As has long been expected, the city of Detroit has officially filed for bankruptcy. While many will point to the sui generis nature of the city as a one-industry town with extreme racial polarization and other unique problems, Detroit’s bankruptcy in fact offers several lessons for other states and municipalities across America.
The Day of Reckoning Can Take Much Longer Than We Think to Come
What’s most surprising about Detroit’s bankruptcy is not that it happened, but how long it took to get there. In authorizing the bankruptcy filing Gov. Rick Snyder talked about “60 years of decline.” He’s not joking. It’s been widely known that Detroit has been in trouble for a very long time.
Time Magazine ran a 1961 story called “Decline in Detroit.” Jane Jacobs described its lack of vitality in her 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:
Researchers hunting the secrets of the social structure in a dull-gray district of Detroit came to the unexpected conclusion there was no social structure….Virtually all of Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of gray belts. Even Detroit's downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o'clock of an evening….Detroit today is composed of seemingly endless miles of low density failure.
Moving from urban planning to economics. She wrote in 1969’s “The Economy of Cities”:
This was the prosperous and diversifying economy from which the automobile industry emerged two decades later to produce the last of the important Detroit exports and, as it turned out, to bring the city’s economic development to a dead end.
These are both well known, but the record of troubles in Detroit even predates this, going back at least to Life Magazine’s 1942 article “Detroit Is Dynamite” which gave a prescient warning to the city just a year before 1943’s race riot.
For a city as uniquely troubled as Detroit to remain in serious decline for such an extended period of time before going bankrupt is a testament to the sheer resilience of cities. It also suggests that those predicting eminent doom for their own city unless it changes its ways are likely to end up as false prophets.
Indeed, Detroit’s day of reckoning may not even yet be fully given that various challenges to the bankruptcy filing are expected. The fact that Detroit has limped along for so long suggests that cities may be able to survive nearly definitely as “zombie municipalities” similar to zombie banks. Though this may possibly end a Greek style crisis at some point, a very lengthy existence as the undead would seem to be possible.
Decline Poisons Civic Culture and Sunders the Commonwealth
Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.
This comes about because in a city in decline – such as in late imperial Rome –people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.
When the pie is growing, it’s easy to come to an agreement over how to divide it because everybody can get a bigger slice at the same time. But when the pie is stagnant or shrinking, zero-sum thinking takes over. To make a sacrifice is seen to in effect allow someone else to profit at your expense. Perhaps these dynamics were present latently before, but tough times bring out the real civic character.
In Detroit’s case everyone from public employee unions who refuse to give up any of their benefits (and will no doubt fight to deny the bankruptcy filing) to suburban towns that would rather pretend the city does not exist have played a role in setting the disaster. With nobody willing to sacrifice for the greater good, prisoner’s dilemma logic results happen. You can see this playing out in nearly any troubled American city. By contrast, it seems to be healthier places like Denver that have managed to build stronger regional civic consensus. It’s simply easier in those places.
Instead, Detroit chased conventional wisdom approaches and fad of the month type endeavors ranging from constructing the fortress-like Renaissance Center to the People Mover to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool Cities” program, none of which did anything but generate hype. What they all had in common is a transfusion of subsidies to the city (and taking on debt) rather than building a consensus around addressing the real issues.
America Doesn’t Learn Lessons From the Past
The last thing Detroit teaches us is that America too often doesn’t learn from its mistakes. Detroit’s troubles have been evident for quite some time, yet it’s hard to see that many other post industrial cities have managed to carve out a different path. Rather, they pretended that Detroit’s civic was somehow unique due to its auto industry dependence – and managed to ignore other failed cities as well – while embarking on the same turnaround strategy via conventional wisdom and silver bullets.
They have even managed to ignore failures much closer to home. Booming new suburbs can look just 5-10 miles down the road to see yesterday’s hot spot now turned into a festering mess of dead and dying malls, declining schools, increasing poverty, and falling home prices. Yet most of them are simply replicating the same pattern that is destined to fail financially over the long term in any region without either severe building restrictions or very high population growth.
Sadly, none of these augur favorably for change. Detroit may continue to garner special international attention as a train wreck people can’t stop watching, but less spectacular slow motion civic failures seem likely to remain commonplace unless somebody finds a way to overcome these forces.
Photo by Kate Sumbler.