A Former Detroiter Looks Back and Reflects on the City’s Demise
By Kyle Block
Contributing Writer, CMC ‘10
Detroit. New Orleans. Akron. Most Americans would prefer not to live in these municipalities. Detroit, New Orleans, and large swaths of the Midwest are years beyond their prime and continue to descend into an unemployed nucleus of nothingness. The downfall of some of America’s once grand cities is well-documented, and the culprit is either a freak natural disaster or a man-made one. Detroit rests not-so-peacefully at the bottom of every ranking (except for the cost of living!), and droves of Detroiters have abandoned the Motor City for places further south – Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.
What have not received as extensive coverage, however, are the societal implications of Detroit’s demise. What is it like to live in Detroit in 2010? (People do still live there.) As of the 2000 Census, nearly 5.3 million called the Detroit metropolitan area home, although this figure will surely drop in 2010. Throughout the past fifty years, Detroit’s culture has experienced significant changes that deserve special attention; most measures indicate that Detroit has no culture. How can the arts flourish with no funding? How can schools facing lower enrollment and a decreasing tax base support artistic programs? How have families reacted to a nearly 50% unemployment rate and the floundering automobile industry?
As one of many former Detroiters, I feel sad to return to the city that made America what it is. Urban blight is the city’s most noticeable characteristic. So are the potholes that swallow cars. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of abandoned or empty lots, and you can almost imagine what Dresden looked like in 1946. Whereas most American cities experienced a youthful renaissance in the past ten years as young professionals realized the lackluster life in the suburbs, Detroit has been spared from such a revival. The city’s redevelopment agency curiously thought that building casinos would be Detroit’s savior. That was, perhaps, not the smartest policy, considering that Detroiters have no money with which to gamble; however, the city can now shamelessly boast that it has attracted millions of dollars from its “partnership” with the MGM Grand and MotorCity casinos. In addition, the flashy new stadiums built with taxpayer dollars sit empty for most of the week and rarely approach capacity.
An examination of family life in Detroit reveals a tragic reality for many. Imagine that you are laid off from your job at Ford. You enjoyed your work, your colleagues, your salary and benefits, and the pride you felt when you saw a Ford automobile smoothly rolling down Woodward Avenue (the first paved road in the country). Gone. Nobody said losing your job was easy, but in Detroit, it is much, much worse. Because the labor market is so oversaturated, you will not find another job. Your home is worth nothing, perhaps a quarter of what you paid for it. So, you are stuck in Detroit with no job and an overpriced home that nobody will buy. You cannot afford to pay the heating bill, even though the outside temperature is ten degrees and your kids are complaining of frostbite while they sleep. Your relationship with your spouse is tenuous at best, and you are stuck. Like thousands of Detroiters, you leave. You leave your family, house, former life – everything. I wish this were an exaggeration, but this is a reality for far too many.
The massive decrease in population has resulted in severe cutbacks in public services, including but not limited to education, public health programs, road repair, and trash removal. The city has acquired thousands of abandoned homes that it cannot afford to demolish and nobody can afford to purchase; they are left to decay by Mother Nature. Where a middle class family once comfortably lived, drug dealers and violent criminals have filled the void and operate freely because the police department is corrupt and understaffed. School districts are closing school after school because of dropping enrollment and, consequently, revenue. The transportation department no longer repairs potholes, crumbling bridges, or unsafe highways. Parks planned by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park, now resemble a wasteland of old rusted cars, soggy sofas, and a bizarre amalgamation of stunning turn of the century sculptures with jarring brutalist structures.
The Motor City’s axle has not stopped spinning, but it is spinning backward. Life in Detroit is rough, and the people that still there live need not be forgotten. The majority of those left behind are the sick, elderly and poor; they have witnessed their city crumble before their own eyes. It is important to consider the low quality of life that many Detroiters suffer and the damaging long-term effects that Detroit’s demise will have on its residents for generations to come.