Sick of hearing about Detroit? The city is everywhere, in the news, in two shows at the National Building Museum in Washington, now featured in a best-selling book out only a
Courtesy Camilo Jose Vergara
few weeks. We’re heard about the city’s decline forever. Shouldn’t we just forget it? I don’t think so. What happens in Detroit in the coming months will tell us a lot about whether we’ve learned anything about addressing the structural issues of post-industrial cities. Right now, the prospects for real progress are not encouraging.
Last week Republican Governor Rick Snyder announced a financial emergency in the city as a step towards appointing a financial manager to oversee the overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelmingly African American city. As critics have pointed out, under state law, once a financial manager has been appointed, the state will have powers to tear up existing union contracts and to sell city assets to meet serious budget shortfalls. It’s easy to imagine Wisconsin all over again. A former businessman, Snyder has sounded the traditional GOP theme, of altering “job-cutting” taxes and fighting “entrenched special interests,” which translates easily enough into unions defending their contracts.
Pension liabilities are a good part of the problem, Snyder points out, eating up as much as 30 percent of the city’s budget every year. No doubt these obligations will bear scrutiny should the state take effective control of the city. Before jumping to the conclusion that this could become another ideological battle, however, consider Snyder’s description of the situation: a structural deficit that keeps on growing, not the least because of the continuing loss of population, down over a generation from 1.8 million to 730,000 people. The city has declined by 25 percent over the past decade alone. Snyder is careful to say he is not placing blame, and he is not forgetting the people who continue to live in the city. They deserve adequate services, he claims, so don’t expect immediate efforts to eliminate services.
What is it then, that he promises from “reform?” A reversal of population decline, which he suggests came happen only after the budget deficit is addressed.
This is an early stage in the process of appointing an emergency financial manager, but already there are reasons for concern. In his comments to the media last week, Snyder never mentioned the nature of the region, with its long history of suburban exclusivity. If poverty is a problem in Detroit, it did not grab his attention, especially the cumulative effects of concentrated poverty on attendant needs, for public safety and other social services. The city needs a coordinated investment strategy, in people as well as place, and that does not yet appear to be even a part of the conversation.
Today’s New York Times cites the anomaly of new businesses coming into Detroit. What it and the governor both fail to report is any strategic partnership aimed at growing the city’s tax base and lifting the economic prospects of its residents.
Some years ago Pittsburgh faced similarly daunting prospects in the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry. I was surprised to learn last spring that employment in the city had fallen to about half the national average. Clearly the city recovered, in part due to a vital partnership between the city’s chief medical and educational institutions, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
In some ways the situation in Detroit parallels the nation: Republicans focus on rolling back entitlements, Democrats want to protect hard-won union concessions for municipal workers, a prime vehicle for growing a middle class. If the Detroit situation deteriorates into an argument over the issue of entitlements alone, it will get us nowhere. If, however, its spotlight in national attention forces consideration of what has worked elsewhere as part of a regional investment strategy, then we might see the city turn the corner and serve as a beacon for the many other post-industrial places burdened by structural deficits. Don’t count on it, but don’t ignore the process in the Motor City either. It matters.