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Monday, July 8, 2013

Detroit and New Orleans

Detroit’s Recovery

Edited from a May 14th, 2013 post by Marybeth Benjamin on the Econ 244 web site

The eye opening drive through the city of Detroit during our weeklong trip perfectly showcased the devastation and the challenges that the city faces. The trip was particularly poignant for me because of the striking similarities between my city, New Orleans, and Detroit.

I saw the beautiful neighborhood of Indian Village, well-maintained mansion after mansion, bordered by crumbling buildings and abandoned homes. Everywhere I looked outside of such intact neighborhoods I saw abandoned street blocks, some with only one house in livable condition. It reminded me of the moment I returned home to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. It devastated the city, but disproportionately affected some of the poorer areas.

The similarities did not stop there: During the last decade following hurricane Katrina, the population in New Orleans decreased by almost 30%, which parallels Detroit’s 25% population decline in the past 10 years.

After viewing the city and the extent of the decline, I couldn’t help but wonder if Detroit will ever make a full recovery some day.

Oliver Liu added on May 14, 2013 that Detroit will never return to its heyday. At the Detroit Institute of Arts in the exhibition Motor City Muse: Detroit Photographs, Then and Now there were exercises in rephotography; pictures that showed the city in the mid 20th century bustling and pictures just recently taken of the same places showed just a shadow of past activity. Over time more mechanization will take place in factories and I doubt the population of the city will ever approach peak levels, which is a real problem as the city which can’t pay its debt and has large pension obligations to retired public servants.

"G" Jeong commented on May 14, 2013 that as per class discussions during our time in the city, the decline in Detroit was not sudden. It took a long time for Detroit to become a “devastated” city. Remembering what I saw from DIA, I also agree with Oliver and Professor Smitka that it is not possible for Detroit to recover unless something happens (government involvement?). By recovery, I meant it will be extremely difficult for Detroit to go back to its 1 million population days [much less its peak of nearly 2 million].

the prof wrote on May 15, 2013 that a city has tremendous fixed costs. In addition, the down cycle was not governed by any local planning, so no neighborhood in Detroit is totally gone. As a result, it’s hard to close down police and fire stations, or elementary schools, because they need to be close to where people live.

On top of that Detroit has decades of corrupt government – Louisiana doesn’t exactly have a reputation for clean government, either, but Detroit is exceptional, with the previous mayor and various close associates in prison, or heading that way. Tens if not hundreds of millions were embezzled, and (while not necessarily due to corruption) politicians frittered away lots more on projects that with hindsight proved inappropriate to the city’s needs.

Politically the state of Michigan doesn’t want to help Detroit (and is itself hurting), and the Federal government is nowhere to be seen. A slow disaster does not qualify for FEMA assistance. There’s no money to tear down the odd abandoned house in an otherwise intact neighborhood, and that makes it harder for adjacent houses to avoid blight – they lose their resale value. Teachers can’t be paid, with the connivance of city officials the warehouse that’s supposed to hold books and supplies is empty, and with the collapse of employment families are unstable. Kids suffer, through no fault of their own.

Cruise the city and count the grocery stores. It's not hard – in many neighborhoods there are none. For those interested, read a new book (2013), Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. It’s a riveting read, but I didn’t pick it up until long after I ordered books for the term.

Paul kuveke wrote on May 15, 2013 that maybe the city of Detroit should not spend resources trying to lower its fixed costs but rather try to draw people back into the city. Detroit has a horrible reputation throughout the country (on YouTube "we’re not detroit" is a popular phrase: watch this example). While Detroit was a lot better than what I’d heard, it's difficult to counter the perception of those who've never visited. It doesn’t help that for the past few years Detroit has ranked in the top 3 U.S. cities for violent crime.

On May 17, 2013 Tyler Kaelin wrote that he agrees with Paul, Detroit has some wonderful things to offer, but it will never return to its former glory until it can escape its less then attractive past. The auto industry hurt Detroit in more than one way in this regard. People see the Detroit 3 as an extension of Detroit itself. At the congressional meetings when people became angry and frustrated with the Detroit 3, they were becoming angry at Detroit by extension.