Mitt Romney, who lost his bid to become president, may have won a dubious victory after all. Detroit, at last, has gone bankrupt.
It may have been predictable. The Motor City has been plagued for years with the urban ills that accompanied the decline of the industrial economy. And once a city is in decline for a long period, it's hard to bring it back from the brink.
Dilapidated housing and unemployment make it an unappealing place for Detroit's young people to stay – however powerfully appealing the true heart of the city makes it – and so the tax base suffers. That means schools have less money, making it a less attractive place for families to move. And why would a business locate in an area where young people become educated, then leave?
But as tragic as the situation is, it could also be the low point that allows this historic city to recover and emerge with a new greatness. The automobile industry, thanks to the generosity of U.S. taxpayers, has recovered and appears to be standing behind the city that has personified American industrial entrepreneurialism. The city is home to four major league sports teams, along with defiantly loyal fans. And there is a resilience to Detroit that is shared by sister cities like Cleveland and Buffalo, a toughness brought by long, hard winters and fiscal hits from the transition from a heavy industrial economy to a service-sector and high-tech economy.
They'll need some help, but this time, Detroit can remake itself in a way that supports long-term success. And that is a holistic approach to repairing a city.
Manny Diaz, the former mayor of Miami, lays out the idea in his book, "Miami Transformed: Rebuilding America One Neighborhood, One City at a Time." Diaz, fielding complaints from constituents about everything from crime to schools and park space, describes an interconnected approach to healing a city.
It's not enough to just cut corporate taxes to the bone and hope that businesses will locate there and provide jobs, since people still won't want to live somewhere where there aren't good schools, a vibrant arts and music scene and recreational areas. Just as it's a mistake to treat the human body as though it's a series of disparate parts to be healed separately, it makes no sense to treat a city's ills as though they are separate or ranked in order of importance. A city is a living organism, and it needs all the elements – a strong business base, including small business; art galleries and music clubs; good schools and safe neighborhoods – to work.
Detroit is down, but as with its sports teams, the crisis gives the city an opportunity to rebuild itself into something stronger and more enduring. Chapter 9 bankruptcy, after all, is a rebuilding strategy, not a defeat. Cities like Detroit built this country, and created a strong middle class. The Motor City is a key player in our nation's history. And it can be a strong partner in our future.
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