French Newspaper Visits Detroit, the “Paris of the West”

In the fall of 2009, I received a call from a group of reporters from the French publication, Le Monde diplomatique. I’d like to say that they found their way to me because of my Belgian heritage, or because Detroit was known in the early 1900s as the “Paris of the West,” due to its architecture.

Actually, they were referred to me by The Detroit News Hub. The Hub was created in 2008 by Business Leaders for Michigan to connect the local, national and international media with sources in Detroit.  Data Driven Detroit serves frequently as one of those sources.

I took one look at the list of questions the French reporters sent to me in advance, and I could tell that the tone of the article would be rather negative. In addition to figures around foreclosures, vacant buildings and land, unemployment, and transportation, they wanted to know about suicide rates as well.

Dedicated to providing accurate data, we worked with them to offer complete answers to their questions.  We provided additional data to give them a broader understanding of our city.

Below is the resulting article. While it contains a great deal of the standard “doom and gloom,” I feel it also addresses the strength of the city and the optimism that derived from the elections of Barack Obama in Washington and Dave Bing in Detroit.


Detroit is a city in decline, shrinking, segregated, and now one of the poorest in the US, with a third of its people below the poverty line and health indicators equal to those of a developing country

by Allan Popelard and Paul Vannier

“Can you smell it?” asks Dave, as five piles of cinders smoulder across the road from his house. Dave, 30, lives on 7 Miles Road in one of Detroit’s poor districts, part of a 10km-wide belt running between the skyscrapers of the city centre and the wealthy suburbs. The cinder piles are all that remain of five houses that were lived in only two months ago. “Another one burnt down last night. Every week one gets torched. They do it to get the insurance, so they can move to the suburbs. No one wants to live around here anymore.”

Detroit’s urban ghettos are being eroded bit by bit, leaving only fragments behind. In some blocks only two or three houses remain inhabited. The area has become a wasteland of burnt out cars, empty parking lots and disused factories. Derelict homes are consumed by shrubs and trees. A once dense urban landscape is decomposing, turning into a rural wilderness where the crowing of cockerels and the buzz of crickets reverberate.

Detroit is shrinking: 35% of its municipal area is uninhabited (1) and it is the only city in the world to have lost more than half its population – almost a million people – in half a century (2). It is only around the university that you see a few pedestrians, or at the end of the school day, on the main avenues of Woodward, Michigan or Gratiot. The sub prime crisis has increased the problem.

Michigan’s largest city was one of the worst affected by the sale of sub prime mortgages – variable rate loans offered by neoliberals keen to give the poorest in society access to the property ladder, so they could join the consumer society. The failure of thousands of borrowers to keep up the rising monthly payments led to repossessions – 67,000 between 2005 and 2008, according to the city council.

Capitalism’s latest crisis affected the people of Detroit particularly badly, as they were hit both by the financial meltdown and the fall in production that followed. The collapse of the banking system reduced access to credit, so consumption decreased, causing a dramatic fall in car sales in the US. The Big Three – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – which are all based in Detroit, were hit badly. Over-indebted, under-capitalised and out-competed by Japanese manufacturers, GM, Chrysler and Ford owe their survival to the government’s federal rescue plan. But the plan didn’t prevent job losses.

Unemployment almost doubled in Detroit between January 2008 and July 2009, rising from 14.8% to 28.9%. The real rate may be over 40%, according to Kurt Metzger, director of the Detroit area Community Information System (3). “It’s worse than it used to be,” says Dave. “I manage by doing odd jobs here and there. My wife can’t find work though. GM and Chrysler are about to go under, Ford is just holding on. There are no more factories here.” The abandoned skyscrapers downtown are like empty flagpoles, symbols of decline.

Arsenal of democracy

Detroit’s specialisation in car manufacturing made it particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the economic cycle and changes within the capitalist system. Fordism made this city the centre of industrial capitalism. Mass production, introduced during the first half of the 20th century, was hungry for labour, so relatively high wages were offered attracting workers to the car industry: blacks fleeing the racism of the south, and immigrants from abroad, notably Greece and Poland. Detroit was in its heyday during the second world war, “the arsenal of democracy” as Roosevelt put it, at the heart of the US war effort.

But things changed after 1945 when Detroit started losing contracts and jobs. US capitalism entered the post-Fordist era, and industry relocated from the Northeast and Midwest to the south, where the unions were weaker and manpower was cheaper. The mass ownership of cars and changes in the methods of production meant less activity took place in urban areas. A polycentric urban model began to emerge, with employment and services based in the outskirts. Attracted by new job opportunities and the American dream of owning your own home, the white middle and upper classes moved to the suburbs.

But fear and racism also played a part in this migration. Although whites had started leaving the inner city with the de-industrialisation of the 1950s, the majority left after the black riots of 1967, when 43 people were killed and the army sent in the tanks. Detroit’s apocalyptic image and new nicknames of Murder City and Devil City became self-fulfilling prophecies.

Fear and racism also played a role in the economic segregation of the city. The power of the city’s negative image – just think of the film Robocop which is set in Detroit – explains why it is the only large city in the US whose city centre did not go through a process of gentrification, or become multicultural. It is one of the poorest cities in the US – a third of people live below the poverty line – and one of the most segregated with almost nine out of ten of its inhabitants black. This US-style apartheid is not evident between one district and another, as in other US cities, but between the inner city and the suburbs.

On 8 Miles Road, the wide avenue at the northern limit of municipal Detroit, the central reservation marks the boundary between two worlds. On one side lie the wealthy homes and manicured lawns of the suburbs; on the other, rows of slums housing the unemployed and people excluded from the private health care system.

In the city centre the disabled and homeless wander the streets, like Beckett’s Molloy, who kept plodding on with his crutches and his bicycle. The city of the car is also the city of the electric wheelchair. The health indicators for the local population are equal to those of a developing country: infant mortality is 18 per 1,000, three times higher than in the rest of the US, and the same as Sri Lanka.

“When you lose your job, you lose your health insurance,” explains Dave. “So once you’re unemployed you stop going to the doctor. At the corner of the street you can get medical care for $20, but someone in your family has to be working and act as your guarantor. But don’t expect anything more than a routine visit, and you’ll be the last person in the waiting room to be seen.” With the new rise in unemployment, public health is expected to get even worse.

An urban ghetto

But how do you reverse this trend when the physical arrangement of the city in the form of a ring is part of the problem? It perpetuates social inequality by hemming the proletariat into an urban ghetto. Eighty-six per cent of jobs are in the outskirts, but a quarter of the city’s inhabitants don’t have a car (the official figure is 33%, but Metzger points out that many people drive without insurance and so are excluded from the statistics). It is not easy getting around without a car in this city built by, and for, the automobile, dominated by motorways and wide avenues. Mobility is a social issue. Those who cannot join car-pools resort to the transport of the poor: buses with bike racks. But with the city on the edge of bankruptcy (4), Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing, has made drastic cuts to the transport budget: 113 bus drivers laid off, some routes cut, lower frequency on others (5).

The structure of the city also explains why Detroit’s poor are excluded from health care. Many GPs have moved to the suburbs where they can earn more. And while the city is at the forefront of medical research, with some of the best hospitals in the US, it is only the suburban rich who can afford them.

So for many here the health care reform promised by President Obama is a question of life or death. Louise used to work for the city council. She lives in East Side, a run-down African-American district. “I am 74 years old, so the health insurance debate really concerns me,” she said. “I voted for Obama because I thought he could make a change. You know, I really need it. My doctor said I needed a scanner. Medicare [the government programme that insures people over 65] covers me for 80%. But what about the other 20%? I can barely afford to pay for my medicine. Do I need to choose between my medicine and the scanner? Is that it? I worked for 29 years. I paid tax. It’s not fair.”

In this Democratic heartland, 97% of the electorate voted for Obama. One year on, Luther Keith, president of Arise, an organisation offering free health care and schooling to the poor, remembers that day with emotion: “There were parties everywhere. It was extraordinary. It felt as though something wonderful had happened to a member of the family. It was like Joe Louis beating Max Schmeling in 1938!” he says, referring to the black boxer who became a hero when he defeated the German, and is honoured with a statue in the city.

But even in such a centre of African-American culture and civil rights struggle as Detroit, it is the Democratic candidate’s economic and social programme that counts, not his ethnic origin. “We didn’t vote for Obama because he was black, we voted for him because of his policies, in particular his promise to reform the health care system,” everyone tells us. Electoral support for the Democrats in Macomb County is a textbook case in American political science, and reveals the economic and social determining factors in the Detroit metropolitan area (see “What’s the matter with Macomb?”).

‘Like the air we breathe’

Detroit’s citizens remain sympathetic towards the new president, for the moment, but they are concerned by the obstacles being put in his way: “Things take time. If you look at what Obama has done in the last few months, it’s more than any president did before him,” says Keith. “But, obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done. And it’s not easy for people who have lost their jobs to say everything will be okay.” People see Obama having to compromise with the lobby groups, the Republicans and even the opposition within his own party. Hope among his supporters has turned into patience. If he fails, Keith warns, “disappointment will be huge”.

People are turning to the federal government as a last resort, because the municipality has no more room to manoeuvre. Its tax base collapsed when the middle classes and capital fled, and now it is almost bankrupt. The Democratic city council seems powerless to prevent the cycle of poverty. The question of whether to integrate the metropolitan area has still not been resolved: the residents of the suburbs refuse to share their wealth, while the black inhabitants of the inner city don’t want to see their hard-won political power diluted in a metropolitan authority that would care little about them.

Despite the disaster, there are no strikes in the factories or protests in the street. Instead the poor, broken by the “casino economy”, cram into the games halls built by construction companies offered tax breaks by the council – its main development policy at the end of the 1990s. The city seems to have left behind its radical past: the strikes of 1937 and 1945 that led to the election of the first black mayor, Coleman Young in 1973 (6), the abolitionist networks, the civil rights struggle, the emergence of Black Power and the African American revolts of 1833, 1918, 1943 and 1967.

Even United Auto Workers, the all-powerful automobile trade union, has given up the fight, going as far as to agree with the bosses at GM and Chrysler not to strike in times of crisis. No one seems to be rebelling against a system that has created Detroit as its most advanced end product. “Capitalism is America,” says Keith. “It built this town: the Motown record label, the cars we drive… Capitalism is everything – everything you have, and in a way, everything you don’t have. It’s like the air we breathe – we can’t change it.”

Businessmen at the Tech Town enterprise zone and politicians are banking on the green economy. The elite has always believed in a bright future, in innovation and the perpetual cycle of “creative destruction”. This “Renaissance city” is built on liberal optimism: every time it is down it finds renewed vigour in the political theories of Schumpeter. The Renaissance Centre, conceived by Henry Ford II and built only four years after the riots of 1967, is the most glaring symbol of this. It has been the headquarters of General Motors since 1995. Businessmen enjoy lunch in the comfortable restaurant on the 73rd floor. Before them lies a panorama of devastation and a landscape of relics ingrained with the marks of violence.

“For many Americans, Detroit is Ground Zero,” says Keith. Not the ground zero created in a moment of searing intensity, but a zero reached gradually, in an account that never stops being debited. Detroit is the product of a system that makes you wonder how it stubbornly keeps on going – through the blindness of the oppressed, or the cynicism of the oppressor? “Optimism is our only solution,” Keith concludes, smiling.