There is bad luck and then there is Detroit. There is perhaps no other American city, including places that have hit hard times such as East St. Louis, Camden, New Jersey and New Orleans, that has fallen as hard as the “Motor City.” The city that was once the very symbol of American industrial might and the epicenter of the muscular automobile industry, and epitomized opportunity for Blacks arriving from the south during the Great Migration is a shell of its former self. Its troubles did not surface overnight but the last two years has been particularly brutal.
It is ironic that this year marks the anniversary of one of the city’s biggest successes, Motown Records. The famed label with the red star marking its home base celebrates 50 years since its founding by visionary Berry Gordy. The fact that Motown’s anniversary is celebrated in absentia, Gordy took the label to Los Angeles in the 1970’s, perhaps symbolizes the tale of the city that has lately had little good news to claim its own. To be sure, there have been glimmers of hope and signs of life amidst the despair. A city that is steeped in sports lore has watched two new stadiums rise, one for their beloved Tigers baseball team and the other for their hapless Lions football franchise. Just weeks ago the city hosted the NCAA Men’s college basketball championship. It’s hockey Red Wings are still a strong franchise and has a loyal fan base while its NBA Pistons, in the ‘burbs like their ice bound brethren, continue to have strong identities in the city. Despite these momentary flashes, most of the news coming from Detroit has not been good.
Over the last two years, the city endured an embarrassing scandal involving former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff Christine Beatty. The two were caught in a salacious sex scandal that was exposed by the release of steamy text messages between the two. It was a big blow to a youthful mayor, who started his tenure with such great promise, and equally damaging to a city that was initially excited by the energy he brought to the office. The personal relationship between Kilpatrick and his top staffer was exposed as part of a larger cover-up that led to the wrongful dismissal of several city police officers. While personally embarrassing to Kilpatrick and Beatty, and leading two their convictions and imprisonment, it cast an ominous shadow across a city that has had little sunlight in recent years.
While the mayor was engaged in an illicit romance, the bottom was beginning to fall out from beneath the city. As the nation’s economy began a downward slide, it became clear that Detroit was “ground zero” in the emerging recession. For some time the U.S. automobile industry had been on the ropes, victims of its own shortsightedness, rising oil prices and aggressive foreign competition. Long had been the days when the names “Ford,” “GM,” and “Chrysler,” dictated consumer choices. The magic of the U.S. auto brand has evaporated and the city that bore the brunt of the industry’s demise is Detroit. With massive restructuring of the industry and its suppliers, the tens of thousands of employees who existed off one product – the automobile – now find themselves out of work and many in danger of losing their homes. “For Sale” signs now sprout up in Detroit neighborhoods like some new form of vegetation. The loss of one of the last layers of good-wage, blue-collar jobs from our nation’s industrial age has meant a dramatic crash for the city that put America on the road.
The Detroit area has experienced the highest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in the United States in recent months and the city has seen its jobless rate balloon. There appears to be little, in the short-term, that can stop this slide. With the “Big Three” automakers fighting for survival, and destined to emerge smaller if they survive at all, the flood of jobless in the city will eventually overwhelm local government and social service providers. One of the greatest casualties will be young adults who do not have the cushion of a buyout or pension, and may ultimately flee the city for greener pastures; though in this economy “better” is a relative term.
Detroit appears stuck. There is no apparent successor industry to the automobile sector for the time being. The city does have gaming but it has done little to revitalize the local economy. A recent study of gaming by a University of Nevada-Reno economics professor points out the challenges facing Detroit when compared to Las Vegas and Indian casinos. In an interview with the Columbian (Washington State), Professor William Eadington, director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, noted, “Detroit is not the tourism capital of the world.” That sentiment describes one of the city’s biggest challenges: becoming attractive to people outside its boundaries and healthy enough to revive a local economy to put its people back to work. One of the fiercest debates in city politics has centered on the fate of Cobo Hall, the aging convention center that once served as the home of the NBA Pistons.
Ironically, the most famous Piston to run the hardwood at Cobo is now a candidate for mayor. NBA legend and Hall of Famer Dave Bing, a longtime businessman in the city, threw his hat in the ring for the opportunity to succeed Kilpatrick in City Hall. The current mayor, Ken Cockrel, once presided over the Detroit City Council, and took office as the successor to Kwame Kilpatrick and is serving in an interim capacity. Mayor Cockrel and Dave Bing have been engaged in a spirited debate. They will soon face weary voters who, with every new disappointment, are expressing civic fatigue over the fate of their city.
Detroit’s failure would be a tragic occurrence for Black Americans. This city took in hundreds of thousands of Back southerners who fled the south desperate to elude Jim Crow. It is a place that grew the nation’s Black middle class as Black autoworkers began to earn wages that raised their standard of living. Both mayoral candidates have suggested shrinking the size of the city by shifting its population away from less populated parts of the city and targeting investment. In a city with large numbers of unemployed and high poverty rates, simply moving proves to be a challenge. As well intentioned as Cockrel and Bing might be, the idea of a major re-location program may have the reverse effect of driving out Black residents. Even if there is a willingness to pull up roots, there must be a city-initiated effort to put as many people back to work as soon as possible. With the availability of federal stimulus dollars out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the city needs to determine how it can appropriate a significant portion of those monies toward workforce development.
It is the “fight” that made Detroit famous, dating back to the exploits of boxing’s “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis. Detroit will need every ounce of that fighting spirit if it is to mount a successful comeback.