The State of Emergency in Bankrupt Detroit

John Michael McGrath is a Digital Media Producer for TVO.

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We must disenthrall ourselves: The first thing to understand about Detroit’s bankruptcy is that it has almost nothing to do with the troubles of the US automobile industry. Sure, GM and Ford’s problems don’t help (spare a condescending pat on the head for Chrysler), but the automakers had almost entirely abandoned the work of actually employing people in the city anyway: Scott Martelle rhetorically asked Bloomberg News, “There are, what, two car factories left in the city?”

So the arrow actually points the other way: As Detroit-the-city fell into penury, Detroit-the-industry was booming. Automakers added shifts this summer to meet demand—they just did it in the sprawling suburban factories that make the majority of their cars now. More good news: I hear the Chinese are hiring. That said, there’s a warning here for other cities: Don’t hitch your wagon to any one industry—you’re not smart enough to know the future.

The reality is that those lucky enough to have the last stable, benefit-paying union jobs in Detroit were smart enough to not live in the city itself anymore, having long since departed for the suburbs. Those left behind—overwhelmingly poor and black—still need the basic levels of service that Americans expect from their city government, though in Detroit’s case “basic” is being generous: The average response time from emergency services is 58 minutes.

What remains is the hard work of a North American city—the front line services that the higher orders of government grudgingly concede are necessary but don’t actually want to provide, much less pay for. While the national governments in both Canada and the United States have largely become insurance companies with armies, stripping away actual service delivery for cheques mailed (or mostly, not) to the lower levels of government, cities have no one left to offload their responsibilities to, except citizens themselves. Can’t stop or even solve crimes? Just get used to living on the set of the Red Dawn remake, kids.

So when you add to all that a flight of almost two-thirds of the city’s population since 1950, you get a city like Detroit: A corporation that’s required to pick up the trash, provide clean water, and keep police on the streets, all while its biggest corporate citizens relocate production, employment, and the concomitant taxes to other jurisdictions. It’s no surprise that some of the city’s biggest liabilities are its pension obligations. Cities have to make sure real work is done by real people, and people are expensive, what with their pesky insistence on eating clean food and wearing clean clothes and wanting the same for their children. A city, more than any other level of government, is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people.

Except that the emergency isn’t green, it’s black. As Detroit spiralled into disarray, it was put under emergency management. This recourse isn’t unheard of elsewhere, but its use in Detroit and other Michigan cities has left half the state’s African-American citizens under unelected municipal rule. Contrast Motown’s problems with the scandal of Bell and other towns in California where outright corruption cost millions. Yes, different states and different laws, but the fact remains: Bell is 0.9 percent black, Detroit is 82.7 percent black. One city is allowed the citizen’s dignity of accountability through elections, the other gets the subject’s duty of obedience.

This isn’t to say that Detroit is even remotely innocent of serious mistakes of its own. (A farrier? Really?) But healthy cities can afford even the stupidest mistakes, like trying to micromanage the food cart business or changing their mind on transit plans every full moon. It’s only when a worn-down, overloaded, emptied-out city is already on the knife’s edge that serial mistakes become killers.

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