Monday, July 22, 2013

What went wrong in Detroit?

What didn't?

Michael Barone writes:

But Kilpatrick didn't start it. I blame the ambitious liberalism of the Cavanagh years, which I believed in at the time, and the 20-year rule of Coleman Young, mayor from 1973 to 1993. Young was smart, funny, and politically ruthless, with a background in left-wing unionism. The story I heard was that he supported the reelection of pro-Communist R.J. Thomas as president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1947 against the anti-Communist Walter Reuther; after Reuther won, Young lost his job as a pork chopper (the local word for union staffer) and was sent back to the assembly line. As mayor he disbanded the police department's stop-and-frisk unit. Crime soared and Devil's Night became a Detroit institution. Young occasionally denounced black criminals. But much more often he denounced white suburbanites and in his autobiography, published after he left office, savaged white homeowners who left the city. His economic strategy was to ally with the big auto companies and the UAW, just as their business model was undermined by foreign-based competitors. He got the Big Three automakers to finance the 70-story Renaissance Center, physically disconnected from the rest of downtown, and tore down a viable white neighborhood to make room for General Motors's Poletown plant. The great northward migration of Southern blacks quadrupled Detroit's black population from 149,000 in 1940 to 660,000 in 1970. The high crime rates of the Young years reduced its non-black population from 853,000 in 1970 to 250,000 in 1990; it was down to 125,000 in 2010.

Liberal city government is expensive—Cavanagh instituted a city income tax raised later to 2.5%—and increasingly ineffective. The Detroit News reported that 47% of property owners didn't pay their 2011 property tax. The public employee unions, just starting up in the Cavanagh years, have long been pushing for salaries, benefits, and pensions that are increasingly unaffordable. So the city has let its physical facilities go to ruin, as LeDuff notes again and again. Dave Bing, the former basketball player and auto parts business owner who was elected mayor in 2009, threatened to close 77 of the city's parks. Detroit under its 1922 charter is a civil service city, with nonpartisan elections and nine council members elected at large. So, as LeDuff notes, council members and judges are often elected because they have familiar names. They don't have neighborhood responsibilities like Chicago's 50 aldermen and 50 Democratic ward committeemen. When I worked for Mayor Cavanagh, I was impressed by the competence and civic responsibility of Detroit's top civil servants. But since then the culture of civil servants and political appointees seems to have become one of entitlement and, as LeDuff observes, iron indifference to the plight of city residents.

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