The weeds, says Gov. Rick Snyder, were so tall you could not see the sidewalks, or even the playground equipment. Concealed in the underbrush were some old tires. And a boat. And, he notes with an accountant’s punctiliousness about presenting a complete record, they also found “a body.”
Never mind. Now another block of an almost cadaverous city has been reclaimed.
Snyder, who has called himself “one tough nerd,” began life after the University of Michigan as an accountant and is tough enough to have strengthened the relevant law and then wielded it to put Detroit under the governance of an emergency manager, an appointed autocrat. Detroit is the sixth Michigan city, together with three school districts, to have earned its loss of autonomy.
Snyder is neither surprised nor dismayed by the Obama administration’s prompt refusal to consider bailing out the city: “I had made it clear I wasn’t going to ask them” for a bailout. One example of Washington’s previous costly caring is Detroit’s “People Mover,” the ghost train that circulates mostly empty. Snyder dismisses this slab of someone else’s pork as “part of the 60 years of failure.” He has largely forsworn attracting businesses to the city by offering tax credits, which he calls “the heroin drip of government.” He speaks not of “fixing” but of “reinventing” Detroit, by which he means a new “culture of how to behave and act.”
He correctly stresses the cultural prerequisites for prosperity. And for popular sovereignty. Detroit under the emergency manager is enduring a democracy deficit because self-government requires collective self-control — the restraint of appetites by realism about their costs. But fixing an urban culture is more complex than filling potholes.
The 1994 bankruptcy of California’s Orange County, which includes fabulously wealthy beach communities, and the 2011 bankruptcy of Alabama’s Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, resulted from bad investment decisions. Detroit, however, has suffered not just economic setbacks but a cultural collapse that precludes a rapid recovery.
Despite some people’s facile talk about “rebooting” Detroit, as though it is a balky gadget, this is a place where dangerous packs of feral dogs roam. No city can succeed without a large middle class, and in spite of cheery talk about a downtown sprinkling of “hipsters and artisans,” a significant minority of Detroit’s residents are functionally illiterate and only 12 percent have college degrees (in Seattle, 56 percent do). Families are the primary transmitters of social capital, and 79 percent of children here are born to unmarried women. What middle-class family will send children into a school system where 3 percent of fourth-graders meet national math standards?
Detroit has Michigan’s highest income tax, and highest property tax among its large cities, but with an average income of $15,000, high rates raise little.
There are 78,000 abandoned structures, not counting Mitt Romney’s boyhood home, which has already been demolished in a once upscale neighborhood. The business tax doubled last year and white flight long ago was followed by black flight — the entrepreneurial act of self-preservation and self-improvement by the motivated and talented.
Against this litany of woes, Snyder happily illustrates the city’s revival by brandishing his shiny new wristwatch. It is a Shinola, manufactured here from Swiss parts, by a startup that also makes bicycles and other things.
About the vacant land opened up as the population has contracted Snyder says: “Hops.” This grain is used to make beer, and microbreweries make, or at least often accompany, urban gentrification. And those hundreds of millions of public funds for a new hockey arena? He gamely explains it as a “quality of life” magnet for the gentrifiers.
With that, Snyder shifts, as a governor should, into Michigan chauvinism: With its lakes and “micro-climates,” Michigan has, he says, the nation’s second-most diverse climate, so just about anything can be grown, even Detroit. Here — he bounces back to urban reinvention mode — “the middle class was created,” beginning with Henry Ford’s 1914 decision to pay workers an astonishing $5 a day.
Snyder, who is up for re-election in 2014, is not worried about Detroit voters punishing him because of astringent life under an unelected emergency manager. Snyder notes, smiling, that in 2010 he got more than twice the percentage of Detroit’s vote that Romney received in 2012. Romney won 2.08 percent.
George Will is a columnist with the Washington Post group.