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
Add to Briefcase
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 »
IN 2014
Pentagon Warned Flynn Not To Accept Foreign Payments
17 minutes ago
BREAKING
WOULD PUSH DEADLINE TO MAY 5
One-Week Spending Bill On The Table
28 minutes ago
BREAKING

Members of Congress are eyeing a one-week spending bill which would keep the government open past the Friday night deadline, giving lawmakers an extra week to iron out a long-term deal to fund the government. Without any action, the government would run out of funding starting at midnight Saturday. “I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Source:
WILL BE RENEGOTIATED
Trump: I’m Not Pulling Out of NAFTA
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump informed Mexican President Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday afternoon that he will not pull the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) despite reports earlier in the day that he had considered doing so. ... The three leaders agreed to proceed quickly with renegotiation plans as the initial review process comes to a close."

Source:
NEVADA LAWMAKERS STILL NOT SATISFIED
House Puts Yucca Mountain Back on the Table
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"A new bill to revive a permanent nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev., fails to address the concerns of Nevada lawmakers, suggesting the latest attempt may not resolve a 20-year impasse over the issue." The state's congressional delegation "shared their opposition to the nuclear waste policy amendment during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing focused on the legislation," and promised that Gov. Brian Sandoval would oppose it at every turn. "The new bill aims to finally use some $31 billion that has accumulated in the Nuclear Waste Fund, set aside in 1982 to collect specifically for a permanent repository."

Source:
SENATORS SAY LITTLE WAS LEARNED AT MEETING
Much Ado About Nothing on North Korea?
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Despite bussing nearly every senator to the White House grounds on Wednesday for a briefing on North Korea, the administration didn't have much to tell them. Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley said he didn't learn anything he couldn't read in the newspaper, while Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth called it a "dog and pony show."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login