Death of a City

Review: ‘What Doomed Detroit’ by Kevin D. Williamson

An abandoned Detroit warehouse in flames / AP
November 16, 2013

"In the space of a single generation, Detroit managed to ruin itself," is how Kevin D. Williamson opens What Doomed Detroit, his incisive look at the forces that led to the Motor City’s downfall.

The book, a volume of Encounter Broadside, is only 34 pages. Yet Williamson does more to explain what happened to Detroit than Charlie LeDuff did in 300 pages. LeDuff's recent Detroit: An American Autopsy, does little to dissect the reasons behind the city’s fall (short of blaming bad leadership from city hall to Wall Street). LeDuff bewails Detroit like a mourner who cannot see through his tears. It is Williamson who takes up the scalpel and performs the required autopsy.

Those familiar with Williamson’s writings in National Review know him as a gifted and witty writer. In What Doomed Detroit, however, he leaves behind his customary levity. Detroit’s story is a hard one, and Williamson tells what happened without unnecessary flourishes.

Detroit is bankrupt and at least $20 billion in debt. Half its streetlights don’t work because thieves have made off with their copper wiring. More than 120,000 homes stand vacant. Bus drivers are afraid to drive its streets, and its murder rate is 11 times New York City’s. While the city has an official unemployment rate of 16 percent, its real unemployment rate is closer to 50 percent.

One of the main culprits, Williamson writes, is racial politics: "Detroit is a city in which black identity politics has trumped, and continues to trump, every other consideration, from basic finances to public safety." To be sure, Williamson notes that race politics in Detroit started with white racism. Led by Democratic politicians, whites resisted desegregation when the black population exploded, rising from 6,000 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1929.

"It is an irony of our history that the political home of black racism in American politics is also the historical political home of white racism: the Democratic Party," Williamson writes.

By 1970 whites had largely fled, 344,092 of them in the previous decade. A combination of taxes, crime, declining institutions, and civil disorder—specifically, the 1967 race riot during which "2,000 buildings were burned to the ground; 7,200 people were arrested; 1,189 injured; and 43 left dead"—sparked the exodus.

Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974. His stock in trade, writes Williamson, was "blaming whites for the problems of an increasingly whites-free city, charging that, in his words, ‘the money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people.’"

Naked racial politics have remained a hallmark of Detroit’s city council. During a 2009 debate on expanding a city convention center the assembled crowd told whites who were present to "go home." Monica Conyers, then-council president and wife of Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), told a white union representative: "Those workers look like you—they don’t look like me." Monica Conyers would later be convicted of bribery charges related to Detroit’s pension funds.

Conyers’ chief of staff Samuel Riddle was also convicted of bribery charges. "The only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is Detroit don’t have no goats in the streets," Riddle said according to LeDuff. That difference may disappear soon: in September, a Detroit city councilman suggested introducing goats to help cut grass in the city’s vacant lots.

Indeed, this reviewer’s only criticism of Williamson is that he shortchanges the role of corruption in destroying Detroit. This is a topic on which LeDuff puts in real effort, culling through public domain papers to find that millions of dollars had simply disappeared. When he confronts city officials on the missing funds, they simply shrug him off. Williamson could have devoted a page or two to the subject.

Racial politics is not the only reason America's once most prosperous city is now a hollowed out shell sought by Hollywood producers in search of post-apocalyptic scenery.  It is the linkage with public-sector unions.

The first Detroit Democrat "to figure out how to marry the black vote to the union vote" was Jerome Cavanagh, a white mayor elected in 1961. "While the black-power style may be the most remarkable feature of Detroit’s poisonous political coalition, the unions have the upper hand," Williamson writes. "As life for blacks—and everybody else—in Detroit deteriorated, the ever more deeply entrenched unions installed political candidates who rewarded them with ever more extravagant promises of compensation, benefits, and retirement pensions."

Public-sector unions have successfully resisted any serious efforts at reform. Detroit had one municipal employee for every 55 residents in 2011, twice the per capita number of cities with far better services like Fort Worth and San Jose. "Unionized public-sector employees with a high degree of political discipline fortified by narrow financial self-interest become an unstoppable constituency, and the government becomes its own special-interest group," Williamson writes.

Williamson ends on a pessimistic note, warning that what doomed Detroit could doom other cities. Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Boston face similar liabilities.

Since Williamson wrote his Encounter Broadside there has been one surprising development: Detroit has just elected its first white mayor in 40 years. Mike Duggan took 53 percent of the vote in an 83 percent black city. He did so even though his opponent played the hitherto unbeatable race card, and was endorsed by the NAACP.

Remarkably, Duggan won the support of Malik Zulu Shabazz, the leader of Detroit’s New Black Panther Party. "I’m not supporting the best black candidate. I’m supporting the best candidate," Shabazz said. "Our city is collapsing. Our city is dying. We need legal experience. We need government experience. We need crime fighting experience. And we need business experience."

A Black Panther endorsing a white candidate for business, legal and crime-fighting experience? Detroit may have taken a step forwards, or backwards, from post-apocalypse to just apocalypse.

Published under: Book reviews