The politics of Mayor Coleman Young drove out the white and black middle class.
On an August evening in 1976, several hundred gang members descended on a concert in Detroits Cobo Hall and rampaged through the crowd. The Detroit Police Department, whose ranks had been cut by 20% or nearly 1,000 officers by Mayor Coleman Young, took more than an hour to respond to the mini-riot while teens snatched purses and attacked concertgoers. The melee made headlines and provided stark evidence that in the nine years since the citys 1967 riots, which lasted five days and claimed 43 lives, Detroits decline had continued.
Today, Detroit sits in bankruptcy court as the largest municipal Chapter 9 case in American history. Much of the commentary about the citys decline has focused on global economic forces that displaced auto manufacturing jobs and public unions whose demands emptied the till as Detroit foundered.
The truth is that Detroit was a failed city long before it became insolvent, thanks to a virtual collapse of its municipal government during Youngs 1974-1994 reign as mayor. A radical trade unionist who ran as an antiestablishment candidate reaching out to disenfranchised black voters, Young lacked a plan except to go to war with the citys major institutions and demand that the federal government save it with subsidies. Critics called it "tin-cup urbanism."
As the citys government became increasingly less effective, whites and then middle-class blacks fled. "He left the city a fiscal and social wreck," the eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in a 1998 article in The New Republic, "The Closing of the American City."
Young was right that Detroit needed reform to deal with problems sparked by the migration of poor Southern blacks into the city in the 1950s. He and others, white and black, criticized the political power structure in Detroit, and especially its police department, as racially insensitive. The 1967 riots, sparked by a police raid on an after-hours club in a black neighborhood, generated legitimate calls for change.
Elected ostensibly as a reform mayor in 1973, however, Young made things worse. He divided the police department along racial lines, creating separate layoff lists of white and black officers. He and his handpicked police chief, William Hart, made clear that policing that resulted in too many arrests or citations in the black community would not be tolerated. "I wouldnt write tickets for black kids," one black officer told journalist Tamar Jacoby in her 1998 book "Someone Elses House: Americas Unfinished Struggle for Integration."
When residents complained about a lack of law enforcement, Chief Hart called the protests "racism and sour grapes." Mayor Young declared that "law and order was code for Keep the n-----s in their place." Detroit became one of Americas most violent cities.
Youngs divisive brand of governing extended to economic policy, such as it was. When General Motors agreed to build a new plant in the 1980s to help the citys revival, Young and GM targeted the still vibrant, largely white ethnic neighborhood of Poletown to locate the facility. In one of the nations most infamous cases of eminent domain, the city sued in 1981 to raze some 1,500 homes and 144 businesses and displace 3,500 people.
As some Poletown residents hung on, hoping that court challenges would overturn the takings, Young withdrew services. Residents lived among demolition crews by day and looters by night. Documentary filmmaker George Corsetti described the chaotic last days of Poletown in a 2004 article in CounterPunch: "The night air was always smoke-filled and people slept with guns nearby."
Young benefitted politically from his very ineffectiveness. As the economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer write in their study of urban ethnic politics, "The Curley Effect" (named after Bostons early 20th-century mayor James Michael Curley), as whites fled Detroit, Youngs margin of electoral victory grew because his electoral base of poor blacks became a larger share of the citys population.
Meanwhile, the increasingly distressed city became a fiscal ward of the state and federal governments. As Ms. Jacoby wrote, by the late 1970s federal grants paid the salaries of up to one-third of Detroits workforce.
Youngs legacy haunted Detroit long after he retired (he died in 1997). He opposed the election of his successor, well-regarded black State Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer, who won in 1993 without a majority of the black vote. Young allies blocked Mr. Archers agenda, including efforts to reduce patronage in city government, and they even tried to recall him.
Mr. Archer was followed by Kwame Kilpatrick, dubbed by admirers the "hip-hop mayor," a supposedly authentic black voice in the mold of Young. Elected in 2001, Kilpatrick served until he was indicted for obstruction of justice and resigned under pressure in 2008. This year he was convicted on 24 federal counts committed during his mayoralty, including mail fraud and racketeering.
When former NBA star David Bing succeeded Kilpatrick in 2009, he called the city "near bankrupt financially, ethically, and operationally." While Young was not directly responsible for the public-pension obligations that led to the citys bankruptcy, his poor governance and hostility toward the middle class drove the tax base away.
Today, Detroit is an estimated $18 billion in debt including a $3.5 billion pension shortfall. Its population has shrunk to under 700,000 from 1.84 million in 1950. Unemployment is at 16.3 %, and the number of jobs in Detroit has declined by more than half since Young became mayor in 1974. The citys auto manufacturing base has shrunk despite the bailouts of GM and Chrysler, as those jobs moved to the likes of Kentucky and Alabama.
Today, too, Youngs brand of urban revival, which viewed cities as victims that require federal aid, is no longer in favor. Few expect new urban spending from a financially troubled federal government. Texas Sen. John Cornyn recently introduced legislation that would bar the feds from bailing out Detroit or any other municipality.
In the early 1990s a new brand of reform mayor—Milwaukees John Norquist chief among them—emerged and argued that cities were the center of American dynamism and innovation. New Yorks Rudy Giuliani argued that effective municipal government was essential to urban revival, and he took to quoting the ancient Athenian Oath of Fealty, in which citizens and leaders pledged to "Transmit this city not only not less, but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."
Thats not something Coleman Young could ever claim to have accomplished.
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