Keeping watch like F. Scott’s blue eyes.
“They only put these in certain areas,” one resident of the neighborhood I work in told me. It’s not the first quasi-conspiratorial take on the city’s three casinos that I’ve heard in my time in Detroit. Whether or not MGM Grand’s intentions are sinister, billboards do tend to appear near highways and Detroit’s highway system (including the John C. Lodge expressway this billboard overlooks) was designed to specifically bludgeon poor and black neighborhoods. As Thomas Sugrue writes in The Origins of the Urban Crisis:
Detroit’s highway planners were careful to ensure that construction of the new high-speed expressways would only minimally disrupt middle-class residential areas, but they had little such concern for black neighborhoods, especially those closest to downtown. Instead, they viewed inner-city highway construction, in Detroit as in other major American cities, North and South, as ‘a handy device for razing slums.’
I wrote a few years back about the dubious pastime that is gawking at the behemoth ruins of abandoned Detroit factories and skyscrapers. It often seems to reduce the city to a sort caricature of itself, or draw attention to the spectacle of Detroit’s plight and not the substance.
But standing in front of a ruined house feels different. It’s hard not to wonder about whose one-time home you’re looking at, when it burned down, what kids sat on that upturned couch, what cartoons they watched. You gain an intimate sort of access to one family’s history, the remnants of countless stories that are now strewn as debris across a front lawn.
And when you contemplate how many iterations there are of this history, you might begin to sense the overwhelming magnitude of what has happened to Detroit. Detroit once had two million residents. After decades of suburbanization and deindustrialization, Detroit’s population is only a third of what it was at its peak. The city now has 84,000 blighted properties, according to city officials. Detroit’s population began to decline in the 1950s, but one of every three houses has been foreclosed on just since 2005.
This city was once the symbol of how American industrial capitalism could deliver a comfortable living to a wide swath of the nation’s people. Legions of auto factory workers with no advanced counted themselves among the American middle class. Many of them lived in homes like these.
Yesterday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced Kevyn Orr as his pick for emergency manager of Detroit. Orr would wield near total power over the city’s finances, and his duties supersede those of the city’s elected mayor and city council.
In this weekend’s edition of Counterpunch, I wrote an article contextualizing the city’s budget crisis:
Though it’s rarely recognized in state or national media, Detroit has already instituted its own program of devastating austerity in an attempt to regain solvency. The city has closed almost half of its schools since 2005, and 28 more closures were recently proposed. Police officer rolls were cut almost in half between 2000 and 2008. Half of the city’s bus service has been lost since 2005. Of Detroit’s over 300 parks, only 57 will open this year. The budget in place for 2012-13 cut $246 million, 2,600 jobs, and the entire health and human services departments.
Despite all this hacking and slashing, Detroit still faces an imminent cash shortfall. That’s because the city faces a “structural deficit.” Detroit cannot pay for its own needs. It’s just too poor. The city’s budget is for all intents and purposes unbalanceable, at least not without drastic human cost.
Because of this hard math, I argue that we should be troubled by the governor’s plan for Detroit, and by what it suggests about how we treat America’s most underprivileged citizens.
You can read the whole thing here.
Photo: Detroit house, 2009.