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Commentary: Why Detroit failed

This week, people in the Detroit area have been giddy with excitement over what seems to be even a better North American International Auto Show than usual. But in a week the auto show will be over, and sooner or later, we’ll be painfully reminded that Detroit is still teetering on the edge of insolvency.

Lately, the city council has been making some rational or semi-rational moves aimed at staving off the loss of political control. And indeed, the Governor seems to have slowed what once looked like a quick march to the appointment of an emergency manager.

Still, it is hard to see how a state takeover of the city can eventually be avoided, given what my students would call Detroit’s “ginormous” problems balancing its budget and the ticking time bomb of 12 billion in unfunded liabilities.

My guess is that the governor and state treasurer would prefer to wait until the end of March, when a new law kicks in that will give expanded powers to state appointed emergency managers.

By the way, if haven’t been following things that closely, you may be a bit confused. Didn’t voters repeal such a law in November?

Well, yes they did, and the Republican-controlled legislature promptly passed a similar law, in the lame duck session. If you think that is thwarting the will of the people, you’re not alone.

But what isn’t being talked about much is exactly why Detroit is in the mess it is. There are many theories, most of which fall roughly into two broad categories.

Those who live in the city often think the main culprit is white racism-- that those who were enriched by the city then abandoned it, and the state and the white politicians in the suburbs choked off the revenue streams.

Those who live elsewhere often blame Detroit’s woes on racist and incompetent black leadership which mismanaged or stole money and has defiantly and irrationally resisted efforts to help.

I’ve been around long enough to know there is some degree of truth in both those visions, but that neither accounts for the whole story. For me, a big part of the problem is that the modern metropolis of Detroit was always a way station for many. The population went from 300,000 to 1.5 million in 30 years.

Twenty years later, it hit two million, and then people started leaving. You didn’t have four generations living in the same neighborhood. You had southern transplants, white and black, and Eastern European immigrants. They stayed for a generation. Then they went away.

Detroit’s golden age was one of the shortest golden ages in history. That Detroit, like the Model T Ford, is never coming back. The challenge now is to build something new. 

We can do that, I think if we focus on fixing the problem, not the blame, and keep an open mind. By the way, Detroit has a 200 year old motto, which says in Latin: It will arise from the ashes. We hope for better things. That’s what the city did, in 1805. We all need for that to be right, one more time.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.