Driving through Detroit

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, “Driving through Detroit.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (January 19): 9A.

On the day after Christmas I visited my sister-in-law at her home in a suburb northwest of Detroit. One afternoon we drove southeast along Woodward Avenue past 8 Mile Road into the city itself. Eventually we stopped at the Detroit Institute of Art to see Diego Rivera’s magnificent mid-1930s mural dedicated to the automobile industry.

What comes to mind when you think about Detroit? “Motor City”? “Motown”? “The arsenal of Democracy” as it was called during World War II? More likely, if you think about it at all, you immediately conjure up an image of riots in the ‘60s, unemployment, poverty, burned out and abandoned buildings. All the horrors of the big bad city.

It has failed. Tragically. Now only the nation’s 11th largest city, Detroit might be the preeminent icon of urban decline. Since the early 1950s its population has plummeted from about 1.85 million to about 912,000; thriving neighborhoods have vanished; its unemployment rate (about 30 percent) is three times higher than the national rate; its tax base has shrunk so much that it has trouble providing ordinary public services; and one-third of the city lies empty or unused.

And yet while the City of Detroit has been collapsing, investment and people have been pouring into the surrounding cities and the Detroit region has been growing. Whereas about 55 percent of the region’s 1950 population lived in the city, by 2009 Motown’s share had dropped to about 20 percent.

Consequently, as Time Magazine writers have noted in an impressive series of articles over the past year, “the story of Detroit is not simply one of a great city’s collapse. It’s also about the erosion of the industries that helped build the country we know today.” It is “a great American story,” “a window into the challenges facing modern America.” It is also a story about the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth.

In the view of Time’s reporters, Detroit fell victim “not to one malign actor but to a whole cast of them”: managers of the auto companies, union leaders, politicians, foreign competitors, white racism, and long-term rule by a black politician who “cared more about retribution than about resurrection.”

What is happening in the Detroit region is a microcosm of what is happening in the U. S. as a whole. Recall the recent debate in Washington about whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be continued for households with incomes greater than $250,000 per year. In large part that debate was stimulated by evidence of growing inequality in income.

As economists Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez have documented, the share of total income going to the top one percent increased from 8.9 percent in 1976 to 23.5 percent in 2007, and the share going to the top 0.1 percent more than quadrupled from 2.6 to 12.3 percent. Meanwhile, the average real income of the bottom 99 percent of all families grew at an annual rate of only 0.6 percent over the same period.

Yes, the wealthy are getting much wealthier. But with most of the debate focusing on numbers at the national level, it was easy to lose sight of the human meaning of the increasing gap between the very wealthy and the remaining 99 percent of us.

In Detroit the gap is palpably clear, if you know where to look.

So what? Why should we in Iowa City care about Detroit? Because it is part of the America in which we live, because Detroit’s decline has helped shaped the way many of us think about cities, and because it symbolizes the tragedy of America today. To abandon Detroit and its 912,000 residents is to abandon hope that we, all of us, can create better lives for ourselves and our children.

Diego, where is your brush?

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