July 23, 2013

Abandoned van in Lower 9 Ward three years after Katrina.

Copyright 2008 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

The city of Detroit, Michigan has declared bankruptcy-it appears to have about an $18 billion dollar debt-and will need to find a way out.  The city has played an integral part in America’s cultural history as Detroit is famous for the “Motown Sound” created by Barry Gordy of Motown Records-one of the city’s nicknames is “Hitsville USA”.  Detroit was also one of the industrial hubs of the U.S. and both created and was driven by (no pun intended) the car culture that came to be representative of the American lifestyle-another of its nicknames is “The Motor City” (hence Motown).  Thousands of people moved from the south to the north seeking jobs in those factories.  As the auto industry morphed into a global industry, the American car companies were slow to respond to the cultural changes mandated by increasing petroleum costs.  In the 1970s, Americans began to buy the more economical Toyotas and Datsuns (now Nissan) produced offshore that were a better fit for the new economic reality.  As the global economy crashed in 2008, General Motors and Chrysler very nearly collapsed and shed jobs by the thousands.  Were it not for the controversial Federal bailout, they most likely would have.  (The Ford Motor Company was the only one of the “Big Three” auto companies that did not accept financial aid.)  While the car companies themselves are on much better footing today, the city itself is not and $18 billion is a lot of money.  Time will tell as to how this is mitigated, however, discussions are being reported about the selling of the city’s art collection and changes to pensions for retirees and current employees as a means of covering the debt.  This is not only a financial issue, but a cultural one as well.  Locally, the latter is a strategy used during the successive sales of what used to be known as Bethlehem Steel.  As the U.S. steel industry declined in the face of cheaper imported steel, many who worked for years at the Point in decidedly unpleasant conditions so as to accrue enough wealth for a comfortable retirement, found their pensions and health care benefits cut, necessitating a modification in lifestyle at a time when it is the most difficult to do so.  There is just something fundamentally wrong with changing after the fact what was contractually agreed upon, regardless of where it happens.  That is not what folks signed up and worked for.

One of the uglier aspects in the discussion of Detroit is the perineal divisive interpretation of race.  Many of those migrating from the south to the north to work in Detroit were also people of colour.  As a result, the socioeconomic problems of Detroit (and New Orleans for that matter) are  sometimes framed in terms of race and once that happens, the individual people become stereotyped, then marginalized, and finally written off.  (NOTE:  The previous sentence also appears in the recent post about New Orleans and it is deliberately being used again here.)  As the jobs are lost, the tax base drops.  As the tax revenue decreases, so do the school systems and other public services.  The city decays.  Once that happens, people who are able to, move-this is often phrased as “white flight” as an inordinate number of those leaving are caucasian.  Those left behind are often the working poor or those below the poverty level.  (It should be noted that this is a very simplistic view of a complex problem.) 

With regard to race and stereotypes, it is important to note that numerically in America, there are more people who categorize themselves as White living in poverty than those who categorize themselves as Black living in poverty :  30,849,000 vs. 10,929,000.  This changes, though, when looking at the percentage of a race living in poverty: for those self-categorized as White, the percent is 12.8; for those self-categorized as Black, the percent is 27.6.  (These and the following numbers are from the U.S. Census Bureau for the years as specified.) With regard to Detroit, the percentage of residents living below the poverty line was 36.2% for the years 2007-2011, which compares to 15% for the entire nation in 2010-2011.  (The poverty rate for New York city during the same time period was 19.4%; for New Orleans, it was 25.7%.)  Finally, in 2010, the population of Detroit was 10.6% who self-categorized as White and 82.7% who self-categorized as Black.

This will be an important story to follow as the manner in which Detroit solves this problem may well become the model for how other struggling cities resolve their financial difficulties, as suggested in the New York Times article linked above.

Finally, the documentary Detropia is well worth a watch as the above issues and others that have led to the bankruptcy are presented and discussed by residents of the city.

NOTE:  The photograph the leads this blog is actually from New Orleans.  It was made in the Lower 9th Ward approximately 4 1/2 years after Katrina.

Take care.

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