Detroit has become the American face of a once-great city gone to the wolves. Once the home of manufacturing innovator Henry Ford and the hub of America’s once-great automotive manufacturing, Detroit served as an ideal of the American dream. No matter who you were, where you were from, or your financial background, Detroit had a manufacturing job for you.
So how has it come to serve as a dirty word in the lexicon of America?
Cities once lacking in Detroit’s vitality, work force, and municipal pride, cities like Cleveland and Buffalo, now often take solace in the fact that ‘at least we’re not Detroit.’
The image of Detroit as a modern wasteland was once-again reinforced by this depressing reality: four of the eight mayoral candidates in this year’s race are convicted felons. How, exactly, did Detroit hit yet another rock-bottom?
For one, Detroit has not elected a Republican mayor in 55 years. While the egregious mismanagement of the city’s public funds range far beyond Democratic policy, a virtually uncontested single party has not helped a city in decline since the 50’s.
Detroit’s population reached its peak in 1950, with 1.85 million people calling the Motor City home. Then, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were offering great jobs with even better benefits, an appealing prospect especially to those who had returned from the war with little education. But trouble loomed, as Detroit’s entire economy was stabilized singularly by the automotive industry, and the population tasked with doing the work began voicing their own concerns.
For one, blacks and whites were resistant to working together, and wage negotiations by labor leaders often led to work slowdowns and strikes. As a result, manufacturers began moving many factories to the suburbs, with this geographical disconnect meaning that one factory’s strike would not spread to the surrounding ones.
Automation claimed even more jobs previously based in Detroit. The energy crisis tied to the economic recession of the 1970s and 80s resulted in further job losses, with outsourcing and foreign investment serving as the death knell for Detroit as America’s automotive hub. Having put all their eggs in this automotive basket, disaster was sure to follow.
And follow it did.
Racial tensions had been fomenting in the city since the 1940s, and the increasing ranks of unemployed grew restless. Long-standing government corruption meant that Detroit’s financial woes would be even worse than expected. Detroit’s list of futile mayoral administrations would be enough for a few cities combined. In the Motor City, it is merely par for the course.
There was Charles Bowles, who served for seven months in 1930 despite being supported by the Ku Klux Klan. It was a spike in crime and allegations of Bowles’ connections with the Detroit underworld, however, that led to him being ousted at the peoples’ demand.
Ed Jeffries is the mayor perhaps most responsible for the city’s reputation as one of vast, empty fields. His Detroit Plan called for the razing of abandoned, decrepit homes on 100 Detroit acres between 1940 and 1948. It was not a bad plan in theory, had the land not sat unused, instead of being redeveloped as promised. Making matters worse, this is the policy that is most attributed to white flight from Detroit’s suburbs, as the former residents of those razed houses moved into the suburbs, contributing to the departure of many white residents in the process.
The city’s infrastructure further crumbled, as did race relations, under four-term mayor Coleman Young:
‘Isabel Wilkerson, writing in The New York Times in 1989, said the mayor, running in a city in which 70 percent of the voters were black, seemed "to revel in the sort of polarization that other politicians dread."’
Detroit’s mayoral track record is long and checkered, but infamous mayor Kwame Kilpatrick allowed the public an unprecedented look into his corruption thanks to archived text messages, emails, and a public court hearing that would ultimately result in a 28-year prison sentence.
Elected in 2001, Kilpatrick did not waste time further sullying his city’s already shady reputation. Nicknamed the “hip-hop mayor,” he was elected at the ripe age of 31, primarily because he appeared “hip” and “cool,” his good looks furthering his case for office.
You can probably guess that his tenure didn’t exactly serve as a pillar of integrity and conservative government spending.
Rarely seen without a gaudy suit or his trademark diamond earring stud, Brown would ultimately plead guilty to racketeering, fraud, and extortion, including hiding assets from the court after initially resigning in 2008.
Kwame’s text messages, which include the details of an illicit affair with another government employee that led to obstruction of justice charges, are worth a read. And, recently, he was “praying for a Presidential pardon,” a revelation found among CBS’ local affiliate’s many Kwame-centric headlines.
It seems that Democratic mayors and their repeated corruption are the inescapable albatross around Motown’s neck, and the resulting disrepair has spread outward from the Motor City insidiously. The Flint, Michigan water crisis, after all, was largely the result of government malevolence.
The latest mayor, Dave Bing, was so overwhelmed by the city’s massive debt that, even after attempting to enact cuts to government spending and its work force, he decided to forego reelection. It is a job with no realistic upside and many, many headaches.
So, here Detroit is. Turning to a field of eight candidates that will be expected to serve as the city’s saviors.
Hell, at this point, the good people of Detroit may as well go with one of the four felons. At least they will know to expect the corruption that seems to inevitably come with the Detroit’s office of mayor.