Monday, July 22, 2013

Sounds familiar

"My heart aches today knowing that my beloved home town of Detroit now has the notoriety of being the largest American city to officially file for bankruptcy. But the filing was really just a formality. Detroit has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades — a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots ."
"Detroit's demise was decades in the making" is the title of a piece published on July 19 in the Washington Post  and written by Detroit native, Keith B. Richburg. The above is the opening paragraph of that article.

Richburg lays out, honestly, openly and sadly what has happened to his hometown over the last 50+ years. He rightly deduces that the city did not reach the point of having to file for bankruptcy overnight. It is a sobering read for anyone interested in urban studies.

There are some very strong parallels to Trenton's own history in the same period. The similarities are so strong, that Richburg could easily have been writing about our capital city rather than the motor city.

Take the last sentence in that opening paragraph and change one word: Detroit Trenton  has really been broke, broken and in decay now for decades —a shell of a city, with a small downtown and some scattered neighborhoods dissected by miles of abandoned storefronts and vacant lots.

OK. That was easy and a no-brainer. Read the article in full while mentally swapping Trenton in for Detroit. Substitue other local references where appropriate and see what you get.

For example:
The Detroit Trenton I remember ceased to exist a long time ago. But it was kept alive by a pride, a nostalgia for its former glory, and an illusion that revival was just around the next corner. We who love Detroit Trenton — even people like me who abandoned it long ago — were all complicit.
This paragraph stands on its own, unchanged from Richrburg's original and readily applicable to Trenton:
"Most of the old-time residents say they never plan to move, even though city services are virtually nonexistent in the old neighborhoods and most of the neighbors are gone. It’s a pride, a stubbornness and an attitude of “I bought this home 40 years ago, and no crack addicts or gangbangers are going to drive me out of it!” "
In a paragraph discussing Detroits past mayors, Richburg closes with a statement about convicted and imprisoned Kwame Kilpatrcik and how people still defend him. Change just a couple of words and it suddenly is Trenton that we are talking about:
But Detroiters Trentonians are prideful and protective of their own; even when Kilpatrick Mack and his associates were shown to be corrupt, many Detroiters Trentonians came out to support him, blaming the prosecutors for unfairly targeting a black elected official.
Perhaps the most telling passage comes near the end, under the subtitle "Racial politics."

The white population’s abandonment of the city left Detroit Trenton with a shrinking tax base and deteriorating, segregated public schools — a system locked in place by a Supreme Court order that halted busing across school district lines. But blacks still in Detroit Trenton had one thing left — political power. And they would guard it jealously against any encroachment, real or imagined.

Thus, the city’s black political class sees conspiracy theories everywhere. The investigation of the last mayor by the Detroit Free Press local press, and his indictment by a prosecutor, are seen as a white conspiracy to undermine black “home rule” of Detroit Trenton. The governor’s appointment of an emergency financial manager, once it became clear that Detroit Trenton cannot manage its own fiscal affairs, is again seen as a hostile, racist takeover by the state over the city’s elected black leadership.

Racial politics, and that racial prism, long ago ruined Detroit Trenton , and now they hamper any chance the city has at a modest recovery. As a longtime friend, one who has stayed in Detroit and worked to help the city, once put it to me succinctly: "Some people would rather be the king of nothing than a part of something.”


Unknown said...

Jim -

Of all of the articles about Detroit, I guess somehow this article puts forward a position you want to promote - but likening Trenton to Detroit is a reach.

It is easy to find far more insightful articles all over the internet today. Here are two:

Old Mill Hill said...

Those are both good articles and not that different than Richburg's piece...just more scholarly perhaps.

You can reasonably substitute Trenton for Detroit in either Krugman's or Reich's piece(or both) and have the same result: a post industrial city abandoned by employers, the middle and upper classes and subsequently left in the hands of inadequate leadership fails.