Friday, July 26, 2013

Detroit: I Did Mind Dying

Jonathan Chait published a great piece the other day reflecting on his own experience growing up in suburban Detroit and his relationship with the city. The main thrust of the piece is that rather than being an indicator of America's future, as some conservatives have claimed:
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.
It's hard to remember now, but Detroit was once the fourth largest city in America.

I've talked before about James Fallows' theory about why George W. Bush was a terrible president. In Fallows view, and my own, he was terrible not just because of one factor, but rather because of a number of factors that were each individually dangerous and when combined caused utter disaster. Chait makes a similar point about Detroit, where destructive dynamics built upon each other to create a disaster larger that the sum of it's political parts:
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.
Add in the fact that Detroit the city was one of the biggest, sprawlingist cities in the country and it's 20th Century economic monoculure of focusing mainly on cars as the sole engine of it's economy and you get a recipe for rust belt disaster on a grand scale. In short, economic problems caused political problems which in turn exacerbated the economic problems and made the political situation even worse.

The result was a urban metropolis divided by a kind of invisible wall. As Chait recalls:
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...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?
I have no idea how to "fix" Detroit. There are a lot of ideas out there (I like Matt Yglesias idea of Detroit visas). The good news is that the bankruptcy might let the city escape from the legacy of past mistakes and mismanagement and there is a small boom going on in Detroit's once vacant downtown. Hope springs eternal, but we shouldn't forget Chait's points about the sins of the father being still leveled on our own heads.

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