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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
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.”
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
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
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
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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