A century ago it was the lure of work that drew people from rural areas and far away countries to American cities. The big cities had jobs. Unlike rural areas, they had such high concentrations of them that if you moved there, then you might be able move from job to job without having to turn hobo and travel to find work. The big city offered workers to employers and employment to workers.
That arrangement worked when cities were places where things were made. A century ago the New York City waterfront was crowded with ships bringing in cargoes. During WW2, it was filled with entire fleets that were being constructed there. Today the river traffic consists of tour boats or pleasure craft, supplemented by the occasional EPA ship hunting for pollution in the river.The waterfront was a hangout for the homeless, the modern hobo who doesn’t look for work, in the 80s. It’s being transformed into bike lanes and garden spot cafes now. That is the city in miniature. Either it’s decrepit or ornamental. It just isn’t utilitarian. It’s not really good for anything practical anymore. Even assuming that we were going to build some fleets, we wouldn’t do it in New York.So the question isn’t why did Detroit go bankrupt. The real question is why wouldn’t it. Detroit was once known for making things. Now its most famous remaining industry puts together car parts and while it’s more than a lot of cities have, it’s not nearly enough to subsidize a large population that doesn’t work or pay taxes. A population of hobos who never need to look for work.
The only real things keeping American cities from going bankrupt are inertia and some fancy cultural footwork.
The city has three types of people. Those who work. Those who work for the government. Those who don’t work. Those who don’t work and those who work for the government are a net loss. They can be used to obtain various funds from the national government, but the funds are never enough to cover their cost.
Some of those who do work are still a net loss, because they use more services than they pay for, others pay more in taxes than they get or cost, but considering the level of expenses required to maintain a city and the small amounts that trickle back to cities from up the government river, it becomes harder and harder for even the middle class to pay its way.
To deal with this dilemma, cities did what so many brands did, they began upselling their lifestyle to attract a younger and wealthier elite that could inject enough money into the system to subsidize all the public housing, public schools and public everything. Some cities succeeded at it, but all they really did was prolong the inevitable. Others failed miserably.
Detroit’s reconstruction plan hinges on somehow attracting a chunk of that crowd. It’s just not going to happen. Its bankruptcy and proposed reemergence is a corporate strategy. Shake loose some of the pension weight and figure out a way to rebrand Detroit as a place for social media companies to set up shop. And then solicit more investment to really turn things around.
After the long struggle into and out of bankruptcy, Detroit will still be a failed city that has no future because it has no purpose.
Cities once had functional reasons for existing and those functional reasons convinced people to live there. Today they exist because people live there. It’s backward and it fails to account for what will happen when the people decide to leave.
The people left Detroit. Not all of them, but much of the productive population packed up and hit the road leaving behind a city of illiterates and the public employees designated to care for them. There were too many public employees, not enough people and very few taxpayers.
Detroit did what most cities do. It did what the country does, it tried to make ends meet by borrowing money even though it had no prospects for paying the money back. And when that failed, it went to bankruptcy court to try and reinvent Detroit as a brand new city that gullible investors will want to lend money to. There’s no stage beyond that because the city isn’t viable because it has no purpose.