If there’s an epitome for failure, it’s summed up in one word – Detroit.
My birthplace’s tragic Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing could likely have
been avoided had its leaders worked to modernize the city and reversed
its many disturbing trends over the last 50 years.
No matter where you fall on Detroit’s woes – black or white, rich or
poor, cityemployee or private sector worker, Republican or
Democrat – you cannot be surprised it hit rock bottom.
It was just a matter of time.
More than 60 years ago, Detroit boasted a population of nearly 2
million people; today it’s down to just over 700,000, with some
estimates saying the population drop continues.
As the Kresge Foundation reports, the city’s financial recipe led
it to this harrowing state: Over the years, it cut services and borrowed
to pay off its previous debts, which are estimated to be about $16 billion
today; meanwhile, it’s tax base, which always consists of people,
fled, meaning it didn’t have the revenue to cover its costs
or its borrowing expenses.
But Detroit’s calamities are so much more.
They also include a former mayor jailed for a number of crimes,
including racketeering; the ones prior to him were simply incapable
managers, failing to reverse trends that ultimately put the city in
There are enough abandoned buildings in Detroit to form three or
four mid-size cities and about 80,000 abandoned homes, the Daily
While it’s always easy to blame any city’s leaders for poor
performance, which, in this case, they rightly deserve, you cannot
blame them alone.
Detroit’s private sector, especially its automobile companies, which
long called it home, must be examined too. They give every
impression of having thrown in the towel years ago.
The long-suspected rumors about the Big Three auto companies never
supporting a commuter rail system for Detroit and its neighboring
suburbs, which would have helped draw people into the city, giving
it a chance to grow, are disturbing if true.
But perhaps instead of killing the idea outright, the Big Three just
stopped putting effort behind the idea.
The mayor, David Bing, a Hall of Fame basketball star, is third or
fourth in line when it comes to running Detroit, behind the emergency
manager charged with putting the city’s books back in order, the judge
overseeing its bankruptcy, and the creditors, not to mention U.S.
bankruptcy law, which will loom large as Detroit’s finances are restored.
Anyone thinking nothing – at least with the city’s pensions – won’t
change, better think again. There are no sacred cows in bankruptcy.
Everything will be scrutinized.
When I was hawking columns, comics, puzzles in the ‘90s, I visited
Detroit often, sometimes as much as four or five times a year.
The crime never hit me personally, but it was more than apparent
the city was failing.
When editors in Michigan asked where I was based, I answered
“Oh, Chicago,” they would say, “that’s what Detroit use to be.”
(Chicago’s current ills are for another blog post.)
Detroit’s leaders, whether in the public or private sector, former
or current, should hold their collective heads in shame.
They ruined a great American city, once described as “The Arsenal
of Democracy” by the late President Franklin Roosevelt during
World War II.
FDR’s words offer a stark lesson: We’re a democracy, meaning our
votes and our actions determine whether our communities, towns,
cities, states and, ultimately, our country, go forward.
If the people of Michigan and Detroit are looking for someone to
blame for this tragedy, they need only look at the first person they
see each morning in the mirror – themselves.