Opinion Columns & Blogs

Jack Ohman: Can Detroit happen here? Of course it can

At 138.8 square miles, Detroit is a large city. Modeled after Paris and founded by French trappers, it has broad boulevards, is situated on a waterway connected to the Great Lakes, and was the home of the greatest industrial manufacturing engine in human history. Henry Ford paid his workers enough so they could afford his cars.

At its peak, 1.8 million people lived in Detroit; now 700,000 do. The city is an American Acropolis. A third of the city of Detroit is now essentially uninhabited. Hundreds of thousands of people left Detroit. City services are cut off for some neighborhoods now because the city has no funds to maintain them. It’s known as a “doughnut city”: the center is empty, and it’s ringed by suburbs. “Blade Runner” has come to Detroit; it is beyond tragedy, and it is in bankruptcy.

In the neighborhood my father grew up in, around Six Mile Road and Gratiot, there are the still tidy yards maintained by GM and Ford retirees, brightly painted ornaments and well-tended lawns. Next to those homes are apocalyptically dilapidated homes, imploding from decades of neglect. Long swaths of the streets in this neighborhood are like some “Twilight Zone” of urban hell. Burned and collapsed hulls of Richardsonian Revival and Victorian showplaces host rats and squatters. Whatever you who live in the Sacramento River Valley imagine Detroit to be, it’s a thousand times worse.

On my last visit to Detroit a year ago, a friend offered to drive me to my father’s house at 1630 Glenfield St., with caveats: “We are not stopping the van, because if the police see us, they’ll think we’re trolling for drugs, and second, we could get carjacked.” My grandfather paid $6,500 for the house in 1935; it’s worth about that today.

My friend then took me to the Packard Motor Company plant, where my grandfather once worked as a steel buyer, a middle-class job held by a man with an eighth-grade education. Back then, it was possible for young men to get jobs and make a good middle-class life. Detroit, in the 1950s, had 200,000 manufacturing jobs. Now it has 20,000.

The Packard plant looks like Dresden, roof gone, rubble of all description piled about, and thousands of old tires lie strewn on the floor, and its walls covered with intricate graffiti. Trees sprout where machine shops once hummed.

There are pockets of what downtown Detroit once was: a world-class art museum, which is fending off attempts to liquidate its collection, a downtown baseball stadium, and magnificent Gotham City-esque office buildings. But casinos stand in place of shuttered banks and edifices of the future as envisioned in 1920.

Someone asked me recently if Detroit could happen in California. It can. When local governments pay people $225,000 to be police chiefs of small jurisdictions, when you have billions in unfunded pension liabilities, of course it can happen here. Many California cities face the algorithm Detroit faces. This isn’t a political ideology thing; no liberals, no conservatives, just tables of numbers that add up to an inescapable answer: It can happen anywhere.