What Can We Learn From Detroit?

Detroit Michigan occupied my thoughts today. First hand knowledge of Detroit’s blight is limited at best; I’ve seen photographs, know the city declared bankruptcy last year – a circumstance pitting “bond holders” against services, salaries and pensions. Hundreds of thousands have abandoned neighborhoods in search of jobs – Detroit has the highest unemployment and poverty rates in America. Schools, hospitals, factories, office buildings and civic structures languish in a surreal laboratory dedicated to structural decay. What little money there is goes to maintaining upper and middle class neighborhoods – poor, predominantly black residents left to wallow in an absurdly bleak parallel dimension.


Reasons for the decline of Detroit – highest property taxes in America, rampant government excess offering massive incentives and tax breaks to fund stadiums, casinos, office building with negligent return, bloated union controlled services, devastating factory and assembly plant closures, dissemination and displacement of black communities under the guise of “urban renewal” – translation; uproot and deposit in bleak government built highrise “projects” – I don’t really know, pick one or all of the above. One thing I do know –  the largest American city to declare bankruptcy places Detroit in the spotlight, don’t fool yourself into thinking it makes this an isolated or unique situation.

Detroit stands as a blazing example of misplaced priorities, shameful patronage, absurdly skewed expectations, racial inequality, misguided leadership, exclusion, favoritism, willful neglect and back room shenanigans.  Detroit should serve as a cautionary tale, an opportunity to reflect on the reality of America. In a perfect world people would stand up and take notice – Detroit isn’t an isolated situation.

Speaking from personal experience – a premature Interstate exit deposited us in East St. Louis. East St. Louis wasn’t on my radar, I had no way of preparing, let alone digesting the reality of racial and economic divide. Not threatening or scary – completely and utterly beaten into the ground. Late evening should have been dotted by street lights, closer inspection showed they weren’t simply burnt out –  smashed glass, torn out wires were just the beginning. Broken pavement, gaping pot holes,  block after dark block of forsaken businesses. A former hospital, 5 or 6 story brick construction likely circa 1960 – at first glance abandoned, then the realization people live behind broken windows. Candles illuminate makeshift window coverings, in the distance a small fire burns. Eerily silent, hopeless and by all appearances completely forsaken.

We could spend the next 100 years splitting hairs and pointing fingers, or use Detroit as an opportunity to smarten up. Look around – Detroit, St. Louis, Gary, Indiana – it doesn’t matter where you are, what counts is where we’re going.