Who’s to blame for Detroit’s collapse?

Detroit filed for bankruptcy Thursday, making it the largest U.S. city to ever seek Chapter 9 protection. It’s sad news for the once-great city. Still, the headline seemed to have delighted many. Just check out The Times’ comments section, with several readers gleefully blaming Democrats. “Detroit should be held up as a national example how liberal-socialist, Democrat policies can destroy a once vibrant city within a generation,” says “I hate the media.” (Nice moniker.)

In a 2011 Op-Ed about Detroit’s collapse, Scott Martelle, author of “Detroit: A Biography,” gave readers a view of the Michigan city through a different lens. An excerpt:  

The collapse of Detroit has roots in intentional de-industrialization by the Big Three automakers, which in the 1950s began aggressively spider-webbing operations across the nation to produce cars closer to regional markets, and to reduce labor costs by investing in less labor-friendly places than union-heavy Detroit. Their flight was augmented by government policies that, in the 1970s and 1980s particularly, forced municipalities and states to compete with each other for jobs by offering corporate tax breaks and other inducements to keep or draw business investments, a bit of whipsawing that helped companies profit at the expense of communities.

Racism plays a significant role too. Detroit’s white flight exploded in the 1950s and ‘60s, after courts struck down local and federal policies that had allowed segregated housing. That was followed by middle-class flight on the part of blacks and whites as crime endemic to high-poverty, high-unemployment neighborhoods began spreading. It’s significant to note that Detroit’s inner-ring suburbs have been picking up African American populations as young Detroit families seek safety, stability and more reliable schools. As they run out of the city, its vast socioeconomic problems become even more distilled, more pronounced. Continue reading…


Earlier this year, Martelle wrote about Detroit’s demise for our Op-Ed pages again, explaining:

Detroit, once the nation’s fourth-largest city, has been crumbling since the 1950s, when its population peaked at a little over 1.84 million people. Estimates put the current population at under 700,000, and Detroit leads the nation’s large cities in the percentage of people living below the federal poverty line. More than a quarter of Detroit’s 140-square-mile city is now empty space. A Detroit house is cheaper to buy than a new car, and a high-paying job within the city limits is a rare thing to find, even with a recent influx of downtown-focused developments.

The emptying of Detroit stems from a complex mix of intractable racism, corporate and governmental decisions, failed institutions and crime levels that have driven most of the middle class to the suburbs. Local governments have regularly undercut each other with tax deals to lure jobs (much as Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to do on his recent visit to California). These deals have helped corporations at the expense of communities like Detroit, causing the city’s tax base to shrink faster than the city government could adapt and leaving it with massive debt, annual operating deficits, a demoralized workforce, an impoverished population base — and no plan for how to fix things. [...]

The people who left Detroit did so in a million individual decisions framed by dwindling jobs and shrinking wages, persistent crime, a collapsed public school system and inadequate services. But the collapse of city services has been a symptom of the underlying problems, not the cause. In fact, the Detroit News recently reported that half the city’s property owners have stopped paying their property taxes partly out of anger and frustration with the lack of services. “Why should I send them taxes when they aren’t supplying services?” the paper quoted one resident as saying. “It is sickening.... Every time I see the tax bill come, I think about the times we called and nobody came.” Continue reading…


So, what’s next for Detroit? Here’s another commenter’s take. From “GregMaragos”:

Now is hardly the time for conservatives to indulge in schadenfreude.  Nevertheless, it is likewise not a time to turn a blind eye to this cautionary tale of the true cost of hyper-liberalism.

No federal bailout, period. No ifs ands or buts. The only cure for Detroit is a strong dose of tough love.

We wish the good people of this city well.


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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier

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