As a former resident of the great city of Detroit who still works, studies and carries a great amount of pride in his hometown, I am often asked, "What’s wrong with Detroit?" While this answer can be lengthy, a lack of quality education, corruption on all levels of government, an overblown and extremely useless bureaucracy and a police force that does not have the resources or initiative to truly clean up the streets are but some of the many problems in Detroit.
With the building of the highway system in the 1950s, entire neighborhoods were demolished. This began what some call "white flight." Instead of resettling in neighborhoods in the city, these families left to establish suburbs such as Southfield, Livonia and Sterling Heights. At this moment, Detroit became "Metro Detroit." This distinction is important. Suburbanites began building their own communities, only using Detroit for extracurricular activities, such as shopping at the old Hudson’s building or attending sporting events. People began using Detroit as a city to visit, but not stay.
This divide devolved into a racial dispute, resulting in the riots of 1967. After this horrible incident, whites left the city at a more rapid rate for the quiet and safety of the suburbs. Playing into this was the city’s mayor, Coleman Young. Young heightened racial tensions to unbelievable levels. Instead of establishing a vibrant metropolitan area with Detroit as the center, the community splintered, with each suburb establishing its own vibrant center.
Taking us into this era, Young’s successors made great strides in attempting to correct the sins of the past. Dennis Archer made some progress in cleaning up some parts of the city, and in bringing national events to the revitalized downtown district. However, old racial rifts re-emerged, and Archer’s successes were overshadowed by this still existent racial divide. Since Archer worked on strengthening the ties between the city and suburbs, opponents said he worked more for big business and less for the residents of the city. This criticism was especially harsh after Archer skipped over an African-American businessman in selecting who would get to pursue building casinos in the city. This eventually led to a failed recall campaign. After Archer declined to run for a third term, Kwame Kilpatrick won the election in 2001, and re-election in 2005, but his ongoing legal battles now overshadow the city.
This history is sad, but it is much more than a history of a city plagued with racial divide and deterioration. This is a story of apathy. At some point, the residents of the city of Detroit stopped caring.
How can they and their city recover? Education needs to lead this Herculean endeavor. Too many Detroit Public Schools students do not graduate, and a recent report found that DPS graduates the second-lowest number of black males among urban school districts nationwide. Tens of thousands of students have fled the district this decade. There should not be a single barrier to each child receiving a quality education. DPS has proven many times, through many different regime changes, the incompetence of its bureaucracy. It is time to attempt other methods. Once an educated generation of Detroiters is created, then the city can truly begin to heal.
This city has the potential to be a booming metropolis again, but there is far too much vacant property and not enough taxpayers. Detroit no longer has the resources to adequately care for itself. By contracting out services, specifically the care, maintenance and revitalization of Belle Isle, resources can then be refocused on what is important: the health, safety and welfare of the residents.
At the center of this dilemma are the residents of Metropolitan Detroit. This population needs to step up and start caring about the city as much as they do their own neighborhoods. The sins of the past need to be forgiven. Racial divides need to be set aside so that both the city and the suburbs can work together to find reasons to attract new people and businesses. Suburbanites need to stop looking down on their neighbors, and Detroiters need to stop resenting any attempt to help. Only an entirely new class of leadership, strong in character and desire to see the city flourish, can accomplish this task. Working together, this can be done. A new Detroit is absolutely necessary for a new, healthy and vibrant Michigan.
Jim Vote is a graduate student at Wayne State University and was a 2008 summer intern in labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.