I walked its streets: The tragedy of Detroit

Detroit city limit
8 Mile Road

By John Ruberry

I spent most of last week slowly driving–to avoid potholes–and walking the streets of Detroit. Yes, I took in some time downtown, but most of my travels were in the forsaken neighborhoods far from the casinos and the sports stadiums.

When Detroit celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1951–it enjoyed the highest standard of living of any city in the world. Its population was 1.8 million. Now there are barely 700,000 Detroiters. Motown is at the top or near the top of all American cities in poverty and crime rates.

What went wrong? Detroit’s apologists quickly name off what they believe are causes, such as the building of the interstate highway system and the resulting suburbanization, as well as the decline of the American automobile industry. Almost all northern industrial cities were impacted by the former but they managed, with varying levels of success, to claw back or at least stop the bleeding in the 1990s. But by 2000, Detroit became the first United States city that once exceeded 1 million residents to have fewer than that landmark figure.

Burned out Detroit
Burned-out home

As for the car business, Michigan doesn’t have a single foreign-owned automobile plant, unless you count Fiat-owned Chrysler. The states on Michigan’s southern border, Indiana and Ohio, together host five foreign-owned car factories. You can attribute Michigan’s absence from this late 20th century manufacturing shift to muscle from the United Auto Workers and compliant Democratic politicians.

As for the latter, from 1974 until 1994, Coleman Young, a onetime member of the Communist Party, was Detroit’s mayor. His acidic rhetoric convinced many of Detroit’s remaining white residents as well as many businesses to flee to the suburbs--where they were unable to escape Young’s demonizations. While no government funds were used to build the gorgeous but money-losing Renaissance Center, he was among its biggest cheerleaders. Young was a strong proponent of massive Stalin-esqe public works projects such the also beautiful People Mover trains downtown that was expensive to build and is expensive to maintain–and it doesn’t move very many people.

Packard MP
Author at Packard plant

In 2013 Detroit declared bankruptcy.

The neighborhoods outside Detroit are pathetic sights. Vacant lots and abandoned homes dominate most streets. Retail stores are non-existent. Even better districts such as Corktown and Boston-Edison have boarded-up homes on every block. Residents usually walk on the streets as opposed to sidewalks because the walkways are often in worse shape than the roads–and they are sometimes overwhelmed by vegetation.

Outside of the world’s largest abandoned factory, the Packard plant, a man pulled up in his old Pontiac Grand Am and told me, “I hope you’re a publicist. Because the world needs to know how bad it is in Detroit beyond Packard. All the schools in this neighborhood are closed.”

I promised that I would tell the world–and I’m a man of my word.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

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