Fifty years on, some parts of King’s dream are closer to reality than others, but none seems more deferred than his vision of Detroit, now a shell-shocked city on the brink of bankruptcy with long, lonesome stretches of abandoned buildings, foreclosed homes and a population devastated by joblessness. Detroit has become so synonymous with urban deterioration that it can seem too familiar, a cliche of hopelessness — a prevalent sensibility that robs people struggling to survive in Detroit, and to revive Detroit, of the respect they deserve.A lot has gone wrong since then. Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy provided material for a book review earlier this year. Michael Barone used to live in the area, and his review (via Via Media) of the book highlights the political failures of the late civil rights era that pushed him to the Right.
Detroit has been decomposing, in a sense. All organic things decompose sooner or later, from human beings to cities, and then something new arises in their place. But they also leave important markers behind that shape the present and future. Detroit has left as many markers as any city in America. Cars, music, labor, civil rights — much of the mythical American dream was defined by this Detroit quartet. And all of them were in their fullness on that early summer day 50 years ago.
Liberal city government is expensive— [mayor Jerome] Cavanagh instituted a city income tax raised later to 2.5%—and increasingly ineffective. The Detroit News reported that 47% of property owners didn't pay their 2011 property tax. The public employee unions, just starting up in the Cavanagh years, have long been pushing for salaries, benefits, and pensions that are increasingly unaffordable. So the city has let its physical facilities go to ruin, as LeDuff notes again and again. Dave Bing, the former basketball player and auto parts business owner who was elected mayor in 2009, threatened to close 77 of the city's parks. Detroit under its 1922 charter is a civil service city, with nonpartisan elections and nine council members elected at large. So, as LeDuff notes, council members and judges are often elected because they have familiar names. They don't have neighborhood responsibilities like Chicago's 50 aldermen and 50 Democratic ward committeemen. When I worked for Mayor Cavanagh, I was impressed by the competence and civic responsibility of Detroit's top civil servants. But since then the culture of civil servants and political appointees seems to have become one of entitlement and, as LeDuff observes, iron indifference to the plight of city residents.What may prevent Chicago from going the way of Detroit is the obligation of ward-heelers to give more than lip-service to the wishes of their constituents.