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Detroit’s precipitous fall into bankruptcy has become a national spectacle — and a sometimes simplistic cautionary tale about the perils of mismanagement and corruption.
What the Motor City’s steady 60-year decline has not done is trigger a relevant debate on a new federal urban agenda — a set of policies that would benefit all cities, including Toledo. It’s long past time for that to happen.
The U.S. government has lacked a serious, sustained urban policy for 40 years — not since a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, declared war on poverty and a Republican president, Richard Nixon, enacted federal revenue sharing.
In the decades since, both parties and their leaders have largely ignored urban America, except as a wedge to divide and frighten voters. Today’s hyper-partisan politics aggravate the problem: Suburban Republican politicians see no gain in helping Democratic-controlled cities.
To be sure, plans and policies that could help cities do occasionally percolate from Washington. Last week, President Obama announced that he would cut corporate tax rates if Republican lawmakers pledged to invest in programs that would stimulate the economy and generate middle-class jobs through education, training, and public works projects. Even so, such ideas fall far short of the comprehensive, coordinated policies and investments that cities and metropolitan areas need.
Once the nation’s industrial power, Detroit is the poster child for the post-World War II shift of people and capital from older central cities to the suburbs, as well as the decline of lower-skilled manufacturing jobs that built a broad and prosperous middle class.
Over 60 years, Detroit’s population has dropped from nearly 2 million to maybe 650,000. The riots of 1967 accelerated the loss, but the exodus to the suburbs started in the early 1950s and continues today.
Detroit lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, and continues to lose as many as 15,000 people a year. Most who remain are poor.
Last month, Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy — a collapse caused not only by mismanagement and corruption, but also by a decades-long erosion of Detroit’s tax base. The exodus of people and jobs has plagued central cities nationwide, including Toledo.
Suburban growth after World War II wasn’t an accident; it was driven by federal policies. New highways zipped commuters to and from central-city jobs. Insured, low-interest federal loans encouraged returning veterans to buy houses in developing suburbs.
Meanwhile, outdated, multistory manufacturing plants such as Detroit’s Packard Motors, tucked into once dense urban neighborhoods, closed. Many of them moved to modern, one-story factories in the suburbs, where land was cheap and available.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, the population of U.S. central cities dropped by nearly 20 percent, but their surrounding metro areas grew by more than 70 percent. Suburban sprawl exacted enormous costs in roads, sewers, water systems, schools, and other infrastructure.
Toledo’s population, now about 285,000, has dropped 25 percent from a high of more than 383,000 in 1970, when the city had seven Fortune 500 company headquarters. Today, only Owens Corning, a bankruptcy survivor, remains.
Toledo’s humming factories once produced Jeeps, Toledo Scales products, and Champion spark plugs. Only Jeep remains in the city. Poverty rates have jumped in a city that was once one of the nation’s wealthiest.
Nowhere to run
The woes of America’s central cities should concern everyone. More than 80 percent of U.S. residents live in metropolitan areas, up from 63 percent in 1960. As think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have shown, modern economies are regional, cutting across municipal and even state lines.
Suburbs share a common destiny with their central cities, which dictate the images of their regions. When residents of West Bloomfield, Mich., travel to California or Cancun, they tell others they’re from Detroit. When people from Rossford or Ottawa Hills do the same, they say they’re from Toledo.
Central cities control most of the transportation networks, educational and cultural institutions, and physical assets such as water and sewer lines that help determine a region’s success and quality of life. Regions with healthier central cities, such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Portland, outperform regions without them.
As education and cultural centers, core cities such as Toledo and Detroit attract the young, skilled workers who drive the new knowledge-based economy. The so-called creative class wants walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods where people can conveniently live, shop, work, and use mass transit. Toledo’s revitalized downtown and warehouse district continue to attract young, educated workers to the central city.
Healthy cities, with their dynamic mix of races, cultures, and classes, might also help rebuild the nation’s social capital — and its eroding sense of community and civic responsibility.
No one should expect a Marshall Plan for U.S. cities, but the federal government must become a stronger partner. States also must develop urban policy agendas to grow. Unfortunately, Ohio and Michigan have cut aid to local governments while pursuing a myopic, ineffective economic development strategy that focuses largely on tax cuts.
Modest federal investment — a lot less than the nation has spent to rebuild Iraq — could work wonders for cities and their regions. Any new federal aid should go first to metro areas that work together.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson proposed a comprehensive plan for rebuilding U.S. cities for $120 billion a year over five years. While staggering, the price tag was still less than the cost of the Wall Street bailout or the war in Iraq.
Money for transit systems, regional economic development, public safety, housing, education, prisoner re-entry, health care, and job training are investments in solving not just the problems of cities, but also those of the nation.
A comprehensive urban agenda would include federal grants to encourage regional cooperation, full funding of Head Start, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, a higher minimum wage, restored Urban Development Action Grants, incentives for developing green industries and preserving public housing, renter tax credits, challenge grants for fresh ideas on metropolitan governance, stronger prisoner re-entry programs, and technical assistance and funding to regions that start new collaborative efforts. Above all, cities need creative ideas.
With their problems and promise, cities and metropolitan regions hold the answers to the nation’s great economic and social conundrums. A new urban agenda can be a prescription for national prosperity.