Shuttin' Detroit Down

Country singer John Rich struck a chord with his populist anthem "Shuttin' Detroit Down," in which he sings, "while they're living it up on Wall Street in that New York City town, here in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down." Wall Street and Washington may deserve the brickbats being thrown their way these days, but is Detroit blameless? Recent actions by its City Council demonstrate that Detroit deserves a good deal of blame for its own collapse.

The auto industry remains the lifeblood of Detroit and its surrounding areas. The Detroit International Auto Show kicks off the annual auto-show season. But Detroit is in danger of losing this world-class event next year, and other revenue-generating events as well, because of the City Council's irrationality regarding a $288 million plan to renovate and expand Cobo Hall, the auto show's home since 1965. The plan, which would transfer control of the facility from the city of Detroit to a five-member regional authority, has the support of Detroit's mayor, Ken Cockrel Jr., and Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm. But the City Council voted down the plan by a 5-3 margin. For the council, defending its own turf is more important than the preservation of the city itself, so they'll be looking to federal stimulus funds to pay for the project.

If there's any doubt about the self-serving ways of this city's leadership, just look at the council's reaction to Jay Leno's upcoming free shows for the unemployed in the Detroit area. Leno's early April shows will be held in nearby Auburn Hills, a suburb about 25 miles north of Detroit. This good deed is not good enough for some members of the City Council, who protest that Leno should be performing in Detroit proper. In an interview with WDIV-TV, City Council member Martha Reeves (formerly of the 1960s Motown group Martha and the Vandellas) said Leno was letting down the people of Detroit by holding his shows at the Palace at Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons. "Auburn Hills is not Detroit," she maintained. "Some of my friends don't attend Pistons games because it's too far away from home."

For the council, defending its own turf is more important than the preservation of the city itself.

These kinds of petty grievances illustrate why this once-great American city has long been on the decline. Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world between 1900 and 1930 but, as a great manufacturing hub, it has been hit hard by economic downturns. This is especially true in the current recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between January 2008 and January 2009, the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area saw manufacturing employment drop by 20.6 percent. Education statistics also demonstrate the city's failure. In the 2003–04 school year, Detroit's high-school graduation rate was 24.9 percent. Detroit's population currently stands at around 900,000 inhabitants--half of what it was in 1950. The U.S. Census reports that in 2000, Detroit became the first American city with a population formerly more than 1 million to dip below the million mark.

In short, Detroit is a city with real problems. But turf wars abound where cooperation and commitment to reform should. It's not that Detroit hasn't been offered opportunities to pull itself out of the quagmire it's in. For example, in 2002, philanthropist Robert Thompson proposed a donation of $200 million to the city of Detroit for the purpose of building 15 new charter high schools. The Detroit Federation of Teachers responded with a strike that forced public schools to close in late September 2003, and Thompson withdrew his proposal. Unions 1, students 0.

Two major stumbling blocks threaten any sort of revival for Detroit. The first is the naked love of political power. Take the no vote on the Cobo renovation: The possibility of substituting federal stimulus funds is by no means guaranteed. In fact, Governor Granholm has already noted that there is no language in the federal stimulus package providing for large public facilities like the Cobo Center. The majority vote of the City Council only makes sense if its own power matters more to the council than does the welfare of the city itself.

Second, Detroit politics has long had a racial component, and the language of racial victimhood is often invoked to fend off those who try to ameliorate the city's situation. The charter-school proposal and the resulting response from the Detroit Federation of Teachers immediately comes to mind, but race has also worked its way into discussions of Cobo's future. At a recent council meeting, Conyers flippantly informed a white official from the Teamsters' Union that the workers who staff the auto show at Cobo "look like you, they don't look like me." To Conyers, the issue of race--and the emphasis of separatism over common cause--seems more important than boosting employment in the city she represents. As long as the City Council interprets all attempts to help Detroit as opportunities for racial scorekeeping, the city will find itself trapped in its current circumstances.

Japanese auto manufacturer Nissan wasn't present at the 2009 Detroit International Auto Show, and a handful of other automakers are threatening not to display their vehicles next year. Without Cobo, Detroit will lose not only its International Auto Show but also the opportunity to host other events that would create jobs and revenue for the struggling city. It is estimated that the auto show alone brings in $500 million a year. But the majority of the Detroit City Council appears more than willing to let the auto show find another home. A city that faces such crushing economic problems will not be able to make a real move towards overcoming them as long as its leaders allow personal power and racial politics to trump the critical needs of the city and its people. Detroit's political elite do not need help from Wall Street or Washington to shut Detroit down.

Jennifer Marsico is a research assistant at AEI.

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