by district. Conversely, it was not uncommon for a two-thirds majority of Detroit council members to come from 3-4 city neighborhoods. In fact, some neighborhoods have never had a local council member in office.

    My argument is not in favor of a strong mayor system. My argument is in favor of advocates at the neighborhood or community level, who can address community level concerns. At a time of critical social change in the ’60s and ’70s, Detroit neighborhoods could have used a local voice.

  29. The flight focus appears to be on residents fleeing to the suburbs, but I’m curious about the flight of business out of Detroit. Growing up, my family returned to the Detroit area each summer to visit relatives in Birmingham. My grandfather lived in Birmingham but worked in Detroit which was the standard pattern for my mother’s friends’ parents.

    Over the late 60s and through the 70s, I remember watching Birmingham change to a very affluent, upwardly mobile enclave with a downtown of designer boutiques and professional offices from one of basic goods and services; Troy and Dearborn became corporate headquarters and office hubs with large new campuses. Relatives who had worked in Detroit then traveled to Plymouth or other suburbs to jobs at the same companies.

    My impression was that the area was already quite segregated with more affluent whites moving from Detroit to suburbs in the 20s and 30s. Any data going back a few more decades?

  30. John Morris says:

    While the term suburbs is used, Detroit has a very low percent of people commuting downtown and it seems to have been that way for long time.

    Most of the law firms, ad agencies, consulting and accounting firms that often locate in downtown districts don’t seem to have done that in Detroit.

  31. John Morris says:

    The job breakdown is why politicians and many current residents support bus routes to the suburbs. Even now, the idea that core areas of the city could become major job centers seems inconceivable.

  32. George V. says:

    “Silly of me. Abandonment is the American way.”

    But do you live in Detroit? If not, aren’t you part of the problem?

  33. Nathanael says:

    It seems to me that this analysis underestimates the “company town” factor.

    The Big Three automakers made an awful lot of really terrible decisions for 60 years. Their company town… is doing badly. And the problem is, there’s really *nothing* else there.

    The old Connecticut and Massaschusetts mill towns died just as dramatically as Detroit when their Single Company died — but it’s been so much longer since that happened, that we’ve forgotten about it. Some of them have since become bedroom communities for other cities. Others (North Adams) haven’t and remain dead.

    Rochester was a “Kodak” company town for a long time. The hit from the collapse of Kodak is still hurting Rochester, but it turned out Rochester had more going for it than just Kodak, so Rochester’s surviving.

    Pittsburgh was steelmakers. The steelmakers haven’t collapsed quite as hard as Kodak or the Big Three… but more importantly, Pittsburgh turned out to have other stuff going for it too.

    Syracuse was never a company town, and unsurprisingly it’s held up better than almost all of the Rust Belt.

    Buffalo was never a company town, and the decline of Buffalo is therefore anamalous to my theory. But Buffalo’s economy was dependent on its ports — shipping was the key to the economy, and it never properly diversified. Which is unusual because most shipping-based cities *do* diversify. Every single problem in the Rust Belt rebounded on Buffalo, but the Buffalo “bypass” where all the Atlantic-bound ships take the Welland Canal was probably the single biggest issue.

    For a long view, consider the cities along the Susquehanna. They have been in a slow decline for not 60 years, not 100 years, but over 150 years, since the opening of the Erie Canal and then the Pennslyvania Railroad shifted traffic both north and south of the Susquehanna. They have held on, declined very slowly, by *diversifying*. They are finally losing the battle because there is simply no advantage to their location.

    As everyone knows, Detroit needs to reinvent itself. But its identity has been completely tied up with the Big Three automakers for so long, that it has simply been unable to. The automakers caused the over-construction of city-destroying freeways, removed the streetcar system, crowded out all other port traffic, and generally prevented the city from diversifying. Often through active interference. Perhaps it is possible to do something now, but the situation is more like the Connecticut mill towns which lost their business in the late 19th century, than it is like anything from the 20th century.

  34. John Morris says:

    In terms of regional employment, steel makers around Pittsburgh probably shed a much higher percentage of jobs than the big three around Detroit.

  35. Rod Stevens says:

    A lot of these posts about deficient infrastructure, form of government and even dominant industry are addressing important but secondary issues. Maybe the central issue is lack of civic capital.

    What greater manifestation of this can there be than people burning down their own neighborhoods? For a number of reasons, people didn’t feel attachment to the place, or perhaps more importantly, to one another. Some of that came from racial problems, some of that came from so many people moving there so quickly, and some of that came from the way the big companies made all the decisions, but collectively it led to bad decisions, like building all the trophy redevelopment projects instead of dealing with underlying social problems like lack of education. Whatever the manifestations, this place literally couldn’t hold itself together and people moved out.

  36. MichaelSchwartz says:

    Rod, you are right about the lack of civic capital in poor Detroit. No one has skin in the game. However on the other of the end of that thought, I think of the Raleigh/Durham metro area where most people are from elsewhere, the former Northerners don’t particularly mix well with the Southerners and vice versa, and while conjecture, and from what I can tell, most transplants could care less about the area in general and would move in a second if their jobs moved, no tears shed. It appears there is very little civic capital in the area, but it does have one thing that poor Detroit does not have and that is money and jobs. I guess what I am trying to say is that in America today, we have lost that civic/social capital in most places and it does not seem to discriminate between rich/poor, North/South, etc.

  37. John Morris says:

    I don’t think many cities saw the kind of collapse (or non development) of civic capital Detroit did. It’s clearly the biggest factor at work.

    Chris Barnett’s description of the overall regional economy seems on point. It didn’t exactly thrive, but lots of very good jobs remained particularly in Auto design, IT and some other services.

    The problem was the degree to which almost all this happened outside the city.

    A lot of the anger about wealthy suburbs ignoring Detroit’s plight reflects the way they decoupled from the city.

  38. John Morris says:


    While I sort of have to agree about the quality of much of Pittsburgh’s infrastructure, the city really does have a lot of civic capital.

    Perhaps it’s an Appalachian thing, the way people love their isolated and often dumpy little communities.

  39. Rod Stevens says:


    Detroit had money and capital. It was the Raleigh/ Durham, Atlanta of its day. But my guess is that it never developed decision making skills deep down in the trenches, and that it never welcomed the “newcomers”, African Americans, who came up from the South in that great American diaspora.

    I’ve never been to Pittsburg, but from the people I’ve met and the things I’ve been reading, it is on track to become a kind of Portland of the Northeast, true to its region in a Rolling Rock kind of way. Somehow it kept hold of its people’s affections, maybe, because like Portland, it went through a wrenching loss of its old industry while still holding to some greater sense of place outside of that identity. River town? Regardless, like Portland, it seems to have reconstituted a new, broader base of urban leadership that is looking to the future without antagonism towards the past. Could that, like the “peace and reconciliation” movement of South Africa, be the secret of moving on?

  40. John Morris says:

    But, the Detroit region still has a decent amount of capital. Very little of it gets into Detroit. People connecting the city’s bankruptcy to the big three decline are mostly transmitting a myth.

    Detroit itself lost most of its auto manufacturing jobs by 1960. It never seemed to have too many high end office jobs.

  41. Rod Stevens says:

    I saw a graph showing U.S. manufacturing output and employment for the last 50 years. Employment has steadily gone down, but output has steadily gone up. How? Productivity gains, especially with the use of technology. Those factory floors that were full of people doing repetitive, drone like activity have been replaced by computer-controlled robots and drones. The people that are left are more technicians than blue-collar workers, people who need to know programming and how to maintain those machines. Obviously this doesn’t get at the crying need for people to have a paycheck to put food on the table, but it does say that overall, the U.S. is still making and selling things and that we haven’t lost all of our business to China. It also says that we need to put real emphasis on education, so that young people, especially, have the skills to work in advanced manufacturing. I’m hearing of continuing shortages of machinists and especially people who both understand production sequencing and can program those machines. At the same time, the managers who run some of these advanced factories tell me that the companies themselves are the main source of training, that high schools and community colleges are not providing the necessary skills. A person who works with “onboarding” new hires at Boeing and various airlines tells me that up to 35% of the new hires come from the military, where many of the day-to-day activities are the same. It would be odd if our wind-down of the war in Afghanistan actually made more skilled people like this available. Too bad it takes a stint in the military and a costly war abroad to train them. It seems like it would be cheaper, faster, and a whole lot safer to simply provide that training right down the street, especially in our older cities.

  42. John Morris says:

    I’ll tell you an even more grim reality. Many current factory jobs require math, reasoning and technical skills & they don’t pay well.

    “Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.

    The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price,”

  43. Amy says:

    This is a very white, male discussion. You can focus all you want on the technical, economic, corporate, tax, etc. issues (related more to the ‘how’) rather than the more human elements (which relate more to the ‘why’).

    Economics and city life and planning of course have, but are not intelligently summed up by or reduced to, technical issues. Social and intellectual history play an important role.

    The flip side of White Flight and Abandonment is Black Disinvestment. A topic mostly avoided. Detroit is at the bottom of the pit of the disinvestment cycle now, which may turn out to be quite the investment and/or exploitable “white space.”

    Looking at how that Jim Crow has worked out–and is still working out–for Detroit might be worthwhile.

    I appreciate the focus on a more non-technical aspect–abandonment–but would like to see at least separate but equal discussion of the flip side.

    (A post I wrote related to this …

  44. Matthew Hall says:

    Amy, are you suggesting that women can’t focus on “technical, economic, corporate, tax” issues?

  45. Amy says:

    Not only is that off-point, but it is a straw-man response to what I said. Of course they can. Women have proven rather adept at absorbing the “white, male” model; they’ve mostly had to in order to gain power. “White, male” can only be taken as literally as “Jim Crow.”

    To get back to the point, larger cultural forces, such as notions of “abandonment” and “disinvestment” should be part of the discussion. Most of the comments didn’t respond at this level.

  46. Rod Stevens says:

    I think it’s very tough to talk about race in America. Terms like “Jim Crow” are highly charged and mean very different things, depending on whether you are white or black. That doesn’t mean these issues don’t exist, or that there are not parallels between the Jim Crow laws of the past and the white flight out of Detroit, but racism is such a strong charge these days that using terms like Jim Crow scares most people away. They simply don’t want to engage when there is implicit blame in the terms being used.

    Perhaps getting beyond this blame is the starting point for rebuilding Detroit and other cities. In South Africa, they developed the concept of “peace and reconciliation” meetings as a way to get the blame out of the way so that they could go on and work together. How successfully, no one knows from here, but from a distance, it appears to have worked. The major concept there was that blacks and whites were engaged in nation building together and that they had to work together for it to work at all. In Detroit, the whites are largely outsiders looking in, and so, other than the small number of urban white pioneers there, there is no reason for most whites to feel an urgency to make it work. It is not their place. And so maybe it really is true that this place has been largely abandoned, not only 50 years ago but by people today as well.

    That leaves the rebirth, largely, up to those who live there. And maybe that is not such a bad thing. Many, if not most of the problems are the result of bad local decision making, first by the auto company executives that everyone deferred to, and later by elected mayors who pandered with a racism of their own kind (Mayor Bing seems like a breath of fresh air in a very bad run). It may not be possible for this place to really move forward at the city level until the city, as a whole community, learns who to trust and how to make decisions.

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