Is once-scrappy Detroit heading for scrap heap of history?


DETROIT - Thirty years ago, Detroit was angrily fighting its reputation as the murder capital of the nation. Things are different today and that's too bad.

These days, Detroit in many people's eyes is no longer the murder city, but the murdered city, a dead post-industrial moonscape. The nation's leading parody newspaper, The Onion, captured that mood exactly this week with this "story":

"Detroit Sold For Scrap"

DETROIT - Detroit, a former industrial metropolis in southeastern Michigan with a population of just under 1 million, was sold at auction Tuesday to bulk scrap dealers and smelting foundries across the United States.

"This is what's best for Detroit," Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick said. "We must act now, while we can still get a little something for it."

The parody went on to note that "China is the world's largest buyer of scrap metal, and could receive up to 80 percent of the city the city's pending shutdown will make several train-cars full of law enforcement equipment such as handguns, battering rams, and police clubs and riot suits, available to other buyers."

That was cruel, naturally, but was too close to the truth for comfort. In fact, a decade ago, it was common to see scavengers ripping copper pipes out of crumbling Victorian-era Detroit buildings. This week, Mayor Kilpatrick is expected to reveal something almost as depressing as a plan to sell Detroit for scrap.

He will announce his estimate of the city budget deficit, now expected to be $300 million or more, and explain how he plans to close the gap by the end of the fiscal year. Cities and states, unlike the federal government, have to balance their budgets. That comes in a week when the chairman of the Ford Motor Co., William Clay Ford, was denying that his company planned to seek bankruptcy protection, and the chairman of General Motors, Richard Wagoner, was fighting to keep his job.

General Motors last year lost more than $1 million an hour. Every hour in the whole year, $10 billion total.

Insiders have said the main reason GM doesn't declare bankruptcy is that people would simply stop buying its cars at all, worried that they would no longer be able to get parts or service. Last week, the nation's biggest automaker sold off its highly profitable financing company, General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) for $14 billion of badly needed cash.

Whether that amounts to a cash infusion for the struggling automaker or is the equivalent of the farmer eating his seed corn and destroying his future is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, one Harvard economist appears to think The Onion may have had the right idea. The New York Times Magazine last month published an adoring profile of Edward Glaeser, who it called "a genius" and "the most exciting urban researcher in decades," a man who was a full Harvard professor at 30.

Professor Glaeser is an aristocrat who lives on a six-acre estate, has worn custom-made suits since childhood, and favors silver cuff links and a gold watch chain. What he thinks is that Detroit ought to be allowed to collapse.

"There is no reason why it can't, or shouldn't, decline," he told the magazine. "Places decline and places grow. We shouldn't stand in the way of that."

This columnist called him up to make sure that was what he really meant.

He did indeed, and he actually thinks the city's politicians should be encouraging the residents to flee and move elsewhere, "for once, putting their constituents' interests ahead of their own."

Does the professor think Detroit will have a renaissance, some day when prices are so low that market forces make even blighted areas attractive again?

"I don't think so, not the central city, no." He thought pretty much the only reason people still live in Detroit was that there is a lot of cheap housing they can find that isn't available elsewhere, and which may last a century.

What struck me most about that analysis was how essentially silly it was - and how appalling it was that what he said was taken at face value. (He thought much the same about New Orleans as he did about Detroit.)

Professor Glaeser, a rich young man, appeared to have no idea of the powerful role relationships and history and a sense of place play in the lives of many people. Nor did he take into account Detroit's extremely strategic position, as a transportation hub and a port city.

Detroit is troubled. It does have a lot of buildings that are little more than scrap, and a few politicians who ought to be in the Detroit Zoo, which the city now doesn't run anymore. But Detroit has rebounded before, and may again.

We better hope it does, for the sake of us all. Our economies, and the state and region's image, depend on a healthy Detroit more than many of us know.