"We are one nation. We are one people. We will rise and we will fall together," President Obama declared in his Labor Day speech. "Anyone who doesn't believe it should come here to Detroit. It's like the commercial says: This is a city that's been to heck and back. And while there are still a lot of challenges here, I see a city that's coming back."
We've heard that before. Sixteen years ago, when we were an editor at City Journal, we worked on an article by Julia Vitullo-Martin titled "Detroit Fights Back." "No American city ever fell as far or as fast as Detroit," Vitullo-Martin began. "But now Detroit is poised for a comeback. Every signal--economic, political, social--is positive." One hopeful development was the retirement of five-term mayor Coleman Young, whose tenure had proved disastrous.
"By 1973, when Young was elected mayor, the population had fallen to 1.39 million from its peak of 1.85 million in 1952; it stood at 1.03 million in 1990," Vitullo-Martin wrote. "The proportion of whites in Detroit dropped from 56 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 1990--the smallest of any of America's 150 largest cities."
Those trends have only continued in the ensuing two decades, as the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments reported in April: "The total population in the City of Detroit declined from 951,270 in 2000 to 713,777 in 2010, a decrease of 237,493 or 25%. . . . Overall diversity in the city declined slightly, from 81% Black Non-Hispanic in 2000 to 82% in 2010. The White Non-Hispanic population dropped to 8% in 2010 from 10.5% in 2000."
In 1995, when Vitullo-Martin wrote, unemployment was on the decline: "Detroit's unemployment rate is down to 9 percent, far above the region's 5.3 percent but well below the city's 13.4 percent of April 1994 and way below 1990's 16.1 percent. Home prices are soaring." The average official city unemployment rate last year was 22.7%, and regional unemployment was 13.7% as of June 2011.
As of 1995, Detroit ranked "11th among American cities in overall violent crime." By 2010, according to a chart by CQ Press, Detroit had the country's third-highest crime rate, lagging only St. Louis and Camden, N.J. "It has been a murderous summer in Detroit with some 254 shootings and 52 dead," Henry Payne of the Detroit News reports:[Obama] parachuted into this city's sanitized, heavily-securitized [sic] downtown square-mile of corporate headquarters and Whole Foods markets - safe from the murderous streets of the city's other 138 square miles that have claimed 250 lives already this year and put Detroit on path for a staggering 50 per 100,000 residents murder rate in 2011.
Obama saw "a city that's coming back" because he avoided the vast majority of the city, which has "been to heck" and remains there. Actually, the TV commercial to which Obama alluded--a Chrysler ad that ran during this year's Super Bowl--uses the word hell. The commercial aimed to cast the auto maker as a rugged survivor when in fact it is a welfare case, the recipient of not one but two federal bailouts.
Vitullo-Martin's piece, sadly, proved not to be prescient, but it is very much worth rereading for its account of the decline of a once-great city:Detroit's economy unraveled most dramatically in the 1970s, as the auto industry made wrong decisions at every turn. . . . General Motors, much larger than Chrysler or Ford, set the terms for the whole industry--and they proved self-destructive terms. When GM signed an excessively generous labor contract with the UAW--as often happened in the days when U.S. companies could sell products as fast as they could make them and so kept their plants running at any cost--Ford and Chrysler meekly followed suit. The Big Three raised car prices as they liked, with little fear of being undercut by overseas competition. The industry had become a shared monopoly, with predetermined, protected market shares. Labor and management costs mushroomed, and the industry's inbred culture stifled innovation.
Meanwhile, Coleman Young, who had been a civil rights hero, deliberately accelerated his city's decline:Middle-class citizens, white and black, sought the lower taxes and better services available right across Eight Mile Road, Detroit's northern border. White flight escalated again during the court-ordered school busing efforts of the seventies. Mayor Young antagonized whites further by promoting a confrontational stance toward the suburbs--a stance that allowed him to consolidate his political base by fanning the resentments of an increasingly black Detroit. . . . Many white Detroit business people, unwilling to be quoted by name, look back on the Young years with particular bitterness. Says one, who left the city in 1982: "Coleman was a racist, and he made it clear that white businesses were unwelcome, which meant to me that we would go unprotected. We could get robbed, burned out, preyed upon by city inspectors, and Coleman wouldn't do anything. He encouraged attacks on us. There was absolutely no reason--not a one--to stay in Detroit."
We heard echoes of Young's confrontational approach in yesterday's comments by Jimmy Hoffa Jr., head of the Teamsters Union, who was among the warm-up acts for the president's Detroit speech. As the Associated Press reports:In addressing the crowd before Obama's appearance, Hoffa said there has been a war on workers. "And you see it everywhere, it is the tea party. And you know, there is only one way to beat and win that war. The one thing about working people is we like a good fight. And you know what? They've got a war, they got a war with us and there's only going to be one winner. It's going to be the workers of Michigan, and America. We're going to win that war." Hoffa added: "President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let's take these son of a bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong."
Hoffa describes the combatants in his "war" as "workers" on the one hand and "the Tea Party" on the other. But of course he isn't interested in workers in general, only those who belong to unions--a group that, after decades of private-sector union decline, largely consists of employees of government, government contractors and government bailout beneficiaries such as General Motors and Chrysler. "The Tea Party," meanwhile, is a dysphemism for taxpayers.
"Despite President Obama's repeated claims to change the tone in Washington, the White House had no comment this afternoon" on Hoffa's highly uncivil rhetoric, ABC News reports. Hey, give Hoffa credit. It isn't easy to stop this president from talking.
In his own speech, the president made clear that he agreed with the substance if not the tone of Hoffa's remarks. But turning America into Detroit may not be easy. After all, once Detroiters moved past Eight Mile Road, they were no longer able to vote against Coleman Young. Obama can't shrink the electorate he will have to face next year.