We Got A Lot Of Problems But Detroit’s Are None Of Them

September 1, 2014

So we took in a game at Comerica Park last week, and I can safely say this without fear of any serious rebuttal. Detroit has a far better baseball stadium than Toronto does. Comerica 1It’s the kind of park where you don’t even need a good team playing at it to want to go see every game. Just sit there, admiring your surroundings, soaking up baseball.

As for the rest of Detroit?

Well, we’ve all heard the stories. A city in decline. A city in distress. A city in a death spiral. “Detroit bankruptcy judge angrily tosses hold-out creditor’s charges,” screams one latest headline.

One thing did surprise me during our brief stay. The amount of work and restoration being done, at least in the downtown core. Sure, there were a number of eerily abandoned buildings, some old beauties from a more prosperous time. But it didn’t feel like any sort of impending collapse, certainly not in the small areas we made it to.

They were even digging up Woodward Avenue, the All-American Road, Automotive Heritage Trail, detroitpicrunning through the middle of downtown, to lay down the track for an LRT. How’s that for some symbolism, eh? In the Motor City, cars give way to trains.

Hopefully, it’s a sign that Detroit isn’t dying, it’s just changing, adapting. The city that was built by cars, built for cars, was nearly killed by cars. Wounded, but not mortally so.

Of course, cars are hardly the sole factor in the city’s woes, just like cars weren’t the only factor in the city’s rise. Detroit was an established transportation and manufacturing hub before Henry Ford set up shop there. But arguably, Detroit’s golden age mirrored the rise of the automobile.detroitpic1

I am hardly equipped to talk about the factors which coalesced to reverse the city’s fortunes over the past half-century or so, only it was a combination ultimately unique to Detroit. There were certainly overlaps with other rust belt cities situated in and around the Great Lakes but few places have suffered exactly the way Detroit has. No one set rules for revitalization or rejuvenation can apply to two separate places.

So I view dimly any politician evoking the civic dissolution spectre of Detroit when they invariably are trying to roll back public sector spending or the wages and benefits of city workers. We have to reduce our reliance on debt or else, Detroit. We must contract out public services or else, Detroit. Stand up to lazy union fat cats or else, Detroit.

Toronto can learn valuable lessons from Detroit but probably not the ones Detroit fear-mongerers try to push on us.detroitpopulation

Race and class.

While we here in Canada proudly imagine ourselves, I don’t know, post-racial or, at least, not paralyzed by racial tensions and class war, we really need to check the reality of that stance. No, we have not experienced the kind of open fissure the United States has, manifest in what we’re witnessing in Ferguson, Missouri at the moment. A major cause of Detroit’s current troubles is the white flight that picked up steam during the 1960s riots, drawing stark lines, racially and economically.

Toronto is far from immune from those dynamics. It’s true, the city was never hollowed out like we see in many major American cities. detroitriotsHowever, almost the reverse has occurred here. Our core is vibrant, gentrified, well-serviced and expensive. Our older suburbs, however, in the former municipalities like Scarborough, York, Etobicoke, have not kept pace. Here is where you’ll find the not so hidden face of Toronto’s racial and economic divide. New Canadians, many visible minorities, put down roots in these places where it’s less expensive and, unsurprisingly, less served with things like reliable public transit and public amenities such as libraries and community centres.

Our inequality starts here. If there’s one lesson we should learn from Detroit, it’s that no city can truly prosper or achieve its full potential when it’s hobbled by inequality. detroitarmCities with no-go zones bred from discrimination and poverty aren’t really cities. They’re fiefdoms. Little parochial outposts of self-interest.

Auto dependence is not sustainable.

While the city of Detroit’s population has shrunk dramatically, down over 50% since 1970, the region itself has remained relatively stable at around the 5 million mark. It is, essentially, a small downtown core surrounded by sprawl. Such reliance on private vehicle use has scarred significant portions of the core streetscapes with freeways, both elevated and at grade, carving up the urban space. Surface parking lots, many of them sitting largely empty even mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, take up big tracts of the downtown area, oftentimes, located right beside elegantly designed parking garages.detroitparkinglot

You don’t get a sense of much street life besides on game nights. Detroit has been dubbed Hockeytown (among other things) and its hockey arena is mostly car accessible. The stunted People Mover monorail that stops across the street isn’t much of a feeder system. It’s hard to imagine many people lingering around the area either before or after games.

Detroit cannot rebuild being what it once was, the Motor City.

Detroit also cannot rebuild if it’s sacrificed in the endgame of neoliberal politics intent on diminishing what remains of the public good. detroitinstituteofartsFor every corrupt politician making out like a bandit at the trough (and Detroit has had its share of those), there’s their counterpart determined to make the city a private playground for those who can afford it. Sell off public utilities. Pick off public sector pensions. De-unionize and privatize it all. Public transit? We don’t need no stinkin’ public transit.

Marvelling at the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, I was informed by a staff member that it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, referencing the estimated $1 billion value of the art works now being circled by vultures looking to pick the bones clean.

Beware the politicians who fail to see the good in the public good. They will starve it and then auction off what’s left to the highest bidder.Comerica 2

They will, these types of politicians, use Detroit as an example of why residents should lower their expectations of what a city can offer them, the opportunities available. We can’t afford that. Look at Detroit. We can’t raise taxes. People will leave. Look at Detroit. Take on debt to invest in the city? Look at Detroit.

Toronto has its problems, there’s no denying that. Few of them, however, bear much similarity to those facing Detroit. Learn from the ones that do and ignore anyone touting the ones that don’t.

non-nugently submitted by Cityslikr


Detroit Rocked City

July 23, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit recently, and it’s probably the first time I have since the 1987 Blue Jays collapse down the stretch, torontodetroitaided by 7 straight losses to end the season including 3 one run games to the Tigers in the final series. Man, those fucking Tigers. A one game lead with only 3 to go! Toronto was 19-5 in September until The Swoon. Fucking Detroit, man.

Fucking Detroit.

It’s impossible to wade through the coverage of the city’s financial turmoil to find a straight forward narrative. Obviously, there’s no one reason to explain how this all transpired although both sides of the political spectrum will tell you otherwise. Unfunded public sector pensions and benefits! Corporate tax giveaways!

One of the more compelling and heartfelt discussions I found was over at The Corner Side Yard by Pete Saunders, Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (If you want to get your fill of Detroit on the Verge of Bankruptcy, check in regularly with Urbanophile.) detroitStill, as with any complex situation, there are no easy conclusions to draw, no simple answers.

A couple parallels do jump out at me, though, that elicit passing thoughts along the Toronto, the next Detroit theme song we will inevitably be hearing sung over the next little while. The first is the municipality as a political football. Like Canadian cities, their U.S. counterparts have a surprising lack of autonomy in the bigger picture decisions. They are granted the crumbs of governance, largely in the day-to-day operations and, can do that poorly with negative consequences to residents. But the macro-decisions are often beyond their control.

And if, as appears to be the case of Detroit, a city’s overseers at the state level are not particularly partial to the city in question or, at least, to those in power at City Hall, they can essentially use it as a punching bag. Remember Mike Harris and the amalgamation of Toronto? underthumbWell, Mike Harris and anything to do with Toronto really.

A city can attempt to mitigate the damage it inflicts upon itself but is helpless if the blows come from above.

So in Detroit’s case, a city that votes overwhelmingly Democrat is manhandled by a Republican governor who seizes the woeful economic opportunity to experiment with his radical right wing anti-labour, anti-public sector, selling of public assets ideology. And there doesn’t seem to be much the local officials can do about it outside of taking the state to court which it’s done. A judge has ruled the bankruptcy filing to be unconstitutional, a ruling Michigan’s Attorney General has vowed to appeal.

It’s not different levels of government so much as warring levels of government.

(Can you say Scarborough subway?)

Such governance dependency on the part of municipalities breeds the type of local politician averse to responsibility. walkintoawallWe’ve all heard it before whenever a city asks for more powers. You really want these jokers with more power? will come the response with a pointed finger legitimately to the one or two walking shitshows that inevitably make up any part of a city council. But it’s a chicken-or-egg argument. Do the conditions produce the politician or does the politician produce the conditions?

It’s easy to see how enabling bad municipal behaviour helps to strengthen the legitimacy of state and provincial governments in a regular game of political one-upmanship.

Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.

This comes about because in a city in decline — such as in late imperial Rome — people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.

Toronto’s economic situation is nowhere near as dire as that of Detroit’s. The truth is, it’s in far better shape than almost any other city on the continent. But some – hint, hint, it’s duly elected mayor – would have you believe otherwise. chickenlittleThe language of decline will only grow more intense I imagine in the wake of Detroit’s misfortunes.

Why?

Pretty much the entirety of the above quoted second paragraph. “people…no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.” Political opportunism, pure and simple. “Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling,” Mayor Ford told the Empire Club early on in his term. Divide and conquer using fear as a tool. City versus suburbs. Taxpayers versus unions.

Create a crisis if one doesn’t exist.

Challenges are very different than crisis. Toronto shouldn’t bury its head and hope there aren’t serious challenges we have to face. Do we have massive under-funded liabilities lying in wait for us sometime in the future? I’m not sure but let’s examine that claim closely before rushing off to slash and burn shit to the ground. We are certainly lagging in infrastructure maintenance, and that’s even before we start talking public transit. detroitarmThe question that needs to be answered is, do we have the political will to do something about that, to reach into our pockets and do what needs to be done?

At this juncture, I wouldn’t bet on it. The rot of ‘poisoned civic culture’, to paraphrase Aaron M. Renn, has set in. It’s very much everybody for themselves, taxpayers versus residents. A terrible but not entirely surprising mindset under actual circumstances of duress like Detroit’s but unnecessarily and arbitrarily destructive in our manufactured case.

It’s not our economic model that requires a complete overhaul. It’s our approach to civic engagement. We’ve given up the greater public good long before circumstances might dictate we would.

warningly submitted by Cityslikr


Cities In Ruins

July 17, 2010

The specter of bankrupt cities begins to hang above us. News from south of our border is unrelentingly grim; the pictures grimmer still. Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S., like much of the state it operates within, has apparently run out of money. Detroit looks like it’s in the middle of a war zone.

Such financial contagion has yet to surface here to any degree but the rumblings can definitely be heard. Growing debt. Out-of-control spending. City employees with fat salaries, fat benefits and fat pensions to match their fat asses that they spend all day sitting on. Sound familiar?

These people have had it too good, the reasoning goes, making a better living than we do from our sweat, toil and taxes. But the good times are over. We need to reign in, tighten up and cut back. Stop spending and start being sensible again like we were back in the day.

Trouble with this line of thinking, as we see it, is that it only considers half the economic equation. If you cut spending by cutting salaries, doesn’t that diminish incoming revenue in the form of taxes? If people are making less or are fearful for their futures, don’t they likewise stop spending? Government revenue sources begin to dry up.

So it becomes like the image in Ronald Wright’s ‘A Short History of Progress’ of the Rapanui laying waste to their land to build the Maoi monuments to their gods, pleading for divine intervention in reversing an ecological downturn. The frenzy of building only serves to exacerbate the problem. An almost too perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy or the solution being no solution whatsoever.

We’ve been at it now for decades, public sector austerity as part of the trickledown theory of rising tides raising all boats. Hold on, hold on, hold on, I hear you screaming at me. What planet have you been on during the past 7 years? You certainly weren’t living here in Toronto. David Miller fiscally austere? Look at the numbers. Look at the numbers!

Yes well, numbers never lie do they, and always present the cold, hard truth. The fact of the matter is that David Miller’s 7 years were little more than a desperate attempt to staunch the slow bleeding of social spending brought on by cuts and downloads and neglect by senior levels of government since the federal Liberals bought into the Reform playbook in 1993. And trade deals that gutted our manufacturing base. And let’s not forget the megacity’s first mayor, Mel Lastman, and his ill-advised promise not to raise property taxes during his first term.

It was a promise reminiscent of California’s 1978 Proposition 13 that, among other things, “lowered property taxes by rolling back property values to their 1975 value and restricted annual increases in assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2% per year… the initiative also contained language requiring a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for future increases in all state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates. It also requires a two-thirds vote majority in local elections for local governments wishing to raise special taxes.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

And look at California now? Blame the mess they find themselves in on illegal immigration or overpaid civil servants or whatever other boogie man you want to summon up but ignoring the price the state has paid for its greedy, self-centred embrace of Prop 13 is simply ignoring reality. Handcuffing (or ignoring) government’s ability to adapt to changing economic landscapes, good or bad, leaves the public susceptible to the mindless vagaries of chance and the market. It is nothing more than a dereliction of duty.

Almost two years ago now, governments the world over infused mind-bogglingly amounts of public money into financial institutions deemed too big to fail. The economic fall out would be irreparable. We were spared that here in Canada but still managed to throw around a lot of money into our deeply troubled automobile industry because it too was too big to fail. While afraid of what massive layoffs would do to our economy, we weren’t too concerned about the effect of wage rollbacks aside from increasing our productivity factor. Again, the argument was put forward that workers were being paid too much as the cause for near insolvency as opposed to management, for the 2nd time in a generation, was caught flat-footed by a sea change in the market.

So if an industry can be too big to fail, what about a city? What are the implications of a Detroit dying, aside from a rush to adopt the Red Wings but not so much the Lions. Can a city, full of people like they are, ever really be considered broke? If 80% of a country’s population live in cities, and people are the generators of wealth, then 80% of a country’s wealth comes from cities. I know it doesn’t work out exactly like that but the point is, if the money and wealth that is created in cities remained in the cities, then it would be hard to imagine how cities could go broke.

So maybe what we’re facing isn’t fiscal bankruptcy but more of a bankruptcy of ideas. The solutions on offer to our problems are exactly what created the problems in the first place. To pursue them would be tantamount to doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. We all know what that is the definition of.

wistfully submitted by Urban Sophisticat