Detroit: The Nation’s Sinkhole

A massive sinkhole opened up in downtown Detroit last Saturday, which officials say could take days to repair.  The sinkhole, about 14 feet deep and 10 feet wide, is only blocks away from the North American International Auto Show. 

When asked about the cause of the sinkhole, Michigan Department of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Cross said the city has “older substructures underneath the roadways.  Age is always a factor – that’s going to be the kind of thing that’s going to have to be determined as well,” she said.

In any other city, there would be nothing about ironic about a sinkhole, or pothole, in winter.  In a city that is $18.5 billion in debt, the sinkhole is truly ironic and emblematic of the city’s problems, even more so than its thousands of abandoned homes, stores, and commercial buildings.  On this official Martin Luther King Day, it’s interesting to note that he tested out his “I Have a Dream” speech on Detroit residents before taking it to Washington, D.C., two months later.

Between 2000 and 2010 the city’s population fell by 25 percent, changing its ranking from the nation’s 10th largest city to 18th.   In 2010, the city had a population of 713,777, more than a 60 percent drop down from a peak population of over 1.8 million at the 1950 census, indicating a serious and long-running decline in Detroit’s ‘s economic strength.  Commensurate with the shift of population and jobs to its suburbs or other states, the city has had to adjust its role within the larger metropolitan area.  Downtown Detroit has seen an increased role as an entertainment hub in the 21st century, with the opening of three casinos, new stadiums, and a riverfront revitalization project. However, many neighborhoods remain distressed.

The state governor declared a financial emergency in March 2013, appointing an emergency manager.  On July 18, 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. It was declared bankrupt by U.S. judge Stephen Rhodes on Dec. 3, 2013, who cited its $18.5 billion debt and declared that negotiations with its thousands of creditors were unfeasible.

Industry spurred growth during the first half of the 20th century as the city drew tens of thousands of new residents, particularly workers from the Southern United States, to become the country’s fourth largest city.

Social tensions rose with the rapid pace of growth, and racism continued to be a major problem in the United States. On Jan. 20, 1942, with a cross-burning nearby, 1,200 whites tried to prevent black families from moving into a new housing development in an all-white area of the city. Later in June 1943, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in their assembly lines. In response, 25,000 whites walked off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production.  During the protest, a voice with a southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a nigger [sic].”  The Detroit Race Riot of 1943 occurred three weeks after the Packard Motor Car incident. Over the course of three days, 34 people were killed. Of them, 25 were African–American, and approximately 600 were injured.

Mergers in the 1950s, especially in the automobile sector increased oligopoly in the American auto industry. Detroit auto manufacturers such as Packard and Hudson merged into other companies and eventually disappeared.  These mergers led to the creation of The Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler), stifling creativity, innovation, and consumer choice in automobiles.

An extensive freeway system constructed in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s encouraged auto commuting. In 1956, Detroit’s last heavily-used electric streetcar line along the length of Woodward Avenue was ripped out and replaced with gas powered buses. It was the last line of what had once been a 534-mile network of electric streetcars. In 1941, a streetcar had once run on Woodward Avenue every 60 seconds at peak times.  All of these changes in the area’s transportation system favored low density auto-oriented development over high-density urban development and were factors that contributed to the metro Detroit area becoming the most sprawling job market in the United States.   

In 1950, before the area shut down its last electric streetcar lines, the city held about one-third of the state’s population. Over the next sixty years, the city’s population gradually decreased to less than 10 percent of the state’s population. During the same time period, the sprawling Detroit metropolitan area which surrounds and includes the city grew to contain more than half of Michigan’s population.  Commensurate with the shift of population and jobs to suburbs, the city’s tax base eroded.

In June 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a major speech in Detroit that foreshadowed his famous “I Have a Dream” speech two months later. During the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Detroit witnessed growing confrontations between the police and inner city black youth, culminating in the Twelfth Street Riot in July 1967. Gov. George W. Romney [Mitt’s father] ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit, and President Johnson sent in U.S. Army troops.  The result was 43 dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Thousands of small businesses closed permanently or relocated to safer neighborhoods, and the affected district lay in ruins for decades.

On Aug. 18, 1970, the NAACP filed suit against Michigan state officials, including Gov. William Milliken. The original trial began April 6, 1971, and lasted 41 days. The NAACP argued that although schools were not officially segregated (white only), the city of Detroit and its surrounding counties had enacted policies to maintain racial segregation in schools. The NAACP also suggested a direct relationship between unfair housing practices (such as redlining) and educational segregation.

District Judge Steven J. Roth held all levels of government accountable for the segregation. The Sixth Circuit Court affirmed some of the decision, withholding judgment on the relationship of housing inequality with education. The court specified that it was the state’s responsibility to integrate across the segregated metropolitan area.

The governor and other accused officials appealed to the Supreme Court, which took up the case Feb. 27, 1974.  The subsequent Milliken v. Bradley decision would come to have enormous national impact. According to Gary Orfield and Susan E. Eaton in their 1996 book, “Dismantling Desegregation”, the “Supreme Court’s failure to examine the racial underpinnings of metropolitan segregation” in Milliken made desegregation “almost impossible” in northern metropolitan areas. “Suburbs were protected from desegregation by the courts ignoring the origin of their racially-segregated housing patterns.”

“’Milliken was perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of that period,’ said Myron Orfield, professor of law and director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, and author of “Metropolis”, which laid the groundwork for implementing Agenda 21 in the United States, under the guise of sustainable community development in the United States.

“Had that gone the other way, it would have opened the door to fixing nearly all of Detroit’s current problems.”

John Mogk, a professor of law and an expert in urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit, says, “Everybody thinks that it was the riots [in 1967] that caused the white families to leave. Some people were leaving at that time but, really, it was after Milliken that you saw mass flight to the suburbs.  If the case had gone the other way, it is likely that Detroit would not have experienced the steep decline in its tax base that has occurred since then.”

Long a major population center and major engine of worldwide automobile manufacturing, Detroit has gone through a continuing economic decline.  Like many American cities, Detroit reached its population peak in the 1950 census. The peak population was 1.8 million people, and as of the 2010 census had less than 40 percent of that number at just over 700,000 residents. The city has declined in population with each subsequent census since 1950.

Frank J. Popper, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton, compares the Great Plains with Detroit’s.  During the 20th century, many rural counties have seen the same or higher population declines than Detroit.  Popper says the Great Plains is experiencing rural decline while Detroit is the foremost example of urban decline. He suggests solutions for “smart decline,” such as combining rural counties to eliminate some administrative overhead, and for Detroit, a concentration of population, and land banking the unsalvageable neighborhoods.

Land Banks are quasi-governmental entities created by counties or municipalities to effectively manage and repurpose an inventory of underused, abandoned or foreclosed properties. They are often chartered to have powers that allow them to accomplish these goals in ways that existing government agencies cannot. While the land bank model has gained broad support and has been implemented in a number of cities, they are implemented differently so as to best address both municipal needs and the state and local legal context in which they were created.

The ongoing decline has left its mark on the city, most notably in severe urban decay and thousands of empty homes, apartment buildings and commercial buildings around the city.  Some parts of Detroit are sparsely populated resulting in the city having difficulty providing municipal services. The city has sought and considered various solutions such as demolition of abandoned homes and buildings; removal of street lighting from large portions of the city; and encouraging the small population in certain areas to move to more populated locations as there may not be a quick response for city services such as police in depopulated areas.

More than half of the owners of Detroit’s 305,000 properties failed to pay their 2011 tax bills, exacerbating the city’s financial crisis. According to the Detroit News, 47 percent of the city’s taxable parcels are delinquent on their 2011 tax bills, resulting in about $246 million in taxes and fees going uncollected, nearly half of which was due to Detroit. The rest of the money would have been earmarked for Wayne County, Detroit Public Schools and the library system. The review also found 77 blocks in Detroit had only one owner who paid taxes in 2011.

High unemployment was compounded by white and middle-class flight to the suburbs and further afield, and the city was left with a reduced tax base, depressed property values, abandoned buildings, abandoned neighborhoods, high crime rates and a pronounced demographic imbalance. There are many stray dogs in the city’s derelict areas. Their numbers are estimated at 20,000. Fifty-nine Detroit postal workers were attacked by stray dogs in 2010, according to a Detroit postmaster.  Detroit is literally going to the dogs.

It’s going to the dogs, its infrastructure rotting away into dust, and its city services grinding to a halt.  The residents either can’t or won’t pay their taxes, those who could have done so have moved away, and the city is so insolvent that it can’t even negotiate a deal with its creditors to pay its debts.

Detroit is not a dream.  It’s a failed dream.  It’s a nightmare, one that is awaiting other cities who embraced Lyndon Johnson’s dream of a Great Society and it’s going to take more than a fresh coat of paint and asphalt and government bail-outs to rebuild them.  Using taxpayer money to revive these blighted cities is like literally pouring currency and paper money into Detroit’s sinkhole and paving over it.


Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 11:52 am  Leave a Comment  

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