Michigan 13th District
Few central cities in America were as vibrant in the 20th century as Detroit, or ever as diminished as Detroit is now. This was America’s first automobile city, not just because it manufactured so many cars, but also because it was built to automobile scale. Detroit started the century as a second-ranked city, no bigger than Milwaukee, with less than half a million people and extending no farther than four or five miles out from the site where the French built Fort Pontchartrain on the Detroit River in 1701. As the Motor City boomed, it grew outward along wide avenues and, starting in the 1950s, along freeways. The auto companies put their factories and headquarters near the edge of urban settlement. As early as 1954, the nation’s first big suburban shopping center, with parking for 10,000 cars, was drawing retail trade from downtown. Metro Detroit expanded to 4 million people, each generation moving out the roadways rapidly in many directions, leaving behind the previous generation’s neighborhoods and civic institutions.
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Today, that trend has left large parts of Detroit literally empty. The central city had nearly 1.85 million people in 1950, dropped below 1 million in 2000, and stood at 917,000 in 2007. The reason is crime. For 30 years, Detroit had a murder rate drastically higher than its suburbs, and those who could afford to leave did so. Formerly iconic buildings in the downtown area have been torn down, and others are all but empty, while officials struggle to create new population centers and reestablish a business district. General Motors and Ford have been losing billions of dollars each year. (Chrysler went private and closed its finances to public inspection.) There have been some positive developments. GM bought for $72 million the 70-story Renaissance Center, built in the 1970s for $350 million, and the company moved several thousand employees there. Quicken agreed to move in from the suburbs. Beyond downtown, some of the city’s jewels have been maintained: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the hospital center, the old Fox Theater. New baseball and football stadiums have opened just north of downtown, and in 2006, they hosted the World Series and the Super Bowl. Residential and commercial projects are planned on the long-neglected riverfront, with encouragement from a new shopping plaza and promenade at the Renaissance Center. But beyond these well-policed enclaves lie acres of vacant fields and half-empty blocks where there were once five-story apartments or brick houses. The big losses for the automakers in 2008 and the hemorrhaging of jobs showed no sign of abating.
Detroit’s fate is all the more tragic because the city’s liberal reformers once hoped to create model anti-poverty and anti-discrimination programs here. Democrat Coleman Young, Detroit’s mayor from 1973 to 1993, spent his energy courting the Big Three automakers and bulldozed the viable Poletown neighborhood for a new Cadillac plant. Democrat Dennis Archer, who served the next eight years, took a different approach, and the city began to turn around, with lower crime, more jobs, new housing permits and the beginning of a thriving private sector. In 2001, Democrat Kwame Kilpatrick, a former state legislator, brought young blood when he was elected mayor at age 31, the self-styled “America’s first hip-hop mayor.” But despite the initial buzz, he was re-elected only narrowly. His tenure came to an ignominious end in September 2008, when he resigned after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice for lying under oath about an affair with his chief of staff. The controversy had paralyzed the city for months with a tawdry tale involving text messages on city phones. In its appraisal, the Detroit Free Press credited the mayor with presiding over the continued revival of parts of downtown, but complained that city services had continued to decline, along with the number of residents and businesses. “At his best, Kilpatrick called to mind an energetic, young Detroit. At his worst, he stood for a corrupt rust-belt city that seems to be running out of luck and time,” the newspaper said.
The 13th Congressional District of Michigan includes more than half of Detroit, plus a few adjacent suburbs, from the affluent Grosse Pointe, with nearly 50,000 people looking out toward Lake St. Clair, to the down-river industrial towns of River Rouge, Ecorse, Lincoln Park and Wyandotte. It includes practically all of the east side of Detroit and the west side up to about five miles north of the Detroit River—the entire riverfront and downtown, the old General Motors and Fisher buildings, and most of Detroit’s auto factories. At 108 square miles, this is the smallest district in the state, with the biggest problems. It has Michigan’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment and the highest percentage of residents on public assistance. Politically, the 13th District is overwhelmingly Democratic, but voter turnout is low—225,922 in the House election in 2008, far below the 351,963 who turned out in the high-income 9th District. This is one of Michigan’s two black-majority seats and one of the safest Democratic districts.