For the sea of eyes gazing in, Detroit has long been a kind of portal to a world undone. Here, in the heart of the city’s strife-torn ghettos and manufacturing ruins, one finds ground-zero for America’s post-industrial storm. And amid the rubble, a dramatic warning that even titans can fall.
What goes unmentioned is the havoc wrought not by natural disaster, but by human sabotage. I’ve reviewed that history – of policymakers doing the work of bandits – in these pages before. I invite readers to comb the historical record and draw conclusions for themselves.
In the meantime, those who follow coverage of the felled metropolis have likely heard of its resurrection. It’s a captivating and dangerously simple tale. Just sprinkle in some downtown development here and commercial and residential expansion there, and voilà: from the ashes of America’s largest municipal bankruptcy, the city would rise again, cloaked in all the mythic glory of a phoenix reborn.
All the while, the future of the city’s economically miserable ghettos remained a question lonesome for an answer. Longtime Detroiters, on good historical authority, determined the fix was in. The city’s wealthiest and whitest regions would receive first class treatment while the poorest and blackest would be banished to cargo.
But the city’s elite wouldn’t let that spoil their version of revival. And they would have their revival, dammit. All they had to do was smear everyone who dared protest the plan as economic halfwits. Whatever the form, each attack emerged from a prophecy as old is it is wrong: that the wealth of the most powerful among us would inevitably trickle down.
You’ll notice that those who make the claim never offer evidence when doing so. And for good reason—none exists.
Let’s look at the facts. The American economy has nearly doubled in size over the past 40 years, while working communities’ share of the gains have totally flatlined. The reason is simple: over that time, we’ve eviscerated the policies that once nudged us closer to a more equitable distribution of the national income. Greater Detroit – where suburban prosperity rings an urban inferno – is the predictable outcome. And the recent wave of development has done nothing to extinguish it.
Detroit is home to a 40 per cent poverty rate, $25,000 median household income and 10 per cent unemployment rate that in all likelihood perilously underestimates the real one. Add to these grim figures a wave of water shutoffs, home foreclosures and school shutdowns and the picture becomes clear. Whatever the charm of recent happy talk, it’s saddled with the disadvantage of being bullshit.
But those made to feel like outlaws in their own home are having none of it. Instead, they’ve elevated policy ideas meant to empower them in the places they know best—their own communities.
Take the groundswell of support for what’s known as a Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO), which will appear on the city’s November ballot. It’s well-known that large-scale developers have a nasty habit of straight-up lying about the universal good fortune their projects will unleash on surrounding communities. Under the ordinance, developers that receive at least $300,000 in public subsidies for projects of $15m or more would be forced to negotiate those benefits upfront. Benefits like locally-sourced construction jobs, environmental protections, small business participation, and affordable housing options for low-income residents who would otherwise be pushed to the city’s outer limits.
This is straightforward stuff. These projects rely on massive taxpayer-funded subsidies and infrastructure to launch in the first place. Without policies that reconnect the productive power of communities with the wealth they help generate, that wealth will be almost entirely captured by a powerful few.
It’s an old and boring tradition. One that uses massive state intervention to secure the prosperity of some, while banishing others to the economic wilderness and demanding they outrun their own galloping misfortune. The CBO is a modest effort to turn those unearned handouts to the idle rich into real-life benefits for the communities that dish them out. Increasing their bargaining power accomplishes this for reasons known to everyone: policies tend to reflect the priorities of those that author them.
All of which carries another victory still. American democracy is a clobbered, clumsy ass mess. The CBO is a citizen-led effort to force a democratic reckoning in a city – and for that matter, a country – where democracy has always been a nice idea, but rarely a description of things as they actually are. CBOs are good and cool for lots of reasons. Strengthening democracy’s most basic principle – the right to participate in the decisions that impact one's life – ranks high among them.
Revival without it is a ruthless mirage for the historically besieged peoples of Detroit – beyond reach, and all the more menacing because of it. Odds are, the city’s wise men will continue to prefer abstract thought experiments to this known and uncomplicated reality.
But this November, the city’s most qualified minds will have the opportunity to throw that wisdom into the dustbin of history.
Eli Day is a former congressional policy adviser, and a Detroit-bred writer of policy and plunder.