That Detroit has been in the process of a downhill slide for decades is hardly news. Starting in mid-twentieth century as a prosperous, industrial city, the seventh largest in the United States, it has shrunk in half — with its population down by half too. It is a prime example of an urban basket case. Click here. Although, truth to tell, we are told that Kowalski’s sausage is still available.
As predicted by Mayor Jeffries 70 years ago, Detroit has now reached a point where it is unable to continue as a city. In light of its huge deficits and its continuously deteriorating condition, the State of Michigan has begun the formal process of appointing an emergency manager to take over the city in an effort “to repair the deeply troubled finances of Detroit, one of the largest cities ever to face such a level of oversight.” So reports the New York Times, Monica Davey, Michigan Naming Fiscal Manager to Help Detroit, March 2, 2013, p. A1 – click here
All that, however, is mere news. What we want to share with our readers are two things: (a) it was all accurately predicted in the 1940s, by a knowledgeable dude, even though his insightful prediction was ignored, and (b) the disaster was self-inflicted.
As for the prediction, back in 1944, Detroit Mayor Edward J. Jeffries hit it on the nose:
“Early in 1944 . . . the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Roads held hearings on federal aid for postwar Detroit., . . . Reading from a prepared statement [Detroit] Mayor [Edward J.] Jeffries said that in order to solve the city’s traffic problems Detroit was planning to build 168 miles of limited access highways after the war. We need these highways, he declared. ’And we need Federal funds to help finance them.’ When he finished, Representative Angier L. Goodwin of Massachusetts . . . asked, do you really think we should encourage Americans to use automobiles in the cities? Departing from his prepared statement, Jeffries gave an uncommonly candid and extremely revealing reply. ‘I am not sure,’ he said. ‘I am not sure whether bringing people into the heart of the city more expeditiously and quicker than they have ever been able to get in before will not be the ruination of Detroit.’ By this Jeffries meant that the proposed highways which were designed to make the center more accessible from the periphery, would also make the periphery more accessible to the center. As a result, more people would move farther away until ‘there is nothing left [in Detroit] but industry’ – a development that would bankrupt the city (and devastate its central business district).” Robert M. Fogelson, DOWNTOWN: ITS RISE AND FALL, 1880-1950, at p. 117, emphasis added.
Clear enough for you?
As for the who done it part, Detroit did it to itself. Among its other misfortunes (notably the wholesale exodus of urban populations to the suburbs where the pastures were (and still are) greener and life better), a problem which it shares with other old American cities, Detroit was the pioneer in using urban redevelopment in an effort to “fix” things. But it didn’t work out in spite of Detroit’s repeated efforts to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In a way, it’s a case of just deserts, because Detroit was not only a pioneer in the use of redevelopment, but it was also a pioneer in resorting to heavy-handed abuses of the indigenous population in the path of its redevelopment projects. In fact, the seminal case in which the federal courts finally upchucked, in a manner of speaking, and rode to the rescue of abused property owners was the Foster v. Detroit litigation. There, the federal courts held that when a city engages in precondemnation blighting activities, intended to ruin a neighborhood, and to soften up the owners of properties within it, then delays acquisition while the neighborhood decays, such as neglecting police protection and trash removal, and then bring a condemnation action in an effort to drive the owners to the wall, in an effort to pick up the targeted property for a song, that sort of activity gives rise to a cause of action in inverse condemnation against the city, without the abused owners having to wait until the city got good and ready to acquire their property, which by then is nearly worthless.
For a law review article dealing with that area of the law, see Gideon Kanner, Condemnation Blight: Just How Just Is Just Compensation? 48 Notre Dame L. Rev. 765 (1973), an oldie but a goodie, we assure you. It received the Shattuck Prize from the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers (AIREA), now called The Appraisal Institute, and was relied on by the Supreme Court of Washington as the sole authority for rejecting New York’s contrary rule.
As for our assertion that Detroit did it to itself, recall the worst case of redevelopment abuse which took place. It was the wretched Poletown case, in which the city of Detroit with federal help, blew $200 million in public funds to acquire an entire unoffendig middle-class neighborhood, raze it to the ground, and turn over the land to General Motors for a new Cadillac plant. GM was then the largest corporation in the country, so if anyone did not need a public handout, it was GM. But they got it anyway, along with a large, multi-million dollar tax abatement, on a promise that it would create 6000 new jobs. It didn’t of course. The level of employment at the new GM plant never rose to one-half of that number, and many of those jobs weren’t new — you just can’t run a modern automobile manufacturing plant with new hires alone.
And, of course, what’s good for General Motors is good for Chrysler, isn’t it? See City of Detroit v. Vavro. So when both those worthies, General Motors and Chrysler, eventually went bankrupt in spite of this plunder of private resources, there was more than a soupcon of divine justice in it.
So back to the part about Detrot doing it to itself. On that one, we recommend a book by Mark Steyn, a transplanted Canadian and an insightful, witty commentator on the American condition. His book is entitled AFTER AMERICA (2011). Note particularly pp. 217-223, which tells the story of Detroit’s decline, notably the disaster that befell its schools , without even mentioning the urban redevelopment story. Check it out — well worth your reading.
The disastrous ineffectiiveness of urban renewal eventually became undeniable, even in Detroit, and the Michigan Supreme Court eventually overruled the Poletown case in Wayne County v. Hathcock, but by the time their Lordships locked the barn door, the horse was long gone.
A note on background. Your faithful servant lived in the Detroit area in the late 1950s and that accounts for his knowledge of the place before it was struck by the calamitous decline, and that also accounts for his status as a Feinschmecker of Kowalski’s sausage. Years later he was one of the lawyers (along with the late, lamented Bert Burgoyne of Detroit and Toby Prince Brigham of Miami) on the legal team that represented the Sisters of Mercy in the Poletown fight (the Sisters’ large, acute care hospital was included in the take area), and that made us a percipient witness to the abuse heaped on condemnees in that controversy. That also enables us to conclude that if there is a word that aptly captures the calamity that befell the city of Detroit, it is “Justice!” — with a capital J.