Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The storm that rusted the Steel Belt

Detroit – The storm that upended New Orleans came fast and furious. In contrast, notes Political Science Professor Lyke Thompson, "Detroit has endured a slow-moving disaster – a disaster that stretches across decades of deindustrialization."

Lyke Thompson
If you had shot photos daily of Detroit over the last half century or so and then strung them into a fast-playing movie, it would indeed look as if an invisible force was tearing the city apart, destroying thousands of homes, clearing away huge chunks of neighborhoods, idling scores of factories, throwing legions out of work and prompting all manner of heartbreak, much as Katrina did.

So where is Detroit’s federal aid? asks Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University. He points out that New Orleans got many millions from the feds to recover.

That apt question does apply to Detroit especially, but not exclusively. The vortex of forces that has battered the Motor City has played out in other industrial centers across America. The resulting devastation cries out for federal relief – in the form of a vigorous national urban policy backed up with dollars.

Remember when the South was dirt-poor? Well, wipe that outdated image from your head. The industrial North, once the Promised Land to which Southern refugees fled, is now the one with hat in hand.

Just take a look at the 2009 poverty figures the US Census Bureau recently released. All five big cities with the highest share of poor people – Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee, St. Louis, in that order – once played starring roles in the Northern Steel Belt, spewing out outboard motors, rubber tires, handyman tools, door locks, tractors, airplane parts, construction beams, lawn mowers, gears, locks, motorcycles, furnaces, glass windows, water meters, railroad tracks, steam engines, mining gear, nuts and bolts, pots and pans, kitchen sinks, and, Detroit’s specialty, automobiles. The work was often hard, but the pay was good, permitting many a strapping lad to muscle his way out of poverty and into the middle class.

That portal to the good life has all but vanished. The Steel Belt has morphed into the Rust Belt. The ranks of the poor have swelled.

Thompson notes that state government, itself reeling from the downturn in the automobile industry, has steadily cut back on the revenue it shares with Detroit. “There should be much more serious attention from the national government," he says.

Robin Boyle, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State, says that revenue sharing money from state and federal governments in America pales by comparison with what European cities get. As reported in a previous post, he notes that Europe further protects its cities by outlawing sprawl, which drains urban centers of resources and people.

Do Europeans have a better attitude toward cities?

No, says Boyle, who grew up in Scotland. They have the same love-hate attitude that you find in America.

Here, in my opinion, hate has the upper hand. In 1975, when Gerald Ford was president and New York City was staring into the abyss of bankruptcy and seeking federal help, the New York Daily News blared on the front page: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD," which seemed to have summed up how the White House felt.

Boyle points to Ronald Reagan, who said in effect: Cities, you’re on your own. Reagan cut back on urban programs right and left.

Professor Thompson points to statistics showing that in some ways the slow-motion storm that chewed up Detroit left this city worse off than is New Orleans today. As the chart notes below, Detroit has higher poverty, unemployment and even housing-vacancy rates than does New Orleans.

The storm that tore Detroit apart wreaked havoc throughout the industrial North. Hence, even Milwaukee outstrips the Big Easy in poverty.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2009
Of course, New Orleans deserves every penny of federal aid it gets. But it shouldn’t have to take a sudden cataclysm to loosen the federal purse strings. The federal government must start treating America’s besieged cities as the national treasures they are.

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