Detroit: The killing of a great American city

A remnant of better times: My mother's birthplace and childhood home

A sad decline: My mother’s birthplace and childhood home

Detroit holds a special place in my heart. It is where my grandmother, mother and I were born and my dad arrived as a teenager to work 16-hour days on the assembly line and drive a taxi. Once a blue-collar haven of two million people with leafy neighborhoods and a world renowned zoo and arts institute, it earned the nickname “city of homes” because it didn’t have the crowded high-rise tenements of the northeast.

Today, however, the bustling metropolis is a crumbling, crime-ridden shell of its former greatness: In 1950, it proudly claimed America’s highest per-capita income; today it grips the lowest. For that, we can thank 60 years of misguided liberal policies.

Named Forbes magazine’s 2013 “Most Miserable City in the U.S.” (eking out Michigan’s other industrial cadaver, Flint), Detroit represents the searing failure of progressivism’s entitlement culture. Decades of union greed and ineffectual social engineering have reaped devastating results:

  • Sixty percent of its children live in poverty; more than three-quarters live in homes without a father present.

  • Detroit has adopted a “living wage” ordinance at two dollars an hour higher than the minimum wage for all public employees and private contractors. Meanwhile, total unemployment stands at 18 percent with black youth unemployment at 42 percent—the highest in the nation.

  • The Mackinac Center for Public Policy reports that the public schools spend more than $15,500 annually per student, far exceeding the national average of $10,000. The results? Fewer than 40 percent of students graduate and, according to a recent study, nearly half of adults are functionally illiterate.

  • The unflattering nickname “Murder City” continues to be deserved: 2012 homicides were 11 times higher than in New York. Because of budget cut-backs, neighborhood police precincts are closed to the public most hours of the day.

  • The population, now at 700,000, is less than half of what it was at its peak in the early 1950’s. Urban blight has overtaken entire neighborhoods with an estimated third of its 140 square miles either vacant or dilapidated. Homes come cheap—the median price is $9,000 with some selling as low as $100.

“Detroit…was going to be the “Model City” of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the shining example of what the ‘fairness’ of the welfare state can produce,” wrote former Wall Street Journal editor Thomas Bray. “Billions of dollars later, Detroit instead has become the model of everything that can go wrong when you hook people on the idea of something for nothing.”

And hooked they are. Ranked several years ago as “The Most Liberal City in America” by a west-coast think tank, the city is spiraling into a financial collapse, with $14 billion of underfunded pensions and other long-term liabilities as well as a projected $100 million shortfall this year alone. Without emergency loans, the 2012 deficit would have exceeded $900 million.

Teetering on bankruptcy, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder this week appointed an Emergency Manager to mitigate the looming fiscal calamity. “There’s probably no city that’s more financially challenged in the entire United States,” he said.

1952 Detroit rush hour on Second Avenue Photo: The New York Times

The patient is dying and needs immediate help. To his credit, Mayor Dave Bing is willing to accept the terms and work with the appointed manager. Yet the usual suspects—Democratic politicians, union leaders and the liberal grievance brigade—are screaming and using every tool in their race-baiting bag of tricks. The City Council is threatening legal action; MSNBC says that the Emergency Manager appointment “means that more than 50% of African Americans in the state of Michigan no longer elect their local leaders.” One local judge compares the law to a “dictatorship.”

Meanwhile, Motown’s demise has become the subject of scorn and voyeurism. Elitist liberals like Lena Dunham, tolerant souls that they are, cackle at our blue-collar uncoolness; stylistic “urban porn” photographs of dilapidated buildings sell as coffee table books. That’s the image of Detroit in pop culture—fat and pitiful.

Every election cycle, Democratic politicians show up for photo ops promising great things; to “come back home with some bacon,” as Councilwoman JoAnn Watson so crassly demanded late last year. News flash for Ms. Watson and her like-minded entitlement junkies: There is no more bacon; there isn’t even any gristle.

The town that put the world on wheels, the hub of the Arsenal of Democracy, the place where working-class families made enough money to spend their weekends “up north,” is gone. Detroit was the Great American Dream sucked dry by the Great Society. Tragically, it’s too late to restore my hometown to its former glory. Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of America.

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