The nation’s eyes have been on Detroit ever since the long-troubled Motor City became the largest American city in history to file for bankruptcy. The city’s troubles are monumental: massive poverty and unemployment, long-term debts approaching $20 billion, and vast unfunded liabilities for pensions and health care.
Detroit has tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, streetlights that never come on, and police who can take an hour to arrive even after a murder. Thousands of people in the region worry that the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the finest museums in the nation, may be sold to pay bill collectors.
But while there is intense focus on the bankruptcy itself, too few are asking the most important question: What happens to Detroit after all this ends?
The city is likely to emerge shorn of debt, as well as some remaining assets. But how do the 680,000 or so remaining Detroiters keep their city solvent, let alone regain a semblance of prosperity?
The answer is that they can’t — at least, not on their own. Those who study cities know, as urban expert David Rusk has long argued, that the real city is the metropolitan area, including the suburbs.
Detroit is surrounded by 3.5 million relatively affluent people whose ancestors came because there were jobs in Motown — but who then moved out of the city, depriving it of tax revenue and accelerating its decline.
Ideally, it would make sense to merge Detroit with surrounding Wayne County, something that has worked well in places such as Indianapolis and Nashville. Michigan lawmakers should, at the very least, take steps to foster regional cooperation and tax and revenue sharing.
Detroiters have made mistakes and bad choices, but they are not solely to blame for the city’s decline. Everyone in Michigan must realize that the state can never attain the prosperity it seeks if its signature city is a blighted and bankrupt failure — and that everyone from Monroe to Marquette has a stake in a functioning, solvent, and healthy Detroit.