A lot of people have been writing about Detroit lately and why the one-time economic powerhouse is now a bankrupt echo of wasted opportunity. Most of it, coming from the usual suspects at MSNBC, is a lie designed to direct the public’s attention away from the oil – the lifeblood of the Motor City – on their ideological hands.
The problems of Detroit are not so much economic one; they were caused, for the most part, by political corruption.
Unlike most of those opining on television and in print, I was born in Detroit, in (the now gone) Mt. Carmel Hospital. I grew up six blocks outside the city’s limits and one block on the “bad side” of 8 Mile Road in a lower-middle class neighborhood called Redford Township. My father drove a forklift for Fisher Body, a subsidiary of General Motor, for 30 years. I went to Wayne State University in Downtown Detroit, lived in the Cass Corridor, worked a roofing job throughout the city’s worst areas and, even though I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2001, it’s still the place on Earth I feel the most comfortable.
I’ve never known a thriving Detroit. The economic powerhouse that was once called “Paris of the West” was long since gone by the time of my first memory, but I heard stories, and the shell of what once was can still be found.
Detroit is not the “conservative Utopia” Ed Schultz wants you to think, nor is it a place with a government “small enough to drown in your bathtub,” as Melissa Harris-Perry called it. It’s also not, as David Sirota wants you to think, the result of trade policies and the “conservative movement’s larger long-term economic priorities.” Detroit is the petri dish in which progressive policies and monopolistic political corruption joined forces to kill what could’ve been America’s economic crown jewel.
What once was still is visible in Detroit. The skyline is as beautiful as anyplace on the planet…from a distance. Beautiful stone skyscrapers rivaling anything in New York City become husks of urban decay when you get close enough to see every window smashed.
Downtown, which has seen a rebirth of late (relatively speaking, of course, but it’s quite nice), is encircled by the only non-bus public transportation – The People Mover. This monorail was a mistake from the start. Cost overruns, common in any government project, coupled with the fact that it is a single-track, single direction 2.9-mile loop around areas no one lives, exemplifies the sort of government planning that killed the city. If you wanted to go one stop back, the People Mover required you to go all the way around the track to get there. Needless to say, this poor planning made for a lot of moving but very few people. My friends and I would ride if for fun, but it never once came in handy.
But Detroit’s real problem wasn’t the mistakes made by city hall, it was the man who ran it. Much attention is paid to former Mayor and current inmate Kwame Kilpatrick for his scandals and frauds. Justified as that attention is, he was simply the heir to political corruption entrenched in the city’s Democratic machine decades earlier.
Since 1962, Democrats have had unfettered control of Detroit’s government, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This was personified in Coleman Alexander Young, Mayor of Detroit during its critical, then terminal years.
Mayor Young, first elected in 1974, was the first black mayor of Detroit. He entered office with all the promise that could bring to a city nearly 50 percent black. The city was hurting, but it was salvageable. Rather than focus on attracting businesses, Young set about taxing those that remained, driving them and those who worked for them, to the suburbs. Coleman Young was noted for a few things, none more than his mouth. He loved blaming the “Racist Mother F*@kers north of 8 Mile” for his city’s decline.
In national TV interviews, Young couldn’t help himself from dropping f-bombs and blaming white people. The city, which was completely dependent upon the auto industry (factories, not offices. Only General Motors has been actually headquartered in the city limits), made little to no effort to attract a diversified business community. It had some at one point. Stroh’s Brewing and Comerica Bank, to name two, where founded in the city but left when they no longer found it profitable to do business there.
In the meantime, foreign competition and rising labor costs drove the factories of “Big Three” out of the city and out of the state. No significant effort to make it affordable to stay was made. No company will stay where it can’t make money simply out of loyalty because no business is in business to employ people. Coleman Young didn’t stop it; he blamed the suburbs. Factories closed.
As he drove out businesses, Mayor Young also drove out people. People follow jobs. You hear the term “white flight” associated with Detroit, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, white flight happened, but it was soon followed by black flight, Hispanic flight and every other type possible. This rainbow flight was a direct result of Young’s divisive rhetoric and policies, with an ever-growing city tax burden and, like the Kilpatrick administration that came later, corruption, there was simply no reason to stay. Detroit is now a city whose population consists almost exclusively of people who can’t afford to leave. It’s 700,000 people under un-sentenced house arrest.
What Kilpatrick was convicted for, Young perfected. While the city hemorrhaged jobs and people, Young’s long-time police chief and political ally, William Hart, was convicted of stealing $1.3 million in undercover funds. His business partner and former deputy police chief, Kenneth Weiner, was convicted for defrauding investors of millions. Young only escaped charges through their silence and hispleading the Fifth.
At the same time, Young, a self-professed black activist, was found to be involved, with Weiner, in a secret business venture that bought and sold Krugerrands, the gold coin of the then-apartheid government of South Africa. It was illegal to deal in Krugerrands at the time, and something a principled “civil rights activist” would never touch, but Young did.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in Young’s legacy. He left office in 1994 a wealthy man, and when he died in 1997 the city mourned as if it had lost a hero.
The city had lost a hero – the city itself. A city founded in 1701 as a trading post that became one of the strongest in the world. A city that manufactured the means by which the world defeated fascism was taken out by the economic ideological cousin of that philosophy.
If there’s one silver-lining in the tale of my hometown it’s that it now has a chance to start anew. With large swaths of land vacant, in many ways it’s a frontier town again. If done right, and that’s a big “if,” there will be nothing to hold back Detroit’s potential. But the progressive Democrat machine politics still have a hold on the remaining population; victimization and race-baiting politics of “us vs. them” still sells in the city. Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointment of Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency manager is the best hope it has.
But it will never recover, nor should it, until it sheds the progressive model of high taxes and cronyism. I say that in the way only you can make a joke about your mother – out of love. Detroit’s biggest problem isn’t businesses, suburbs, flight or any other of the laundry list of excuses. It’s itself. When I read the news of Detroit’s bankruptcy I knew my city was gone, but I also knew it was the only way it was ever going to come back.
Derek Hunter is Washington, DC based writer, radio host and political strategist. You can also stalk his thoughts 140 characters at a time on Twitter.