Requiem for Detroit — It’s Official

In case you haven’t done so already, check out the cover story in the October 5, 2009, issue of TIME magazine, entitled “The Tragedy of Detroit,” at p. 26. It describes the decline and fall of Motor City, from its 1950s status as a prime American industrial metropolis to its present condition as a decaying slum, whose population has largely fled to the suburbs, or moved elsewhere altogether. Of course, as is customary, TIME concludes on an upbeat note, pontificating on what it believes should be done to restore Detroit to its former glory. But it’s all sort of like the fable about the mice deciding how to bell the cat — there is a clear understanding of what needs to be done but no explanation as to just how to accomplish it.

Also noteworthy is a one-page column by John Huey, Editor-in-Chief of TIME, who promises to stay on the story to explain the “misunderstood, underreported, stereotyped, avoided and exploited” Detroit. Rots of ruck, Mr. Huey. What he does not seem to appreciate is that one major cause of Detroit’s decline and fall has been the government policy that at least since the 1940s post-war period has encouraged and de facto bribed city dwellers to move to the suburbs. To say nothing of the urban riots of the 1960s and the disastrous government policies of the 1970s, that fostered a rise in urban crime, the catstrophic decline in the quality and safety of urban schools (including forced student bussing), and, of course, urban redevelopment that over the years tore down millions of urban dwelings, and replaced them, if at all, with downtown office high-rises and shopping centers. Even apart from economic considerations which made living in the suburbs more lucrative, all these factors drove urban dwellers out of cities. This was true not only of Detroit, but also of Flint, Camden, Buffalo, Cleveland, Newark, Bridgeport, St. Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia and others which, though not as bad as Detroit, are in similarly bad shape for similar reasons.

We commend three books to our readers: Bernard Frieden and Lynn Sagalyn, “Downtown, Inc. – How America Rebuilds Cities,” Jane Jacobs’ acclaimed “The Death and Life of American Cities,” and David Frum’s, “How We Got There – The 1970s.” The first one deals with the physical destruction of city neighboprhoods in order to build malls, the second one explains the politics and economics of the cities’ metamorphosis, or more accurately, their decline, and the third one tells the story of cultural decline that provided powerful incentives for urban dwellers to move out of cities.

We blogged about these things, most recently in America’s Emptiest Cities, September 21, 2009,   Check it out.