My Hometown: What Detroit’s Demise Says About America

Detroit native calls Motown’s economic, racial, and social ills a warning for the nation.

AP
Ron Fournier
July 23, 2013, 3:44 p.m.

My an­cest­ors helped build De­troit. The Fourniers were fur-trap­pers and farm­ers liv­ing hard by the De­troit River un­til the fledgling auto in­dustry beckoned in the early 1900s with a bet­ter deal: $5 a day and a pen­sion.

In the 1960s, my fath­er op­ted out of the fam­ily busi­ness to be a po­lice of­ficer. He served De­troit for 25 years as part of the elite mo­tor­cycle unit that doubled as the ri­ot squad. One of my earli­er memor­ies is of my par­ents, dressed in church clothes, leav­ing our house to at­tend the 1967 fu­ner­al of a ri­ot cop.

Mom and dad raised four chil­dren at 15285 Coram in the city’s north­east corner, the same block upon which they were raised. All this to say: I love my ho­met­own. And I hate what De­troit’s de­mise might bode for our coun­try.

Wrench­ing eco­nom­ic change … in­come in­equal­ity … polit­ic­al cor­rup­tion … in­ef­fect­ive gov­ern­ment … ri­gid in­sti­tu­tions … chron­ic debt and ra­cism — these are the things that bank­rup­ted De­troit, mor­ally and fisc­ally, and they’re an ex­ag­ger­ated re­flec­tion of the na­tion’s chal­lenges.

Eco­nomy: De­troit failed to ad­apt to the glob­al eco­nomy and to di­ver­si­fy for the postin­dus­tri­al era. “Some­times the losers from eco­nom­ic change are in­di­vidu­als whose skills have be­come re­dund­ant; some­times they’re com­pan­ies, serving a mar­ket niche that no longer ex­ists; and some­times they’re whole cit­ies that lose their place in the eco­nom­ic eco­sys­tem,” wrote eco­nom­ic colum­nist Paul Krug­man in today’s New York Times. Some­times, the vic­tims are whole coun­tries, a fact that seems lost on Wash­ing­ton, where the lead­er­ship is po­lar­ized and smart ideas go to die.

In­come in­equal­ity: The un­em­ploy­ment rate in De­troit is more than 18 per­cent. Per cap­ita in­come is pathet­ic­ally low, near $15,000. Life is much bet­ter for sub­urb­an res­id­ents. In Grosse Pointe, Mich., sep­ar­ated from De­troit by the aptly named Al­ter Road, the me­di­an fam­ily in­come is more than $100,000, and un­em­ploy­ment is not a prob­lem.

Bad gov­ern­ment:  “The city’s op­er­a­tions have be­come dys­func­tion­al and waste­ful after years of budget­ary re­stric­tions, mis­man­age­ment, crip­pling op­er­a­tion­al prac­tices and, in some cases, in­dif­fer­ences or cor­rup­tion,” De­troit’s emer­gency man­ager Kevyn Orr wrote in May. “Out­dated policies, work prac­tices, pro­ced­ures, and sys­tems must be im­proved con­sist­ent with best prac­tices of 21st-cen­tury gov­ern­ment.” It would not be a stretch to ap­ply Orr’s words to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

Broken prom­ises: The group most at risk in De­troit’s bank­ruptcy may be the city’s 20,000 re­tir­ees (in­clud­ing my fath­er and many friends and fam­ily mem­bers). Of De­troit’s over­all debt, about half rep­res­ents pen­sion and health be­ne­fits prom­ised to re­tir­ees, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post. This is be­cause city lead­ers bor­rowed against pen­sion funds and mort­gaged the fu­ture—not un­like what Wash­ing­ton’s lead­er­ship is do­ing to So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care.

Ri­gid in­sti­tu­tions: Gov­ern­ment agen­cies, busi­nesses, schools, churches, the me­dia, and vir­tu­ally every oth­er city in­sti­tu­tion failed to help res­id­ents weath­er the tu­mult of the last four dec­ades of the 20th cen­tury. In par­tic­u­lar, big labor nev­er man­aged a second act after an­chor­ing the rise of the Amer­ic­an middle class in De­troit. Uni­on mem­ber­ship and in­flu­ence has de­clined in De­troit and else­where, con­sidered by many to be more of an obstacle than a solu­tion.

Ra­cial ten­sions: Ra­cism and ra­cial po­lar­iz­a­tion have a long and an ugly his­tory in De­troit. The 1967 ri­ots caused many whites to leave the city. White flight in­creased in the 1970s, when school bus­ing and a ban on real-es­tate “red lin­ing” threatened the nasty tra­di­tions of se­greg­a­tion. Craven real es­tate agents hired black wo­men to push baby strollers through white neigh­bor­hoods, then knocked on doors ur­ging res­id­ents to sell “be­fore it’s too late.”  

The fal­lout from George Zi­m­mer­man’s tri­al struck a chord with this De­troit nat­ive, par­tic­u­larly Pres­id­ent Obama’s elo­quent re­marks about Trayvon Mar­tin and black Amer­ic­ans. As a kid, I was told to lock my car doors in “black neigh­bor­hoods.” The own­er of De­troit store where I worked ordered me to fol­low young black men in­to the aisles “to keep an eye on them.”

On race and oth­er is­sues, De­troit should be a warn­ing to the coun­try. It was—and in many ways, still is—a great city, but poor lead­er­ship and an am­bi­val­ent cit­izenry al­lowed De­troit’s prob­lems to fester, grow, and even­tu­ally over­whelm it. A na­tion can make the same mis­take.

Co­in­cid­ent­ally, when De­troit de­clared bank­ruptcy, I was wrap­ping up a Michigan va­ca­tion. The high­light was my daugh­ter’s wed­ding. She lives and works in the city, and got mar­ried in a church not far from where the Fourniers once trapped beavers and farmed. Her fam­ily drove in from the sub­urbs to a city they had aban­doned (and that had aban­doned them). The wed­ding re­cep­tion was at the De­troit His­tor­ic­al Mu­seum, where the Fourniers danced to Mo­town mu­sic in the brick-and-cobble­stone streets of “Old De­troit.” We toasted the fu­ture.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
3 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
7 REPUBLICANS ON STAGE
Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
2 days ago
THE LATEST

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.

Source:
×