Detroit Rebuilding the Dream

Terrance Heath

Detroit SkylineIt has been called the city that moved America; the city that spawned the sound of a generation. For decades, Detroit was the assembly line of the American Dream. Its auto factories produced the cars that made possible the suburban life that defined the American middle class and provided jobs and wages that lifted more families into the middle class.

Now, with its abandoned factories and vacant lots, Detroit symbolizes the deterioration of the American Dream it once fueled. So, it is only right that Detroit is one of the first stops on the road to rebuilding that dream. Today, the Congressional Progressive Caucus brings its Speak Out For Good Jobs tour to Detroit. Caucus members promise to "listen to what everyday Americans have to say and take that back to Washington with them as they continue to fight to reinvigorate the American Dream."

If so, Detroit has a story to tell; one of a city and a dream in decline.

A Dream in Decline

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Detroit’s downward slide began, but in the past 30 to 40 years it has paralleled a middle-class decline driven by stagnant wages and the offshoring of good jobs that grew America’s middle class. Those jobs led African Americans in the South to migrate north, and immigrants to America’s shores in pursuit of a dream that their willingness to work hard would place within reach. Those jobs and that dream, by 1950, drove Detroit’s population to its peak of 1.8 million.

Today, the jobs that made Detroit the Motor City are long gone, and the dream that fueled its growth has stalled. The unemployment rate for Detroit, at 11.3%, surpasses the unemployment rate for rest of the state. The city’s black unemployment rate, at 25.7%, surpasses the overall rates for the city and the state. Many of those who have jobs don’t earn much. The census shows that Detroit’s per capita income is nearly half the national average, and that one third of its citizens live in poverty.

Just as jobs left Detroit, so have its people. Sixty years ago, the promise of good jobs and the promise for a better life caused an influx of workers from across the country, and around the world. Now, the absence of both good jobs and much hope for their return is fueling an exodus. Michigan is the only state that has lost people in the past decade, and Detroit probably has a lot to do with that. The city lost 25% of its population in the past decade, dropping to 790,000 from 951,000 in 2001, an echo of the "white flight" of the 1960s and 1970s, as black people escape Detroit’s high crime and poor services for deteriorating "second-hand" suburbs.

As a result, Detroit’s vacancy rate has risen to 27.8% from the 10.3% rate reported in the 2000 census, as job loss and foreclosure crisis fueled population loss. (The city’s had 55,000 foreclosures since 2005, and another wave is expected when moratoriums are lifted.) A lot-by-lot survey of the city revealed that fully a quarter of its lots are vacant.

Scrap City

Detroit has become a city of abandoned buildings, abandoned people and abandoned dreams. Its empty buildings, vacant lots and abandoned factories are sites for the adventures of urban explorers, who wander its ruins as archeologists might wander through the ruins of Pompeii, looking for clues about how the people who once occupied them might have lived, and hints about what caused the decline of this once great city. They post videos and photographs of their explorations on sites like YouTube and Flickr. Professional photographers seem to find a kind of sad beauty and mystery in Detroit’s ruins, and capture that mystery in evocative imagery.

But the story of how Detroit went from being the Motor City to Scrap City is no secret. There’s no mystery. The decline of Detroit isn’t the result of unknown circumstances. It’s what happens when manufacturing disappears, taking jobs with it. It’s what happens when people and their dreams of better lives for their families and brighter futures for their children and grandchildren are abandoned.

Photos of Detroit show boarded-up and vacant homes.  New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye describes this “as dramatic testimony to the crumbling industrial base of the Midwest.”

The U.S. Labor Department reports that Michigan lost more than 320,000 manufacturing jobs, just between 2001-2008.  Little wonder then, that without job prospects, hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced to leave.

Seelye says the massive drop-off in population is “the largest percentage drop in history for any American city with more than 100,000 residents.”  The only comparable flight would be the “unique situation of New Orleans,” where 29% of the city evacuated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

What’s especially disheartening is knowing that Detroit’s exodus was preventable.  Failed manufacturing in Michigan, which has left so many without work, is the result of failed U.S. trade policy and little effort by successive administrations to ramp up America’s industrial base in the face of changing global economic conditions.

Times are getting dire.  What’s urgently needed is for the U.S. to implement a national manufacturing strategy to bring back good-paying jobs before it’s too late.

Now, parts of Scrap City — the city formerly know as the Motor City — are actually being scrapped. Last year, in a move to save Detroit by destroying Detroit, the city government used federal money to begin razing 10,000 empty residential buildings by 2013. Remaining residents aren’t sad to see the derelict structures go, as they have been crime magnets in communities. There are even suggestions that much of Detroit, once razed, should be left to return to farmland. It’s part of a "Managed Decline" approach that basically means giving up on a city and finding something better to do with the land, or hoping that someone else does.

As one writer put it, after watching residents clap and cry when vacant homes that have long burdened their communities finally come down, "The hope is that as more homes are demolished, the problems they bring will be demolished too."

The Road Back

It will take more than bulldozers and hope to get Detroit and its people on the road back to good jobs, stronger communities, and better lives. It will take a plan; a road map that clearly shows the way back or at last helps navigate the next leg of the journey. When the Congressional Progressive Caucus pulls into Detroit to listen to what its people have to say, they will find no lack of ideas on how to get Detroit moving in the right direction.

A post at Winning Progressive, titled "Saving Detroit," points out that question isn’t how best to raze Detroit, but to invigorate it.

The question becomes how do we reinvigorate Detroit? The city’s mayor and others are proposing to "down-size" the city, which essentially means getting people to move out of the least populated neighborhoods so that city services can be shut off to those areas. Others, like Hartz Farms, are proposing to use the large areas of unused land for urban farming.

While perhaps understandable given the dire situation that Detroit is in, the problem with these approaches is that they constitute essentially abandoning the idea of Detroit as a major American city. We here at Winning Progressive believe there is a better approach that focuses on reinvigorating the city by repopulating it. This can be achieved in two ways:

* Make Detroit an immigration safe haven – Immigration has always been the life blood of American cities, from the Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants who came in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the Latino immigrants of the past couple of decades. And many more people want to come to the U.S. from other countries but either cannot get their way through our broken immigration system, or do not want to risk coming here illegally. As more people immigrate to an area, economic activity and jobs are created to provide basic goods and products to them.

* Urban Homesteading: In 1862, the government sought to encourage westward expansion through the passage of the Homestead Act, which authorized the sale of 160-acre plots of unoccupied public lands in the west for a nominal fee after someone resided in the area for five years. In Detroit today, the city government has taken possession of tens of thousands of vacant lots and thousands of other lots in the city have long been abandoned. So, why not enact an Urban Homestead Act, that combines free land with a $100,000 grant to build or restore a house on that land to any law-abiding citizen who agrees to live there for at least five years? Such a program would repopulate cities like Detroit, assist people in need, and stimulate the economy by increasing home building activity. 100,000 families could participate in such a program at a cost of $10 billion per year, which is one-seventh the amount of what the wealthiest two percent of Americans will be receiving every year if the Bush tax cuts are extended and less than one-tenth what we spent every year on the Iraq war.

Community groups already have plans will go a long way towards bringing the city back. Their plans reflect an understanding that, despite statistics like those quoted above, Detroit isn’t necessarily a shrinking city, as Kaid Benfield at The Atlantic pointed out.

There has indeed been a decline in part of the region. In 1970, 1,670,144 people lived within the city limits of Detroit. By 2010, that number had declined to 713,777, an astounding apparent loss of some 57 percent of the 1970 population. Recently, much has been made the 25 percent population decline over the last decade, from 2000 (951,270) to 2010.

But the extent to which Detroit is such a tragically "shrinking city" depends on your definition of "city." The population of metropolitan Detroit-the jurisdictional inner city and its immediate suburbs-did decline from 1970 to 2010, but only from 4,490,902 to 4,296,250, a loss of only 4 percent. Big difference.

Do the math: What that means is that, while the inner city’s population was declining so drastically, its suburbs added some 761,000 people, growing at the handsome rate of 27 percent. (In the most recent decade of 2000-2010, the suburbs added some 91,000 people, or between 2 and 3 percent.) Patrick Cooper-McCann writes on his blog Rethink Detroit that, far from shrinking, the physical size of metro Detroit grew by 50 percent in those 40 years. As I’ve written before, neither the economy nor the environment pay attention to jurisdictional lines; neither should analysts.

…Shrinking city? Really? What this tells me is that an even bigger problem for Detroit than the decline of the rust-belt economy has been that the fringe of the region has been allowed, more than in most places, to expand, not shrink, and to suck the life and hope out of the inner city. So why aren’t the self-styled progressive responses to "the Detroit problem" addressing this critical aspect of the problem?

Community organizations on the ground are doing just that. Next Detroit’s neighborhood stabilization initiative focuses on private and public investment in the strongest neighborhoods, to stabilize communities and stem the loss of jobs by supporting those neighborhoods with services that will attract and retain more workers. Other organizations focus on improving the lives of citizens living in the city itself. Community Development Advocates of Detroit has proposed reclassifying various neighborhoods as green zones, homestead sectors, or village hubs. Detroit Declaration focuses on developing urban farming, and encouraging fill-in housing development. Another proposal would entice more people to move to the with tax breaks and changes in zoning laws.

What Detroit needs most right now is investment in jobs and in its people. Detroit lost 323,400 jobs during the recession, and experts say that it will take more than a decade to for Detroit to recover at the current rate of growth. Only investment in creating good jobs — jobs that fuel the hopes and dreams of American families and communities — can get Detroit and its people on the road back to being a great American city, and restart the engine that once fueled its growth and greatness — the American Dream. When the Speak Out For Good Jobs tour arrives in Detroit, the Motor City will have a chance to get rolling again.

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