Deadline Now: Detroit's Misery: Could It Happen Here?

Deadline Now: Detroit's Misery: Could It Happen Here?

Friday, June 13, 2014 at 8:30 p.m.

Detroit, Michigan is the largest American city to declare bankruptcy. One of the nation's largest cities is now marked by vast expanses of abandoned buildings and burdened with crushing debt. How did it get in such a mess? Could the same thing happen here in Toledo?

This week, three-time Toledo mayor Carty Finkbeiner, former auditor general for Detroit Joe Harris, and Sandra Svoboda, an investigative reporter for WDET FM and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, join host Jack Lessenberry for a lively discussion.

Here are Jack Lessenberry's Final Thoughts for this edition of "Deadline Now:"

Sixty-three years ago, Detroit was getting ready to celebrate its two hundred and fiftieth birthday. The President of the United States came to speak. Motown, which had been a mere town half a century before, had grown to become the fourth largest city in the nation.

Detroit had nearly two million people then, and had one of the highest rates of home ownership in the nation. Elm trees were everywhere. The public schools were highly regarded.

Workers made good money. Detroiters were deeply proud of their city’s role as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” that supplied the world with the weapons needed to win World War Two. Detroit expected an even brighter future.

Today’s Detroit is bankrupt. The city has barely a third of its peak population. They are largely poor and unskilled. Most adults are not even in the labor force. Tens of thousands of buildings need to be demolished. My guess is that if you got a time machine, took a Detroiter of 1951 and drove him or her around today’s city without saying a word, they would be forced to this conclusion:

Our nation had fought, and most likely lost, some kind of nuclear war.

Detroit has been a victim of a unique set of circumstances. Race and Racism certainly have been factors. But so was the boom-and-bust auto industry. So was the coming of the interstates and the flight of people and jobs up the freeways.

Something else was unique about Detroit too.  It was a major city for only about half a century. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants flowed in from the country, from the South, from Eastern and Southern Europe. The city went from fewer than three hundred thousand inhabitants to well over a million and a half in thirty years. They came to work in the plants, and stayed for a generation.  

But that wasn’t long enough to give most any deep ties. When opportunity came, they left for elsewhere.

To try to keep up services, the city increased taxes on those who left, driving more to leave. Eventually, they hit the wall.

No other city has Detroit’s exact problems. But Detroiters may now have an advantage in one way: They have been forced to confront reality – and are now dealing with it.

If you live in an older industrial city and think there’s no way your town has problems of legacy costs and infrastructure, issues about population and job loss, I have news for you. You probably need to be better informed.