A Broken City

I am in Detroit. I came with a colleague to present a paper at an academic conference at Wayne State.

The last time I was in Detroit was at least 50 years ago, and even then I didn’t go downtown–I was visiting friends in a suburb. So I really had no idea what to expect as I drove to the Motor City Hotel and Casino, the venue designated as the conference attendee’s accomodations. The hotel/casino is a huge fortress-like structure, surrounded mostly by empty parcels. After circling it twice, we found the valet parking entrance.

Since we were too late to catch the shuttle to the University, we took a cab. The mile or so drive went through a landscape that reminded me of a third-world country; boarded structures, lots where nothing remained of a structure but rubble and trash. Here and there, we passed a new development–forlorn evidence of periodic efforts to resuscitate a dying city.

It had been easy enough to get a cab at the hotel, but when I decided not to wait for the return shuttle at 5:30, and tried to return from campus mid-afternoon, I struck out. I called every taxi company on the list. No luck. Most didn’t even answer the telephone; the two that did explained that today was a “very busy” day, and they’d get a cab to me as soon as possible. After an hour and a half with no taxi in sight, I went back to the conference and waited for the shuttle. (Ordinarily, I’d have walked, since the distance was only a couple of miles, but the weather was gusty, cold and snowy, and the conference staff made it very clear that walking was not considered safe.)

The hotel I’m in isn’t the sort of place I’d choose–I’m not much on gambling and glitz–but the rooms are really luxurious and the service has been exceptional. Anywhere else, a room of this sort would run 250+ per night. (More in New York or Chicago.) Here, it’s 129/night. Granted, that’s a conference rate–but I think what the price (and the presence of the Casino) really reflect is the fact that not many people want to come to Detroit just to visit Detroit.

When a city is broken, it depresses the economy of the whole state. Michigan’s travails have been widely reported, and it’s no surprise.

As yesterday’s post pointed out, keeping a city healthy requires constant attention and talented leadership. It requires attention to infrastructure and economic development, and the “care and feeding” of the service industry folks who are the first ambassadors seen by visitors. When I was serving in the Hudnut Administration, I remember special outreach programs to the cabdrivers and other service personnel who represented Indianapolis to visitors from elsewhere. Those efforts, among others, translated into a reputation that eventually brought us events like the SuperBowl, and the dollars those events pumped into the local economy.

When a city looks like Detroit looks now, it’s hard to believe anything will fix it. It should serve as a cautionary tale to those who take a vibrant city for granted. With enough disinvestment, enough abandonment and neglect, it can happen anywhere.


  1. How very sad, Sheila, that one of the largest manufacturing cities in America could slide so far downhill. I was there in mid-1970’s to visit in-laws; they drove my husband and I around the riot torn areas which must have heraled the beginning of vast deterioration. We drove through during summer heat with car windows rolled up and doors locked but saw few people walking on any streets; primarly destruction and emptiness everywhere.

    Indianapolis has many failings in maintaining infrastructure and providing public safety; this could easily happen here as there are pocket areas of blight throughout Marion County. Four years ago I drove my great-granddaughters through the west side neighborhood (between old Victory Field and Riverside Park) to show them where Grandma Jo had grown up. I was appalled at conditions in this once bustling area which now rivals your description of Detroit so there are such areas here. The 10 year old Riverside School #44 is protected by an 8 ft. chainlink fence and surrounded by many vacant, boarded houses and businesses and weed filled vacant lots where home once stood. I turned to tell the girls to lock doors and roll up windows to see them goggle-eyed and mouths hanging open and fear on their faces. While telling a friend about this, she said she and two other old friends had driven through the area 4 months earlier to see the old neighborhood. They were stopped by police and questioned as to why they were there. After explaining their reason, police told them to leave immediately because it isn’t safe, they were then escorted out of the neighborhood. These areas are found throughout Indianapolis but little is done to halt deterioration or to rebuild. Since 1991 when Mayor Hudnut ordered a study of abandoned houses, little has been done and the number of abandoned homes and buildings has escalated. Detroit would be an excellent example to hold in front of current administration in hopes of spuring them to action rather than occasionally mouthing off that something needs to be done and making empty promises. A thriving city is not only its downtown area but is made up of all surrounding suburbs, business areas and well maintained parks and recreation facilities. Local government needs to rethink its priorities and make wiser use of our tax dollars to prevent another Detroit here

  2. The numbers in that article prove a point I have tried to get across to friends and foes alike; White Flight destroys neighborhoods and, apparently, can destroy an entire city. The entire black population in Detroit cannot possibly be Democrats any more than the numbers of whites who defected can all be Republican. Racism is the deciding factor in Detroit.

  3. I was thinking of another city run by Democrats: San Francisco. When I moved there in 1975, the Airporter bus came through the South of Market Area, 3rd Street was the worst, on its way to the downtown bus station. $ 3 – $5 for the trip back then. That area had homeless drunken folks sleeping all over the sidewalks. It was the first thing visitors saw. Awful PR. NOW that area is home to the amazing convention center. (Named for the former mayor who was gunned down by a Gun Nut) VERY expensive condos. All very very different now. (and done by those ICKY Democrats) But in San Fran, the entire city had not failed. Please do the following if you are really concerned about American Cities and American Workers and places like Detroit:
    Look in your garage. If you see something that was created by a corporation in Germany, Japan, or Korea, YOU are a HUGE part of the problem. If you really want your kids to have a fighting chance in the next generation, PLEASE quit sending all this money to Europe & Asia. Even when they are put together in US plants, ALL The profits go to their home countries and they cook the books so ALL the profits are taxed at home, not in the US. If your garage contains a Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Toyota, Honda, Kia or something of that ilk, YOU are the problem. YOU. Not Washington. Will you change? I sure hope so. Your kids will need a strong US economy. Please do what you can. TRY to buy American.

  4. Thank you PatMcC; as the daughter of a General Motors employee who was a member of UAW Local 23 for many, many years I appreciate your comments. Isn’t Toyota the official vehicle of the Colts? In a city that once supported GM, Ford, Chrysler and International Harvester; I find this a questionable selection for our pro football team.

  5. How do they pay their workers in the U.S. if “ALL the profits go to their home countries”?

    Please learn basic economics.

  6. Yes. Let’s just forget the fact that several models of the Toyota are built in the U.S. in their Princeton plant.

    Let’s stop buying Toyota’s to tell the people in southern Indiana to go take a hike! Those darn people down there trying to make a living…

  7. Profits are income amounts after all debts are paid; these debts include paying workers.

    Basic economics.

    If Toyotas were not being built here; GM, Ford, Chrysler and International Harvester would probably still be big business in this country, including Indianapolis, southern Indiana and Detroit along with other once thriving American cities.

  8. Or perhaps they’re not here because they’ve made bad business decisions (among other things). Of course, it’s convenient for Detroit to be located so close to Canada so they can import their cars and parts from them so easily.

    This small minded view is so typical of liberals.

    Profits are paid to workers and to others in the States. Toyota is publicaly traded on the NYSE and workers own stock. Economic profits also include the increase of profit surrounding businesses see with the influx of increased economic activity in the area around the Toyota factory.

  9. It is very unfortunate that Detroit has become such a sad looking place and that there are so many issues there. I must say, however, that my husband and I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon and evening there last summer. We went to the Detroit Jazz Festival, and this outing gave me hope that Detroit can move forward. There was a big crowd downtown, diverse and happy. Everyone seemed friendly and relaxed, and the music was fantastic! There was a very positive vibe, and I would return for this event.

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