The Corner

The Ruins of Detroit

I’ve spent some time in Detroit over the past few years, working with one of the city’s major cultural institutions in an informal capacity, so these observations are both anecdotal and personal. But I had no experience with the city prior to that — all I knew was what I read in the newspapers — and I tried to bring a fresh eye to what I was seeing. Yes, you can read all the horrifying statistics in Mark’s weekend piece, or here, but after a while it becomes a MEGO of Wagnerian ruin porn. Some thoughts:

Until you’ve been there, you have no idea just how devastated the place is. And I don’t mean “devastated” in its current pop-psychological, New York Times sense of “a little bit discomfited” — I mean devastated as in Carthage just before the salt trucks arrived. I’ve driven all over the city, from downtown to Eight Mile along Woodward Avenue, which bisects the town into its east and west sides, through surviving neighborhoods like the faded but still mightily impressive Boston-Edison and Indian Village, to neighborhoods that, well, simply do not exist anymore. They’re gone. From Brush Park, for example — in the 19th century, Detroit’s most desirable neighborhood — you can stand on what amounts to a prairie, gazing south toward downtown a couple of miles away, and your view is entirely unobstructed — you can easily make out Ford Field in the distance. A city that once boasted the finest residential architecture in the country is now effectively a ghost town, and all the finger-pointing won’t bring it back.

And that’s the real tragedy of Detroit — a marvelous example of 20th-century American civilization has vanished and is now returning to a state of nature that would have, literally, been inconceivable were it pitched back in the 1950s as one option for the city’s future. We can argue all we want about the blame, but there is no gainsaying that Detroit did not deserve its lot, and does not deserve to be an object of derision for the Right today.

It can and should be saved, and the bankruptcy filing (which will happen, no matter what some local judge says) is the first step. There is much left to save in Detroit, including the city’s superb cultural history, its distinctive neighborhoods, its beautiful natural setting and what remains of its post-industrial infrastructure, but it’s going to require a completely new civic model — one that casts aside the crude and tired labor vs. management Manichean reductionism, the bloated, employer-of-last-resort “civil service,” the whole notion of public-employee unions, and the absolute fiscal insanity of paying people handsomely not to work (whether as retirees or welfare recipients) just as the decidedly unpaternalistic wolves of the New Economy show up at the door, huffing and puffing and . . . you know the rest.

Forget “innovation zones” — the whole town (as James Pethokoukis points out on the home page) needs to be an innovation zone, with all the normal rules and assumptions of bien-pensant contemporary civic thinking eliminated in favor of bottom-up creativity.One example: Real estate could not possibly get any cheaper, and in a functioning free-market economy, young people and immigrants would be flocking to the Motor City to snap up bargain digs, set up shops and businesses. But the city’s absurd real-estate tax structure — observed only by the honest or the solvent — discourages any rational person from investing there. Since there’s no money, no paid workforce and no services, why not declare a prolonged tax holiday and leave the rest to human ingenuity? It’s not like things could get worse. Detroit needs less government, not more.

As the song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and brother is Detroit ever busted. (Where did all that money go?) To continue to view it via the old leftist, class-struggle paradigm does a great city a great disservice — and obscures the bright future it might yet have if both the vision and will is there — and if politicians of all stripes would just leave it alone to find its own way. “Kinder, schafft neues!” shouted Wagner to his disciples: Make something new. Detroit’s had its Goetterdaemmerung. But even as the “Ring” cycle ends with the welcome destruction of Valhalla and a great cleansing flood, the Rhine maidens get their golden ring back, redeemed by love and ready to witness the birth of a brave new world. 

Michael Walsh — Mr. Walsh is the author of the novels Hostile Intent and Early Warning and, writing as frequent NRO contributor David Kahane, Rules for Radical Conservatives.


The Latest