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Donald Kaul Headshot

Detroit's Ruins

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Cross-posted with OtherWords.

It's not only cruel but stupid to let a noble city like Detroit simply fade away.

Poor Detroit. The bad news never stops. The once-proud miracle of capitalism is the urban equivalent of a homeless family living under a bridge, digging in dumpsters for scraps.

Having already gone through its "Crime Capital" phase, it has become the nation's "See Ya Later" capital.

The census recently found that in the past 10 years, the Motor City has lost 25 percent of its population. When I was growing up there in the 1940s and 1950s, 1.85 million people lived there. Now only 714,000 do.

Driving though Detroit, one often wonders where even those people are hiding.

Detroit is a very big city, 138 square miles. You could put San Francisco, Boston, and Washington inside its boundaries and have space to spare.

You can literally drive miles through Detroit and see nothing but open fields, abandoned factories, and falling-down empty houses. And when I say abandoned, I mean just that.

You look in the windows of these derelict buildings and see chairs and tables knocked over, file cases standing open, papers strewn on the floors. It's as though someone said, "Here comes the tsunami, run!" And everyone did.

This is capitalism?

Well, actually, it is. One of the underappreciated aspects of the capitalist system is the ruthlessness with which it discards things it no longer finds useful. Human misery that can't be quantified on a balance sheet has no weight in capitalism. The social costs of profits are borne by the victims--or society as a whole--rather than the corporations who made the loot.

This is pretty much the story of Detroit.

Back in the day, it was a working-class promised land. People came to find a better life from the slums and villages of Europe and the hardscrabble hamlets of the South. And, by God, they found it in Detroit.

Detroit was the place where Henry Ford instituted the $5 day at his Highland Park plant. It was a revolutionary and galvanizing concept. His fellow industrialists hated him for it. The Wall Street Journal denounced him and predicted it would lead to the ruination of American industry.

His workers took the money and bought cars with it, and Ford became the richest man in the world. So much for the collective wisdom of industrialists and the Wall Street Journal.

During World War II, Detroit's "Arsenal of Democracy" period, it gave itself over to churning out planes and tanks and Jeeps instead of cars. Working-class Detroit became unbelievably prosperous.

That was my Detroit.

A man without a college education could earn enough to feed his family, have a nice home, and maybe even send his kids to college--even own a boat.

Perhaps a flicker remains of the city's allure. Like Rome in the 18th century, Detroit's ruins are starting to attract visitors in their own right. The central city is still functional, with a growing population of yuppies. There's more cultural activity in that central area than in all but a few American cities. Its suburbs remain prosperous.

But the real city--where hundreds of thousands of gainfully employed people once lived and worked--rots, despite the brave work of hardy urban pioneers.

I don't understand why the United States hates cities so. But it does. Detroit isn't unique in its decline, only the worst example of its kind.

It's not only cruel--but stupid--to let a noble city like Detroit simply fade away. For 100 years it was one of the great industrial centers of the world. What's that worth now? Nothing?

Detroit has two great advantages. One is water, which will come in handy someday when desert towns like Las Vegas and Phoenix have gone dry.

The other is land. Detroit, more than any other city in the country, is a blank sheet of paper. It's waiting for visionaries who will draw the future on it.

Seen any visionaries lately?