“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.​


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.