My Hometown: What Detroit’s Demise Says About America

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

Ron Fournier
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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.

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