What Went Wrong With The Motor City?

Detroit Abandoned Buildings

Chait, who grew up outside of Detroit, calls the city “the residual wound of the rise and fall of postwar America, the place where the egalitarian economy was born, and it where also died”:

It’s hard to imagine any plausible way to pull the city out of its death spiral. New jobs would help, but there’s nothing compelling the workers who got those jobs to reside in the city. The conventional urban policy solutions never intersected with the reality of Detroit’s crisis. As Ed Glaeser points out, urban renewal centered on furnishing housing and transportation, both of Detroit had in excessive quantities. The city needed better governance and education.

The major renewal project of my youth was the “People Mover.” It was initially conceived as a light rail project to connect the suburbs to the city, a massively expensive undertaking in a huge area with abundant freeways. It shrunk to a small downtown monorail loop. It became a stop on the downtown field trip, for suburban schoolkids — you’d visit the art museum, eat lunch in Greektown, ride a loop on the monorail, and pile back into the schoolbus. The People Mover operates at about 2 percent of its planned capacity. The People Mover is a relic to a time when it was possible to imagine a simple construction project could save the city. The sorts of solutions imaginative reformers contemplate today are vastly more radical.

Ilya Somin, who highlights another misguided Detroit development project, partially blames Detroit’s decline on “the city’s extensive use of eminent domain to transfer property to politically influential private interests”:

For many years, Detroit aggressively used eminent domain to promote “economic development” and “urban renewal.” The most notorious example was the 1981 Poletown case, in which some 4000 people lost their homes, and numerous businesses were forced to move in order to make way for a General Motors factory. As I explained in this article, the Poletown takings – like many other similar condemnations – ended up destroying far more development than they ever created. In his prescient dissent in Poletown, Michigan Supreme Court Justice James Ryan warned that there was no real reason to expect that the project would produce the growth promised by GM and noted that Detroit and the court had “subordinated a constitutional right to private corporate interests.”

Eminent domain abuse certainly wasn’t the only cause of Detroit’s troubles. But the city’s record is a strong argument against oft-heard claims that the use of eminent domain to transfer property to private economic interests is the key to revitalizing economically troubled cities.

(Photo: A tree stump sits among the ruins of the Packard Automotive Plant, a 35 acre site where luxury cars were manufactured until the 1950’s on May 2, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. Sitting on the East side of Detroit, the former automotive plant is now a site for scavengers, urban explorers and graffiti artists. By Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.)