The day before Detroit declared bankruptcy, I was driving with Jack Dempsey, president of the Michigan Historical Commission, along a weed-choked Detroit street, next to a forbidding fence.
“There it is,” he said, pointing to a battered old two-story wood frame house. The windows were boarded up; one of the slats was falling off the sides. “Know what that is?“ he asked. I did. It was the home of Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth President of the United States, the general who won the Civil War for the North.
Grant was the only president ever to live in Detroit, back when he was a young army officer, spending his time racing horses up and down Fort Street. Anywhere else, this house would be a tourist attraction and a shrine, but instead, Grant’s house sits there, decaying, as the historical commission scrambles to try to figure how to move it before someone firebombs it.
Across town is Fort Wayne, an immense and impressive nineteenth century creation, built to guard against invasion by Canada; a place from where legions of young men were inducted into service for more modern wars. It is closed too, except for a couple weekends a year.
Detroit doesn’t much care about its past, and hasn’t planned for its future.
The state took over in March, and the city’s future will soon be in the hands of a yet-unnamed federal bankruptcy judge, where it will likely remain for some years. After that, no one knows.
What we do know is this: we are all, in a sense, responsible for Detroit.
The irresponsible politicians, who for decades, spent money unwisely and signed contracts and agreed to pensions and long-term obligations they could never fulfill. The media, too. They were willing to spend barrels of ink and film to find out who had sex with who, but not to spend the man-hours needed to look into whether the city’s pension obligations were funded, or, until very recently, asking why a poor city with 700,000 people still had a work force built for an affluent city of two million.
There are smug suburbanites in comfortable homes looking down their noses at Detroit today. Some live only blocks from vast urban desolation. Their ancestors came to Detroit, got rich, paid minimal taxes, polluted the land, and left. Some still have offices in the city, and as non-residents, pay only a pittance in taxes. They wouldn’t be in this area, most of them, if it wasn’t for Detroit.
For the Motor City, to steal from Winston Churchill, this is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Bankruptcy has been inevitable, probably for years.
But ask yourself something, no matter where you live. Are you sure your city is really solvent, that its pensions are funded, that it has sustainable retiree benefit plans? My guess is that you think so. But you really don’t know. Detroit has long led the nation in things good and bad, a city that caught pneumonia when the world caught cold. Today, it largely lies in financial and physical ruin.
You may think this couldn’t possibly happen where you live. And if that’s the case, you may be in more danger than you know.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.