“Detroit didn’t fail. It was sabotaged”: on the decades’ long collapse of America’s industrial colossus

A family wait at a bus stop in Detroit in the week in 2014 when the city was declared bankrupt. Image: Getty.

The United States recalls its history like a child does their school records: with self-congratulating pageantry when favourable, and a mix of awkward silences and outright distortions when the sight is too ghastly to bear.

It’s a tradition echoed in the gossip that passes for earnest deliberation of Detroit. Once heralded globally as a titan of manufacturing, and home of the arsenal of democracy during World War II, the city’s collapse from industrial colossus into post-apocalyptic wasteland is explained away with less nuance and moral courage than a bedtime story.

To exaggerate the level of skullduggery is no mean feat. But before entering the arena, a word on my allegiances: hailing from America’s most despised of cities, I hate to see its history mangled by indelicate hands, motivated by nothing more than a powerful desire to be done with it all.

Whether knowingly or not, the lion’s share of Detroit’s self-appointed narrators hold forth from the delusion that history began sometime between the 1967 riots – or “rebellion”, as many remember it – and the election of the city’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, in 1973.

Anything that came before is only mentioned with hosannas to its mythic glory. And any question of that era’s barbarous foundations is met with the same thundering silence that awaits the fellow who, upon returning from a long stay among the muggles, asks whatever happened to that surly childhood chum Lord Voldemort.

Workers at the Ford factor in 1930. Image: Fox Photos/Getty.

There’s a reason for this. By discussing anything that happened before 1967 as something divorced from the wreckage that followed, or in hushed murmurs as unfit for polite society, it becomes infinitely easier to reach one’s preferred conclusions.

Take the Trilateral Commission’s menacing prophecy of 1975. Warning against the era’s “excess of democracy”, the commission predicted that crisis loomed on the horizon in those corners of the world whose people were unprepared for the hard work of self-government. What was needed was “a greater degree of moderation in democracy.”

Detroit is the crown jewel for this genre of fairy tale: drunk on its own cultural decay and desperate for the sober intervention of more responsible forces. Spellbinding? Perhaps. The city besieged by its own vice is, after all, the stuff of biblical legend. But it’s scandalously bad history.

To argue that Detroit’s anguish is just the shadow of vice is to shoulder a heavy burden of proof. Specifically, one must prove there’s ever been an era when black political life existed independently of America’s inaugural sin – that is, white supremacy as deliberate policy.


I have studied the record and found none. So here it is: Detroit is what happens when the machinery of state is angled toward the ruin of a pariah class. Black Americans, and thus their country, have known no era free of this fact.

Certainly the antebellum period – when policy, white supremacy, and capitalism formed the unholiest of alliances in erecting an empire built on slave labour – isn’t one. And surely the same goes for its less explicit but equally maniacal Jim Crow successor, when white terrorism decimated black political life throughout the South and much of the North.

Nor is such an era found in the years of Roosevelt and Truman, when refugees fleeing Southern apartheid found that political asylum in the North was a phantom – differing only, as James Baldwin once quipped, "in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact."

Let’s dwell there for a moment, because black Detroit was forged in the crucibles of that devastation. And in the teeth of such terrific oppression, it wasn’t alone – it shared the tortured fate of black meccas across the country. As New Deal programs spread the American religion of homeownership in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, African Americans were largely excluded from the government-backed housing market that doled out loans based on redlined maps – maps deliberately drawn to seal African Americans in the ghetto.

That market would go on to birth the American middle class, and thus the primary vehicle for wealth creation in the United States. Today’s Detroit, as much as its suburban counterparts, is the mangled fruit of statecraft, deliberate and unambiguous. Invocations of the city’s past prosperity should be met with a metric ton of scepticism. That prosperity was ill-gotten, erected on the plunder of its emerging black underclass.

It’s against this backdrop that the Detroit of today must be interpreted. One cannot seriously discuss a city that suffered the worst of the housing crisis without it.

To state the obvious once more: policy authored the maps that organised communities in a way that left them ripe for plunder during the housing boom, when as many as 75 per cent of mortgages originating in Detroit were subprime. In those same communities, widespread social misery is treated by the mutilating barbs of American criminal justice policy, banishing scores of men and women from what remains of the city’s democracy.

And in November 2013, Detroit became the largest city in the nation’s history to file for municipal bankruptcy – a bankruptcy, as the think-tank Demos has thoroughly documented, based on a falsified record of history.

Downtown Detroit on a rainy day in 1955. Image: Three Lions/Getty.

For starters, the awe-inspiring “$18bn in debt” was flat-out misleading. Detroit’s immediate cash flow shortfall, the only relevant figure for a municipal bankruptcy, was $198m. Of all the causes – a depleted tax base, skyrocketing financial costs, corporate subsidies and tax loopholes, and slashed state revenue sharing – “destructive and wasteful” conduct by city government was not among them.

It bears mentioning that that bankruptcy took place under the stewardship of an emergency manager law that annihilates local democracy by placing decision-making power in the hands of a state-appointed commissar. This horror show of a policy is straight Orwellian, yet also decidedly American in its easygoing mockery of the nation’s declared values.

By now, we’ve got a pretty clear sense of the outcome and it’s none too pretty – the emergency management experiment has a record of breathtaking failure in city after city. After pulverising the public education of children in one, it plied its trade at literally poisoning children in another. The reasons for failure aren’t mysterious: the policy ignores the actual causes of decline – a long and well-documented history of public policy angled towards plunder. That is deliberate sabotage.

All of which leads to an unpleasant but obvious conclusion: a Detroit independent of these forces and left to its own democratic devices is a convenient story, but one that has no basis in the historical record. To avoid this fact, to enroll oneself in the lie of cultural decay and the ritual of history as bedtime story, is to outdo Malcolm X’s parable of a man stabbed in the back, only to be told its removal is progress. It is to pretend the atrocity never happened to begin with.

Eli Day is a former congressional policy adviser, and a Detroit-bred writer of policy and plunder.​

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.