Detroit’s 60-Year Decline into Bankruptcy Hell
The “Motor City” has been singing the blues for decades.
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The Fiscal Times
July 21, 2013

Some time back in the early 1990s, I returned to my hometown of Detroit and took a ride on the “People Mover,” an elevated train that looped through the Motor City. The federally funded project was supposed to help revive a downtown in need of a jumpstart, but instead it showcased the plight of a once-great city caught in a downward spiral. 

My brief trip around Detroit that one Friday afternoon revealed a shocking and troubling insight: My sister and I were practically the only passengers on the train. And at virtually each of the 13 stops along the way, we were greeted with boarded up or dilapidated buildings. 

J.L. Hudson Co., which once loomed as the city’s premier department store, was abandoned and ghostly. The People Mover was supposed to be the feather in the cap of Detroit’s long-time mayor, Coleman Young, but it became a cash suck for a city destined for financial ruin.


I couldn’t help but recall that fateful trip late last week after Detroit—having piled up as much as $20 billion in debt—had filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Once the nation’s fourth largest city, it now faces prolonged legal challenges that likely will force major cutbacks to already pathetic levels of policing, education, and social services. Municipal workers who have soldiered through the blight will likely face cuts to their retirement, health, and pension benefits.

“These are problems of Detroit’s own making,” Kevyn Orr, the emergency financial officer put in charge of the city by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder,  told MSNBC on Friday, in dismissing talk about a possible government bailout. “We’ve dug this hole of our own making. We need to dig our way out of it.”

Detroit’s People Mover in a small way epitomized much of what has led to the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. It was a superficial fix that lined the pockets of developers and provided politicians with a photo-op, while doing little to improve people’s lives. The train was like an aging car with a sputtering engine that could run smoothly with new hubcaps.

The multi-million-dollar train was designed to accommodate up to 15 million passengers a year on its three-mile track. But after the ceremonial ribbons were snipped in 1987, it was quickly ignored by locals and tourists, serving a few thousand riders a day. For years, the city essentially was spending $4 or more to subsidize every 75-cent rider fare.

The People Mover was part of Coleman Young’s ambitious effort to spawn an urban renaissance between the mid-1970s and 1994, when he finally retired. Riots in 1967 had left Detroit smoldering, as the middle class departed for the suburbs.

Although the former Democratic labor leader rose to power as Detroit’s first black mayor by mobilizing the left and attacking the city’s nearly all white police force, he subsequently called a truce with the city’s economic elite and mounted an effort to rebuild with private and federal funds. 

Young was instrumental in the construction of the Joe Louis Arena, a sports and convention center on the Detroit River, and upgrading the city’s mediocre mass transit system. He came under criticism from many residents when he supported General Motors in building its new “Poletown” plant at the site of the former Dodge Main plan – a project that required evicting many long-time residents.

He also pressed for completion of the Renaissance Center, the towering office edifice that defined a new skyline, as well as the restoration of the iconic Fox Theater and other important downtown commercial and residential projects.

But for all his buildings, the people of Detroit and their employers were unimpressed.
• The once-proud “arsenal of democracy” during World War II and car capital of the world suffered the loss of  hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to other states and other countries
• A once-vibrant population of 1.85 million in the 1950s dwindled to a mere 700,000 by last year;
• Riots and freeway construction over the past four decades rendered huge swaths of the city a moonscape of abandoned and burned out houses and garbage-strewn vacant lots.

It’s hard to overstate the traumatic and lingering effects of the 1967 riots, which for many older native Detroiters forever marked the watershed in the city’s downward economic spiral and triggered the mass exodus of its population.

When I was growing up in Detroit, the city was a patchwork of tightly knit working class and more prosperous neighborhoods, lively commercial strips and clusters of good restaurants and diners along the main thoroughfares of the city’s East Side and West Side. The public school system was pretty good – I attended James Vernor Elementary, named for the founder of a popular ginger ale maker, and Mumford High School, which at the time was integrated and sent many of its graduates to the best colleges in the country.

Woodward Avenue cut diagonally across the entire city and served as the beautiful gateway to downtown Detroit. The Fisher Theater, a jewel of a performing arts center, attracted major talent and many of the plays and musicals that were headed for Broadway.  Nearby was the Detroit Institute of Art with its priceless Diego Rivera murals and the quirky Detroit Historical Museum with its basement exhibit of Old Detroit.

The Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers shared a stadium for years on Trumbull Avenue before the Lions moved to a domed stadium in Pontiac. And no visit downtown was complete without a Coney Island hotdog in Greektown or a hot fudge sundae at Sanders Confectionery. The biggest hits on the radio came from the hometown record label, Motown.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.