The key to Detroit’s success after bankruptcy

Sep 9, 2013

Detroit is in the news a lot these days, and will continue to be, for obvious reasons, as the city goes through the agony of the bankruptcy process while simultaneously conducting an election. An election, that is, for a new mayor and City Council who will be essentially figureheads until Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr leaves, something that will probably happen a little over a year from now.

But while the media is concentrating on the bankruptcy itself, I sense that we aren’t asking the really important questions. For me, the most important of all is simply this: What happens after bankruptcy is over?

There are streets in Detroit that bear an uncanny resemblance to Germany at the end of World War II. The shells of red brick buildings stand, most of them burned out, roofless, some with homeless and destitute people squatting in the ruins.

Looking at a street like that the other day, I was struck by the thought that throughout the last year of the Second World War, as vast armies raged across Europe, there were teams of planners in Washington and elsewhere working on how to govern the conquered nations after the war; How to lead them on an eventual path to a return to normalcy and democratic self-government.

Largely because of that, the efforts to change Germany and Japan were probably the biggest success at nation-building in history. That took time, patience, extraordinary work and money. But it was as close to an unqualified success as anything in history.

What I hope is that somewhere, someone is working on a plan for how to transition Detroit from bankruptcy, desolation and financial ruin to independence. Otherwise, I am afraid what we are going through now may be largely an exercise in futility.

Consider what happened when slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War. Millions of former slaves were freed, but without any money, possessions, education, family, or the slightest clue how to live as free men. This resulted in most being forced back into a state of sharecropper dependence barely one step up from slavery, a result that gave rise to economic and social problems that have persisted to this day.

Bankruptcy can give us a Detroit that is shorn of debt. But it will be a city of largely poor and uneducated people without enough jobs or mass transit, facing all the problems it faced before. Detroit is going to need help, and if it doesn’t get it, Michigan will suffer.

Twenty years ago, I came across a remarkable little book which is still the best thing I have ever read on our urban crisis: Cities Without Suburbs, by former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk. The book has just been reissued and updated with 2010 census data. Its well-documented thesis is this: That the real city is the total metropolitan area, city and suburb. “Elastic” cities, those that can capture and profit from suburban growth, succeed. Inelastic cities fail.

Detroit can succeed. But it will take a regional approach of some kind to do so.  If we are not willing to figure out how to do that, everything I know indicates Michigan will face years of futility and failure ahead.