Detroit runs out of gas

Paul Wells mourns the Motor City, which has been in decline for longer than anyone wants to recall


Eric Thayer / Reuters

In a 2002 column in the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell complained that the Detroit he kept seeing in the movies didn’t look like the Detroit he grew up in. The RoboCop movies were filmed in Houston, and Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop may have been from Detroit, but Murphy never set foot there. As for Detroit Rock City, about a bunch of kids driving to a Kiss concert, it “seemed to suggest that Detroit was a small enclave in suburban Toronto,” where, in fact, the film was shot.

But that’s precisely what Detroit felt like to a million kids growing up in southern Ontario. I went to high school in Sarnia, three hours west of Toronto and an hour north of Detroit. I had friends whose dads were driving them to Kiss concerts when we were in seventh grade. (Even at that age, I was not the kind of kid who would spend money on Kiss.) Everyone I knew listened to WRIF, the Motor City’s legendary hard-rock station, and worshipped Bob Seger. We were only dimly aware, if at all, of Berry Gordy’s Motown record label, or of the fact that, even then, the Detroit music we listened to was the music of the city’s white minority.

Eventually I learned that, given a choice between Toronto and Detroit for some big event, I’d rather be in Detroit. Tigers baseball games were more intimate and intense at Tiger Stadium than Blue Jays games at Exhibition Stadium. If a band toured through both cities, you’d get way more audience participation in Detroit. In 1984, I saw Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers perform on a terrace at the Hotel Pontchartrain, then followed the rumour mill to an after-hours jam session a few blocks away. My two schoolmates and I had the only white faces in a packed room.

We were only dimly aware that Detroit was not like other cities, that it was star-crossed and would spread its curse like a contagion to unlucky visitors. Word was spread to anyone driving down to a Tigers game: Make sure you have your directions straight. Don’t go off the path. We’d hear stories, some of them probably apocryphal. A friend of a friend showed too much joy when he won good money at the horse races, got himself followed home from the track and was murdered for his winnings when he pulled over for gas on the way home.

Once in downtown Detroit—hardly a soul in sight on a sunny weekend afternoon—a friend and I paused to watch a guy on a park bench play a desultory game of three-card Monte with a bored mark. Suddenly a police cruiser pulled up and a cop shouted at us for 20 minutes for being anywhere close to such shenanigans. “Mayor Young is glad you came,” the cop said, cooling down after many paragraphs’ worth of imprecations so blue, I could never publish them in this magazine. “He hopes you’ll patronize our many fine merchants. But if you insist on being stupid, you are going to get yourself killed.” The officer and his colleague hauled the guy with the cards away.

Mayor Young was Coleman Young, who led the city’s fortunes for 20 years from 1974 to 1994 and, for the most part, he led them straight down. The population fled to the suburbs. Young’s police chief and deputy police chief both went to jail for stealing more than $1 million each from the police force. Young, at least, stayed out of jail. One of his successors, the convicted obstructor of justice, confessed perjurer and energetic composer of adulterous text messages, Kwame Kilpatrick, has not been so lucky.

All of these memories returned on July 19 when Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, becoming the largest U.S. city by population ever to do so (700,000) and the city with the largest debt ($18 billion or more). Detroit has been on a downward path for more than half a century; its current fiscal distress must be the least surprising denouement any story has had since the appearance of blood at the end of There Will Be Blood. But the scale of the decline is amazing, even to those of us who’ve kept an eye on Detroit’s story all our lives.

The last time I spent any time in Detroit was in 2004, when I played hooky with two colleagues from Paul Martin’s re-election campaign and hightailed it across the Ambassador Bridge to hear James Carter play his saxophone at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on the corner of Livernois and 8 Mile. Since that night less than a decade ago, Detroit’s population has declined by nearly a quarter of a million souls.

“And it is awful here, there is no other way to say it,” Charlie LeDuff writes in his harrowing and funny new book Detroit: An American Autopsy. “It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and homes and forgotten people. Detroit, which once led the nation in home ownership, is now a foreclosure capital. Its downtown is a museum of ghost skyscrapers. Trees and switch-grass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their rightful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left in droves.”

LeDuff, who left the New York Times in 2008 to write for his hometown Detroit News and now works for the city’s popular Fox News station’s local broadcast, is not particularly in the business of handing out blame for Detroit’s fall. The singular boomtown of American heavy industry went bust, is all. The metropolis Henry Ford built made less sense when America stopped making cars for the world. Work moved away, then populations, then hope, then sanity.

LeDuff’s return home, where his brother works in the plants and his sister and her daughter became addicts, can’t really be a homecoming, because the Detroit he once knew—the Detroit I used to visit—has been gone for a long time. LeDuff moved back to a suburb north of the city limits, because he cannot bring himself to raise his daughter in Detroit. His tone is wry, but there is no real hope in it, as he describes a nightmare landscape where arson is rampant, because the girders left after a fire can be sold for scrap metal, or simply because it is cheaper to torch a neighbour’s house than to buy a movie ticket. Call the police if you like; average response times are close to an hour—which means they are often much longer.

Just like the hard-edged but relatively congenial Detroit of my youth, this city has neighbours. Illinois has an unfunded pension liability four times as large as the burden that crushed Detroit. The rest of the American economy is looking maybe a shade better this year than last, but the long-term trends aren’t lovely. “I believe that Detroit is Amercia’s city,” LeDuff writes. “It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down.”

What does it mean for the other neighbours—for us across the border? Maybe very little, although Windsor hasn’t been looking great in recent decades. Bad policy needn’t hop borders, and bad economics can be contained or partly remedied. Three years ago, Mark Carney was urging Stephen Harper to seek new markets for Canada in Asia, not because of Detroit specifically, but because of the malaise Detroit’s decline symbolizes. Detroit’s downward spiral needn’t hurt us, except in the heart.


Detroit runs out of gas

  1. Another Black Day in July … especially if you were deluded enough
    to expect employers to pay their share of pension plans when there
    was nothing to force them to do so.

  2. You may not be a Kiss fan, but what are the odds your first name and last name are both represented amongst the current band members?

  3. The majority of Americans are decent people; but THANKFULLY we have a border that keeps most of the thugs out.

  4. Everybody knows what Detroit’s problems were. They’d elect democrats at every opportunity who would continue to bow in every way possible to the unions, and stick it to the businesses in the city at every opportunity. The only reason the city survived as long as it did was because the federal government would always step in and bail out the auto-manufacturers. The whole city’s been living on federal subsidies for decades. And now? The US auto industry is as good as dead, the “good paying jobs” at the auto manufacturers in Detroit are gone, and never coming back.

    Yet somehow, amazingly, people in Detroit still think that a bailout from the state of Michigan is exactly what they need to cure their problems. In Detroit’s eyes, they don’t need to change their behavior, they seem to think that they’ve done just fine, except not.

    They keep doing the same things over and over again, yet expect different results. That is insanity.

    • May be the new right to work legislation in Michigan will help to make a difference.

  5. ‘The singular boomtown of American heavy industry went bust, is all. The metropolis Henry Ford built made less sense when America stopped making cars for the world. Work moved away, then populations, then hope, then sanity.’

    True. Not ‘thugs’, not Democrats, not workers, not elves….the auto industry did itself in.

    Detroit was a one horse town….and the horse died.

    • Except that you only need to go a few miles to suburbs or neighboring cities to find a different situation.

      Detroit failed for many many reasons. You don’t have a failure of this magnitude unless almost all of what makes up a city has failed. Crime, corruption, awful schools, no cost controls on spending. And the change in manufacturing. Other cities have dealt with similar situations far better than Detroit.

      • Yes, I’ve said that about the suburbs….but the burbs are technological not industrial.

        It’s always a domino effect….one thing affects another till it all comes down……but competition, and sheer bad management was the big thing.

        About 100 cities in the US are facing the same situation….there will be more crashes but Detroit…Motown…is a major symbol.

  6. What a well written article Mr. Wells. I’ve read your words a few times and each time I am reminded that your bring something to the game that few other scribes or commentators have. Keep up whatever you are doing.

    • Sarnia’s only gift to the world.

      • Kim Mitchell! R. Murray Schafer! Chris Hadfield! Dino Ciccarelli!

        • Dino’s from Sarnia. I did not know that. (Knew he was a Knights’ alum.) Great goalmouth shark.

  7. The Reckoning:
    By Pulitzer prize winning author/journalist David Halberstam. 752 pages that deals with the assault by Nissan and other oversees auto giants as they slowly took over market share of the American auto market. Published by William Morris and Co. 1rst edition released on September 1986. I discussed the merits of this tome with Rex Murphy on Cross Canada Checkup a few years ago.

    • Yeah, Detroit did fine when there was no competition

      • The unions killed Detroit and they will kill America if America does not kill the unions.

        • Capitalism doesn’t work without cheap labour. You’ll note the ‘Founding Fathers’ owned slaves

          • @EmilyOne: How do you figure that Detroit worked fine with no competition? I don’t know where Paul Wells is coming from, but I grew up there (didn’t just attend a concert or two) and Detroit was on the decline right after the 67 riots. In our (Paul’s and mine) lifetimes, Detroit has never been a good city to visit or live in. It was far more complicated than the auto industry.

          • This story is also far more complicated than what’s being reported. The suburbs are doing fine for example…but they have technology.

            As to Detroit in general, or GM, I grew up in London and we had a wave of people come over after the riots. GM has been around for over a century….sold to the Nazis in the 30’s and led the US for years. It had more income than many countries.

            At one time the only kind of car you could buy was American….your choice was limited to GM, Ford, Chrysler etc

            Then little Volkswagens started showing up in the streets. People laughed, but it was the beginning of the end. Now German and Japanese cars are driven in Detroit…..and elsewhere, along with everything else.

          • Ken Burn’s documentary film on the Lewis and Clark expedition that was commissioned by Jefferson, made the observation that Lewis refused to free York, his personal slave, who completed the arduous journey with him. Although every other man who had come back was given the land and financial compensation that was agreed upon in their contract, York got nothing for his efforts. Jefferson, who owned slaves, saw nothing unusual about that. But York was determined and was eventually able to rid himself of Lewis’s grasp five years later.

          • Yeah, the US started off with a race problem, and they’ve never managed to overcome it. They try, I’ll give them that. Obama’s in the WH….the one that blacks built….but Tray is dead in the street. And there’s far more Trays than Obamas.

          • Unions and government overspending are the two big items bleeding most cities and countries around the world right now. The private sector had zero wage increases over the past decade while the public sector has seen a 40% wage increase compounded with pension & benefit cost. Realistically most cities need a freeze on taxes and spending for the next 10 years while hopefully the private sector catches up. An immediate 25% cut would be more effective. The various companies, countries and cities that fail to recognize you can’t take out more than the money being taken in will implode. We need some strong willed people at the G20 level to follow in the footsteps of Thatcher and Reagan to lay the boots to unions, spending, economic stimulation and interest rates or we are going to continue on this dismal rollercoaster.

          • No they aren’t. That’s just partisan rubbish.

            Stop worrying about debt, and start thinking about GDP

        • It’s not unions that are the problem, but public sector unions that are the problem. Companies tend to get the unions they deserve, public sector unions suck the life blood out of the tax payer because they always negotiate with people spending other peoples money. There’s no useful purpose for public sector unions they they only serve to pervert the course of government that the public has democratically elected. The elected government is given the power of life and death over the populace surely they can be trusted to pay government workers fairly.

          • Politicians get elected all the time by feeding jealous people like you a load of nonsense like that.

            Public sector unions are fire fighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, teachers and all those people in finance and foreign affairs.

            They also cut all your cheques…OAS, CPP, Workmen’s Comp, Disability, Tax refunds.,…..

            Now, what were you saying……..

  8. Paul Wells’ view of Detroit is naive. I guess it’s because he only visited a couple of times for concerts. I grew up there. It has never been a good city after the ’67 riots. Given that he was born in 1966, it would never have been anything but a half abandoned, extremely dangerous city for him. He couldn’t possibly provide a first-hand view of its decline. If he was too naive to know this (and based on his stories, he was lucky he wasn’t killed), he shouldn’t broadcast that in a magazine. To blame the auto industry for its downfall is extremely naive and simplistic.

    • Then please tell us, at least from your perspective, besides the flight from the inner city out into the suburbs, what the major mitigating factors were that brought it to it’s present state. If you’ve written a paper on the subject please just include a link to it.

      • I have to agree MODERATELY with Canadian_Moxie; Wells has missed some
        major reasons for Detroit’s decline. He did nail — but nowhere
        strongly enough — Coleman Young’s contribution. The man was racist, had
        policy in place to continue to promote “White Flight” to the suburbs
        (an actual quote from Mayor Young: “Stay the f$#k on your side of 8
        mile”, 8 mile being the street border to the suburbs), signed horribly
        debilitating deals with the civil service (almost certainly for a
        personal profit), and drove away a ton of investment. This investment,
        in the form of badly needed diversification of economy, never happened.
        So as Detroit remained a one trick pony with a brutally cyclic
        automotive industry, and didn’t further diversify its economy as say
        Chicago did (there are many “rust belt” examples of successful
        diversification from their manufacturing roots), it declined. The other
        thing of note: Detroit’s general metropolis population hasn’t changed,
        still at 5.2 million. Just Detroiter’s have moved to the suburbs. Also
        of note: the downtown core of Detroit is AWESOME again. It boasts a 2%
        vacancy rate, and there is all sorts of vibrancy happening — this just
        wasn’t the case 5-10 years ago. And final note: the hipsters and artsies
        are moving into Detroit from all over North America. This is always a
        great sign, as residential development always follows. A good case study
        to follow in this regard would be Berlin; with the right community
        leaders, Detroit in 20 years can become world class again, and a lot of
        people with a lot of money believe this (do a Google search for Rock
        Financial and Detroit, you’ll see what I mean).

        • Here’s what your saying. That if an urban community, regardless of its demographic profile, has enough local businesses to cater to the immediate and long term aspirations of its residents, that it can actually reverse the devastating effects of social and economic decay and drive its general well being forward. Let’s hope that for Detroit’s sake your right and it can maintain that momentum in spite of any attempts by its politicians to divert taxpayer dollars from investing in the kind municipal infrastructure that a strong, vibrant, inner city neighbourhood needs to survive.

  9. It’s too bad that the author quoted LeDuff rather than digging into some of Jack Lessenberry’s writing. Lessenberry probably knows more about Detroit (and Michigan) than any contemporary journalist. He is more measured and down-to-earth than LeDuff, who tends to the hyperdramatic.

    I am a white woman who grew up on a NJ farm and came to Detroit in 1956 as the bride of a white Korean War veteran whose home town was Detroit. I have lived in Detroit and its suburbs ever since (with the exception of a 5-year hiatus). We raised our son in Detroit. I have lived in downtown Detroit. I have taken Detroit buses to work in Detroit. I have shopped in Detroit, I have attended sports and entertainment events in Detroit. I have gone to church in Detroit. I have done volunteer work for local and national political candidates in their Detroit headquarters. Never once in 57 years have I been bothered, insulted, accosted, or assaulted — physically or verbally.

    When my car was badly damaged by a pothole on a strange street on an early winter morning a few years ago, I was rescued by a black man, a total stranger, who stayed with me until help came.

    Yes, Detroit has major problems. Detroit also has more true soul than any city I can think of. Unfortunately, Detroit also has had some of the worst local politicians imaginable — especially its city council members, too many of whom have set some sort of record for stupidity, bullheadedness, and downright idiocy — mostly because of reverse racism: Whitey is the Enemy — but also because of greed (which has no race).

    Many members of the Whitey is the Enemy generation of black Detroiters who continued to elect such feckless representation strictly on the basis of their having black skin will probably have to die off before Detroit is able to fully reclaim its place in the world. It is sad, sad, sad.

    What is also sad is the stranglehold that Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun has on Detroit and its Port. Moroun could singlehandedly rescue Detroit from its pit; instead, he has fleeced Detroit, and drained it of funds in various ways, while simultaneously contributing to the campaigns of some of Detroit’s worst and most buyable politicians.

    But articles such as “Detroit Runs Out of Gas” are too flip, too facile and counterproductive.

    For those who are sincerely interested and seek some less facile commentary about Detroit’s situation, I suggest reading Metro Times, the alternative weekly, online. Its editor, Curt Guyette, and some of its columnists, including Jack Lessenberry, know whereof they speak.

    P.S. Windsor is a great city and we who love Detroit would give almost anything to have Eddie Francis as our mayor!

  10. God bless the Canadians who think they can tell us why an American city died. Fact. Its dead. Fact. It needs to be rebuilt. End.

  11. To Rick Owen: Most of Americans like you are so capitalist and anti socialist that you demonize soclial programs and blame everything on them all the time. In Canada, they are social democrats and although they have full of social programs, their cities are not in the state of Detroit, they aren’t bankrupted. Canada is social democrat, still, Canada has the strongest banking system on the planet. Many economist and US and Europeans economy magazine said so. So please don’t blame things on democrats!
    Let me tell you if Detroit is dead it’s because 1: Its economy was not diversified,
    2: Because people for some reasons stopped purchasing US cars, whether in the World, in North America itself, so Detroit living out of the US car industry, indeed died as a result. 3:Detroit died because of high crime, corruption, bad police, bad schools and racism. Nothing else, nothing more!
    Dave: You might not want to hear it, might now want to hear the truth Canadians say but it’s the truth.

  12. To Rick Owen: Most of Americans like you are so capitalists and anti socialists that you demonize social programs and blame everything on them all the time. In Canada, we are social democrats and although we have full of social programs, our cities are not in the state of Detroit, they aren’t bankrupted. Although we do have a public debt, but not as big as the one the US have per capita (for each inhabitant). Not to boast Canada but to undo what you are saying. What you and the Republicans say it false. Canada is social democrat, still, Canada has the strongest and healthiest banking system on the planet. Many economists and US and Europeans economy magazines said so. So please don’t blame all things on Democrats!

    Let me tell you if Detroit is dead it’s because 1: Its economy was not diversified,
    2: Because people for some reasons stopped purchasing US cars, whether in the World, and in North America itself, so Detroit living out of the US car industry, indeed died as a result. 3:Detroit died because of high crime, corruption, bad police, bad schools and racism. Nothing else, nothing more!
    Dave: You might not want to hear it, might now want to hear the truth Canadians say but it’s still the truth.

Sign in to comment.