This is Detroit, the largest city in Michigan. I am here for three weeks, in the midst of empty skyscrapers, for a fellowship with WDIV, sponsored by International Center for Journalists.
When I arrived, I assumed those buildings only became quiet and empty after Detroit’s government filed for bankruptcy last year. I was surprised to learn from colleagues that this city’s problems are deeper than the recent financial struggles.
Two larger problems afflict Detroit: racism and corruption.
Racism is a concept that should have died in the U.S. long ago, but it’s hard to ignore the impact of race on Detroit’s decline.
This was once the fourth-largest city in the U.S., with population peaking in 1950 at 1.8 million. Currently, it is only the 18th-largest American city with a population below 700,000.
History says demographic changes began when waves of southerners, including significant numbers of African-Americans, migrated to Detroit in the early 20th century. This migration was followed by a post-World War II migration of white Detroiters to the suburbs, effectively creating two Detroits—one white and suburban and another black and urban.
Detroit reminded me of Cape Town, South African, not only because of racial division but also the quietness of the city center, fueled by the racially-charged fear of crime.
Corruption is another factor in Detroit’s decline, as one might expect given everything we know about former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who received a 28-year prison sentence last October.
Detroit had built itself into one of the most desirable cities, not only in the U.S., but globally. Sadly, it stagnated. Detroit never expanded its economy beyond auto factories.
Today, in a rather cruel irony, this city of car companies lacks quality roads.
Granted, my time in Detroit was short, but it’s my impression that Detroit’s struggles stem from racism and corruption.