April 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Daniel Howes

Detroit's story: decline or revival?

As pundits try to explain Detroit's population loss, it's clear that no single answer exists for the decline

Abandoned houses sit next to occupied homes in the Delray neighborhood, an unfortunate occurrence in Detroit. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

If there's a prize for writing a city's obituary 50 years too soon, the winner is Time Magazine. In October 1961, the early days of the Kennedy administration, the weekly described a city where "prosperity seemed to go on forever — but it didn't, and Detroit is now in trouble."

People were leaving, its population down 10.7 percent between 1950 and 10 years later. Auto jobs were disappearing, casualties of consolidation and competition. The new mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, inherited a city budget deficit that the Citizens Research Council of Michigan pegged at $15 million.

That was 50 years ago, and what's changed? Nothing and everything. Detroit's newest decennial population bleed to the suburbs and beyond is 237,500, or roughly 25 percent of the population. Its finances and tax base remain a mess, despite Herculean efforts by the administration of Mayor Dave Bing. And its automakers? Not what they used to be.

No wonder, then, that all this and more — collapsing public schools, a raw legacy of political scandal, a battered and rebuilt auto industry and, most recently, harrowing numbers from the U.S. Census — prompted headline writers at The Wall Street Journal to proclaim "A Requiem for Detroit." The dirgeful score has been more than a half century in the making.

Chrysler Corp. long ago bolted for Auburn Hills, changed hands three times and collapsed into bankruptcy. General Motors Corp. did, too, a pair of searing workouts that radically changed their footprints, their leadership cultures and the size of work forces that Detroit and its neighbors used to build whole communities.

The steady decline is bad enough. Worse is the accelerating speed of the unraveling, punctuated by the automotive reckonings of 2008 and '09 and now the stunning census numbers. In a simple spreadsheet, the feds supplied the grist for a series of urban obits that have been a long time coming and the media — at least those who even bothered to care — duly obliged.

The Wall Street Journal headlined its story "Detroit's population crashes," which is painful to read but true. The New York Times head, also true, said, "Detroit census confirms a desertion like no other" and began its report like this:

"Laying bare the country's most startling example of modern urban collapse …," census data offered "… dramatic testimony to the crumbling industrial base of the Midwest, black flight to the suburbs and the tenuous future of what was once a thriving metropolis."

This week, CNBC moved past the politics and got to the kind of dollars and cents issue that threatens the city's viability far more than political finger-pointing: "Can Detroit Afford its Debt?" asked the headline. "The startling collapse of Detroit's population raises doubts about whether the city can afford to shoulder its enormous debt load."

To which I have a two-word response: "Excellent point."

In a blog post for the Washington Examiner, Detroit native Michael Barone noted the "utter devastation" in his hometown and the fact that it has lost 61 percent of its population since 1950. Then he struck a chord familiar to conservatives happy to blame Detroit's implosion on everything from LBJ's Great Society to Detroit's entitlement culture, even if the plight goes deeper and wider than partisan politics:

"When people ask me why I moved from being a liberal to being a conservative, my single-word answer is Detroit," he wrote. "The liberal policies which I hoped would make Detroit something like heaven have made it instead something more like hell."

An incomplete picture

It's not that the accounts are wrong. They aren't. It's that they're often incomplete, oversimplified and laden with political caricature, the better to score partisan points, occupy some mythical moral high ground or both.

Detroit's decline has many parents. There is the decided leftward tilt of politics that favored labor and government bureaucracy over business; the slavish reliance on an arrogant auto industry whose allegiance was to itself, mostly; an educational culture that valued teachers, administrators and contractors more than students; racial tension, inflamed by the '67 riots, busing and crime that accelerated the exodus.

Conservatives cite unions and Democratic welfare-state policies; liberals blame business, white flight and trade deals. And that's before locals get into the act with Detroiters blaming the suburbs and Republicans and suburbanites blaming former Mayor Coleman Young and forced busing. If only it was all that simple.

"The first problem that I see is the continuum of another negative national story that comes out of Detroit," says Larry Alexander, president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Whether it's the political scandals, the demise of the auto industry, the corruption that took place in our convention center or the collapse of our school system … people say, 'My God, is Detroit going to survive?'"

The honest answer: Not sure. And, second, the continuing stream of semi-informed commentary on Detroit's man-made disaster(s) doesn't help sell the city to would-be investors, media types or average folks.

Oh, yes, something resembling a city called Detroit will emerge from the other side of these tempering fires, just like companies calling themselves GM and Chrysler emerged from federally induced bankruptcies. Like the automakers, the city likely will be smaller, leaner and more nimble because the alternative is a one-way street to the largest municipal collapse in the nation's history.

City's decline bottoming

In other words, the Perfect Storm that hit Detroit still rages, despite renewed energy downtown, demand for housing in Midtown and billions in investment by hospitals, high-tech firms and the hospitality industry. The population flight, recession-fueled foreclosure crisis, public schools in free-fall, declining tax revenue and a changing landscape among private sector employers cannot be neutralized by new investment in Midtown, the Detroit Medical Center, casinos, hotels and a $300 million rehab of Cobo Center.

They're necessary, but not yet sufficient to reverse a trend that has been gathering momentum since Harry Truman was president. Worse, those are the kind of on-the-ground changes that drive-by media types don't see from their offices in New York or Washington.

But the granular truth is that more in Detroit is changing today than remaining the same because it has to. A former mayor and former City Council president sit in prison, but the new mayor and a reconstituted council are both more realistic about Detroit's predicament than any time in years.

Michigan has a new governor, Rick Snyder, who professes a desire to help Detroit wherever possible. A revised emergency financial manager law gives appointees more power to force painful change on school systems and municipalities, up to and including voiding collective bargaining agreements.

Has the time for Detroit's requiem arrived?

"I don't think so," says Sheila Cockrel, a former City Council member who runs her own consulting firm and teaches at Wayne State University. "The window hasn't been shut, but it's closing rapidly. We're running out of time," for radical change. "It has to be done or we're going to be the first above-ground Pompeii."


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Views of Detroit landmarks like the Renaissance Center are offset by ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
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