Detroit, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?


Thou wouldst fain destroy the temple! If thou be Jesus, Son of the Father, now from the Cross descend thou, that we behold it and believe on thee when we behold it. If thou art King over Israel, save thyself then!

God, My Father, why has thou forsaken me? All those who were my friends, all have now forsaken me. And he that hate me do now prevail against me, and he whom I cherished, he hath betrayed me.

Lyric excerpts from the Fifth and Fourth and Words, respectively, of the Seven Last Words of Christ orchestral work by Joseph Haydn.

I’m pissed.

Ever since the announcement late Thursday that the City of Detroit was indeed going to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection, the Internet has been overflowing with commentary on the matter. The commentary has come from all places and taken on by all comers – from the political left and right; from hard news and general interest sources. And all usually with the same scripted and lazy tripe about how Detroit reached its nadir:

  • Single-minded dependence on a collapsing auto industry doomed Detroit.
  • An inability to diversify economically doomed Detroit.
  • Public mismanagement and political corruption doomed Detroit.
  • An inability to effectively deal with its racial matters doomed Detroit.
  • The dramatic and total loss of its tax base doomed Detroit.

That’s it, people, they seem to reason. The Motor City’s fall from grace is as simple as that. You do the things Detroit did, and you get what Detroit got. You defer decisions just as Detroit did, and you too will suffer the consequences. The speed with which the various articles on Detroit came out proved to me that many writers anticipated the announcement with at least a twinge of glee.

As I’ve written before, Detroit’s narrative serves everyone else as the nation's whipping boy, and that came through in the last couple of days:

You can find Detroit in Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia. You can find it in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville. You can find it in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix. You can even find it in Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. And yes, you can definitely find it in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. You can find elements of the Detroit Dystopia Meme™ in every major city in the country. Yet Detroit is the only one that owns it and shoulders the burden for all of them.

But let’s leave that aside. I’m pissed because no one seems to acknowledge the central reason Detroit is filing for bankruptcy now. It has endured abandonment – white flight abandonment – on an absolutely epic scale. Before there was auto industry collapse, before there was a lack of economic diversity, before there was mismanagement and corruption, there was abandonment. People skirt and dance around the issue when they talk about the loss of Detroit’s tax base. What Detroit lost was its white people. The chart above illustrates how Detroit’s unique experience when compared to similar cities.

Detroit is what happens when the city is abandoned. And frankly, there is a part of me that views those that abandoned Detroit with the same anger reserved for hit-and-run drivers – they were the cause of the accident, they left the scene of the crime, and they left behind others to clean up the mess and deal with the pain. What’s worse, so many observers seem to want to implicate those left behind – in Detroit’s case a large African-American majority community – for not cleaning up the mess or easing the pain. Their inflicted pain which they’ve made ours.

White abandonment of Detroit did not start with the 1973 election of Coleman Young as mayor, or even the 1967 riots, yet those two events accelerated the process. And indeed, Detroit had a very unique set of circumstances that caused it to veer down a troubled path. The very first piece featured in my blog was about the land use and governing decisions that were made more than one hundred years ago in Detroit that literally set the city’s decline in stone. I identified eight key factors:

  • Poor neighborhood identification, or more broadly a poorly developed civic consciousness.
  • A housing stock of poor quality, cheap and disposable, particularly outside of the city’s traditional core.
  • A poorly developed and maintained public realm.
  • A downtown that was allowed to become weak.
  • Freeway expansion.
  • Lack of or loss of a viable transit network.
  • A local government organization type that lacked accountability at the resident/customer level.
  • An industrial landscape that was allowed to constrain the city’s core.

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic wrote perhaps one of the best recent articles I saw on Detroit when he acknowledged that even a half-century ago, journalists were predicting a dire future for the D. Take this quote Conor found from The Reporter, published October 31, 1957:

The auto industry created modern Detroit simply as its dormitory and workshop, attracted polyglot millions to it, used it, and now threatens to abandon it. Civic consciousness played little part in the lives of the masses of Irish, German, Poles and Italians who flocked to Detroit in search of a Ford or Dodge or Packard pay check, and who settled there in islands of their own – any more than it played a part in the managements of Ford or Dodge or Packard themselves, or in the crowd of Negroes who also descended upon the city during the boom years of the Second World War… Indeed, it is remarkable that any sense of civic responsibility at all should have been generated in so rootless and transient a community.

What can a city do when it finds its patron industry and its middle class moving out, leaving it a relic of extremes?... But urban deterioration offers at least one advantage. Once a city core has become as run-down as Detroit’s you can start to rebuild fairly cheaply.

Yes, that is from 1957.

The chart at the top of this article was done for an article I did more than a year ago, looking at U.S. Census data for several peer cities over the last seven decennial censuses. In it, I concluded that Detroit’s experience of abandonment was entirely unique:

Between 1950 and 1970, the decline in Detroit’s white population was on the low end of the spectrum of cities on this list, but it was in the ballpark. Prior to 1970, Detroit and St. Louis were the white flight laggards. After 1970, the bottom fell out and Detroit stood alone. While there certainly are economic reasons white residents may have had for moving, this graph may lend credence to the twin theories of Motor City white flight – the 1967 riots and the 1973 election of Mayor Coleman Young.

I’m not trying to persuade anyone of the invalidity of their decision to move from Detroit. There were good reasons and not so good reasons. I’m only trying to describe its impact relative to other cities. And where exactly are those white residents who left over the last 60 years? Certainly many have passed on. Some are currently in the Detroit suburbs or elsewhere in Michigan. Some are part of that great Detroit Diaspora that took them to New York, Washington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. There are clearly at least 1.5 million reasons why white residents left Detroit.

But the fact is, had Detroit experienced white flight at the same combined rate as the other cities on this list, and not experienced any other changes, there would be nearly 350,000 more white residents today. Maybe 140,000 more households. Maybe more stable neighborhoods.

Can you imagine that? An additional 350,000 residents means Detroit would still be a city with more than one million people. It would likely be viewed in the same way that a Philadelphia or Baltimore is now – challenged but recovering – instead of the urban dystopia it’s widely seen as today. What impact would that have had on the city’s economy? On the metro area’s economy? On the state’s economy? Or simply the city’s national perception?

I’ve mentioned here on several occasions that the reason I chose the planning profession is because I grew up in Detroit during the 1970s. I looked around and saw a city with an inferiority complex and saw people leaving in droves. My naïve and childish thinking was, “instead of leaving the city, why don’t people stay and work to make it better?”

Silly of me. Abandonment is the American way.

Nonetheless, I view Detroit’s bankruptcy announcement positively. It acknowledges that its troubles are far deeper than most realize. It can be the springboard for fiscal recovery, a re-imagining of the city and an actual and complete revitalization. Detroit indeed is in uncharted waters, and its abandonment means that in many respects it could be viewed as a frontier city once again. I would not be surprised if, after restructuring and reorganization, after recapturing its innovative spirit, the city could see growth almost like it did at the beginning of the twentieth century, mimicking what, say, Las Vegas has done for the last 40 years. Even at this dark moment, Detroit has assets that are the envy of other cities.

But let no one forget that it is abandonment that brought Detroit to this point.

This piece originally appeared at The Corner Side Yard.

Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years.  He is also the author of "The Corner Side Yard," an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.

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Always true of the USA

Even before there was a USA, people left established areas and moved to new ones.
It is our cultural heritage.
We don't like it in [insert place name here] so, we up and move.

You need to stop whining and move to Phoenix.

Dave Barnes

Freedom wins, and the USA should not forget it

This is one of the strengths of the USA as a whole. In some countries, there is nowhere to flee to no matter how dissatisfied you are with the consequences of bad policies - because the same bad policies are followed everywhere in the country.

If the USA made it easier for people to come in from the UK in particular, many of them would be very thankful to escape from the UK. Possibly many Europeans and even Australians might be glad to come too.

Give me local policy makers having to learn the hard way, any day, in comparison to local policy makers who don't need to care, because you've got no better option anyway. At least Detroit's loss is a gain to other parts of the US economy. In the UK and most other developed countries, everyone loses from exactly the same bad policies being applied everywhere.

I'll say something controversial now. Detroit would become a better place to live, very rapidly, if the whole place was simply sold off, lock stock and barrel, to some uber-capitalist. People with an ideological objection to capitalism won't ever understand why, and won't ever let anything like it happen.

Don't get me wrong - I hate crony capitalism and rent seeking; it is Statists who never understand how they are played for useful idiots by crony capitalists. Every bunch of utopian bureaucratic central "planners" of a city's future, play straight into the hands of rent-seeking interests so fast that it would actually be preferable to just sell the whole place to one or more capitalists and let them run it, so that at least everyone knows where they stand.

It is ironic that people with tremendous faith in planning and government, lament "flight", yet cannot see that it is "flight" that would keep a capitalist "owner" HONEST. And there is a world of difference between the extraction of unearned economic rent, and the creation of amenity, which every good large developer of new urban centres understands very well; viz Bellevue in Seattle or "The Woodlands" near Houston.

Throw the politics of envy in the dustbin and hand Detroit over to some visionary capitalists. I disagree completely, too, that an urban area needs a "strong downtown" and "strong public transit systems", especially where these are centrally planned, monopolistic, and rent-extracting. There are wonderful examples of strong downtowns, such as NYC, and this was nothing to do with urban planning and everything to do with the evolution of a particular economic cluster. It is cargo cultist delusion to expect to replicate this with arbitrary planning.

The multiplication of clusters of employment and amenities in an urban area, along with the minimisation of economic land rent everywhere, is by far the best course for most cities, most of the time, to simply allow to happen. By far the best thing for most of the people, too, with the exception of the rent-seeking top 1%. This is what Detroit needs to run with. If capitalists won't revive the downtown for you (and they will probably revive it along the lines of just another suburban specialist cluster of one kind or another), just dynamite it and turn it into a nature reserve - and maximise cross-urban-area access with massive highway connections where the downtown was. I would argue that a city with no built-up central obstructions to cross-urban-area travel will be the most efficient form most cities could deliberately plan.

"Public" transport should be allowed to evolve competitively with no monopolies allowed, and subsidies following the rider, not the trade union. Same principle as school vouchers following the child. A first world city with a first world version of Manila's Jitney system could be just as famous for that, as some cities now are for their subway systems. Come to think of it, Moscow's subway system is possibly one of the world's grandest, but who cares about that these days? Personal independent transport is perfectly rational and objective and fits with the free market economy. It is absurd and nonsense to argue that mass public transport would create more value in an economy. It creates economic RENT for the owners of property at the focus of the routes, but that is nothing to do with the creation of new wealth - it is merely a transfer of wealth created elsewhere in the economy. Far more wealth is created by participants in the economy being able to go anywhere in the shortest possible time, rather than being restricted to mass transit routes. The communist economy did not fail "in spite of" the "advantage" of forcing everyone to use trains for travel - this was an inherent part of the entire system's implosion in inefficiency and stagnation.