The city of Detroit has been seen as many things to many people. A city is such a huge and unknowable entity that every view we take can only be partial, colored by our own political perspective and background. Some of the lenses that have been used to view the wreckage and ruin of modern Detroit: to many on the right, it is a symbol of a town with too many unions, and an example of how those unions destroy the jobs they are meant to protect by making things too difficult for the capitalist class. Others from the same side of the political spectrum argue that the Democrats who led Detroit taxed the people too highly and spent too much money on public services and welfare. Those with a more extreme viewpoint take a racist approach – they say that Detroit’s problems stem from the fact that it is majority black, and that black people should not be allowed or expected to govern themselves properly.
Those of us on the left would not agree with any of those viewpoints, but it’s impossible for us not to see that Detroit has problems. The population has fallen by 25% in the last decade, grand old buildings like Michigan Central Station lie in ruins, and in 2013 Detroit became the largest city in the history of the US to file for bankruptcy. The unemployment rate is by far the worst in any of the 50 biggest cities in the country, at over 23%. In some areas that have been abandoned and destroyed by gangs, broken down and boarded up houses are selling for a dollar.
So what is the cause of this decline, if we don’t accept the right wing narrative? We could instead argue that Detroit is a victim of suburbanization and the ‘white flight’ phenomenon. The suburban communities around Detroit are, perhaps surprisingly, very wealthy indeed. These suburbs became very popular in the late 1960s due to a number of factors. The increasing wealth of the white population in post-war America allowed them to be attracted to the ‘American Dream’ of owning a big house in the ‘burbs with a lawn and space for two cars. At the same time, race riots in 1967 and the growing power and militancy of the unions scared those same rich white people into making a decision – they chose to leave behind urban living and move out to the suburbs.
The problem is that these suburban areas are in a different jurisdiction from Detroit proper. The suburbs pay tax to themselves, while the large city of Detroit is left to run itself with an increasingly small amount of tax money – as most of the people that have stayed in the city, by choice or because they had nowhere else to go, are too poor to pay anything. The result is a police force that cannot handle the criminals, a city that cannot repair crumbling infrastructure, and a vicious circle of poverty that the remaining inhabitants find it increasingly hard to climb out of.
A similar story has been repeated on a smaller scale throughout the country, with rich whites abandoning inner cities in favour of bland suburbs where they can live exclusively with their own kind. Meanwhile, urban areas fall apart with no federal or state support to boost their meagre tax income. Detroit is merely the most extreme example. The suburbanization of America – a philosophy which is increasingly spreading to other parts of the world – needs to be discouraged as much as possible. Suburbs are a sign of segregation (between the rich and the poor, and the white and the black), a sign of environmental destruction, a sign of cultural uniformity – and a sign of economic distress for the inner city areas in which the poor and the exploited primarily live. The death of Detroit is a byproduct of the American dream of suburban living, and clearly shows us what happens to those who cannot afford that dream.