In my last column I described the key elements that brought Detroit to the point of bankruptcy. In this article I will suggest what I think the future holds for the city and its people.
Will Detroit be transformed by the bankruptcy proceedings? Will the trauma of that process lead to regaining its status as a major U.S. city?
The day after Detroit emerges from bankruptcy there will still be a public safety crunch, problems with education, and crumbling sewer and sanitation infrastructure. Graft and corruption won’t be transformed into honesty and virtue. Most of the city’s inhabitants will still be economically insecure. Detroit may come out with less debt, but not necessarily with a new design and purpose.
In saying this I don’t intend to disparage the city or its people. I applaud attempts by African Americans to regain mastery over their circumstances, and the young entrepreneurs creating many new projects on Woodward Avenue and in New Town. The community development model of Southwest Solutions on Detroit’s south side is encouraging. And Skillman Foundation’s long-term commitment to spreading these models of community development is a harbinger of better times for Detroit.
Additionally, the philanthropic community has helped immensely with their contributions toward stabilizing the city’s pension plans. This sets an example to other vested interests to make humanitarian concern a high-priority in any reconstruction efforts.
We must acknowledge, however, that the road to bankruptcy was long and arduous; a complex story. Influential factors of the region’s past will remain long after bankruptcy.
For example, racism, coupled with our fear of and distaste for those who are poor, unskilled, unemployable and black, will remain with us. The refrain of social Darwinism is still sung in the chambers of commerce, the halls of governance and on the golf greens of suburbia. We’ve seen its effects in “the new Jim Crow” policies enacted since the 1960s.
Similarly, our capitalist economy will continue to extract income and wealth from middle and lower class workers to benefit a few at the top. Kwame Kilpatrick’s gamble with the insurance companies in a deal to save Detroit’s pension funds was engineered by financial institutions seeking profits from the city’s hard times.
Bankruptcy reminds us that cities have a financial bottom line. The lack of money led to borrowing, which led to bankruptcy, because no prudent solution could be found to the lack of money. It is unlikely that new sources of revenue will become available to ignite Detroit’s future. And there are few signs that corporate interests have developed a passion for helping re-create Detroit.
If the major corporations were willing to move back to the city, hire union employees, pay just wages, retrain citizens to work with new technology, and contribute cash through taxes or grants to the city, this might constitute the beginning of a real “renaissance.” If the financiers would agree to lend money to the city and new small businesses at low or no interest, maybe the city could prosper once again. That’s not likely to happen.
Conservative critics can talk all they want about “cutting costs.” But we’ve seen the results of cost cutting, and they’re not acceptable. You can’t serve a populace trapped in poverty with a downsized police department and outdated fire-fighting and communication equipment. You can’t educate children with a financially strapped school system. The reality is that meeting the needs of 750,000 citizens is an expensive proposition.
Bankruptcy doesn’t change that. Going forward, the City of Detroit will still need to borrow money. The current tax base cannot support the huge expenditures necessary to provide services to the city’s residents. So borrowing is inevitable.
Just as deeply entrenched is an attitude of distrust about “whitey’s” intentions. Five generations of discrimination and racist policies in housing, education, workplace management, and retail sales have taken their toll. And then the whites ran away to the suburbs blaming those they left in poverty. Understandably, frustration and disillusionment abound.
Detroit citizens are the same as people everywhere: if the resources for survival, equality and dignity are denied, they will invent new ways to satisfy those needs. The symptoms of black-on-black violence and an underground economy built on drugs, graft and corruption should tell us we’ve failed to sustain Detroit with justice and an equal share in the rewards of capitalist enterprise.
In the long run, I expect a new generation will create a new Detroit. But one must have a geologist’s sense of time to see the possibilities. People and institutions change slowly; attitudes are passed from parents to children, inside and outside the city.
But any re-creation of Detroit must provide the revenues the city needs to deliver the services citizens have a right to expect from their city government. And everyone must pay a fair share of the cost: industry, commerce, state, citizens. That’s the bottom line for future sustainability.