Don't Cry for Detroit

Is Detroit a basket case? Indeed, many of us who work and live in the Detroit metropolitan area are becoming thoroughly annoyed with the tears of the media. We sense schadenfreude in their sympathy. It seems as if many Americans are using us to deflect other unsolved problems by implying that "we are not as bad as Detroit." And so the national media reels off the latest horror stories of police response time, abandoned houses, and wild dogs, and pins the city's demise on the "incompetence" of its black politicians and the self-serving unions who did not face "reality."

In doing so they ignore another reality: over 50 years of abandonment of the city, its schools, its factories and businesses, its homes, and eventually the region itself. Abandonment by whom? By whites heading for the suburbs and the Sunbelt, by businesses that followed them, by industries that moved production out of state and then offshore. Instead of blaming those who are left behind, our well-wishers should realize that national priorities and actors caused much of Detroit's decline. To mention a few, these include urban policies that promoted racial segregation and favoring the suburbs over the cities, the Supreme Court rejection of plans for metropolitan school integration, and, most recently, during the heady years of financial manipulation, the Wall Street experts who rushed to refinance the city's debt regardless of its ability to make repayment.

We still have hope for Detroit. Detroit is a center for innovation based on producing real goods of value -- the auto industry. While many manufacturing plants have vanished, the technical and administrative hub of North American vehicle production remains here. The emergence of the "smart car" and "auto intelligence" demands engineering, mathematics, science, and technology -- jobs constantly recruiting young people. In short, Detroit is the center of a rebounding and still-vital industry with a long-term future.

Second, the fundamental social issue at the root of most problems in Detroit, as well as the United States as a whole -- racism -- is being posed (but not yet solved) in relation to Detroit's housing and mortgage crisis and financial bankruptcy. The recklessness of the banks and corporate finance in general is finally producing a common metropolitan response to the city's difficulties. Black and white political leaders, city and suburbanites -- are equally exposed to today's financial dilemmas and are working together on them. It is somewhat ironic that this November, after a generation of black mayors, Detroit may be the first major minority-dominated city to elect a white mayor. The much-lamented decline in the city's population actually means that many African American Detroiters have relocated to the suburbs -- changing the city/suburb discourse. Whites are now mingling with African Americans as never before, and confronting racism is not simply a nice "liberal option" but now concerns daily reality. It is unclear how all this will work out, but Detroit has the potential of making important strides in one of the major issues holding back American progress.

And then of course there is the bankruptcy. Aside from the urgency of preserving the pensions of city workers and cornerstone institutions such as Belle Isle and the Detroit Institute of Arts, this is mainly an investors' arm-wrestling match in which most Detroit-area residents have little stake. On the positive side, it might clear away an underbrush of bureaucracy and shortsighted decisions made as Detroit was shrinking. Perhaps the resolution -- which may take years -- will repel investors who seek only secure profits and attract creative risk takers who will refashion growth and development.

The future of Detroit will depend on the city and the suburbs finally acting as a coherent, integrated region based on recognizing that we are all in it together. But harnessing our own capacities will not be nearly enough. We will also depend on regenerating a strong sense of national responsibility. Without a new Federal policy to promote manufacturing and wealth creation instead of financial manipulation, the resurgence of Detroit will be more difficult. Without a new national commitment to integrated, accessible public education from preschool through post-secondary, needed skills and talents will be more difficult to develop. Without a new national commitment to revive the old metropolitan centers as key engines of economic growth, culture, and national civic culture, our resurgence will be more difficult.

We do have hope for Detroit. But if hope is to be more than fantasy it requires real-world resources; people who are actively working together and not simply waiting to be rescued; a sense of solidarity reaching well beyond those who are struggling, including policies to make a different future possible. Like almost every kind of social hope, this ultimately depends on politics.