The Real Problem in Detroit

In the last few days, I’ve been following the saga of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick with the same fascination I often reserve for car crashes. Briefly, even as his city has continued its never-ending stream of economic hard luck, Kilpatrick allegedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to carry on an affair with another city worker and then fired several police officers who might have exposed him. The officers sued, Kilpatrick denied having an affair, and a jury awarded them nearly $7 million.

Last week, The Detroit Free Press reported the contents of a variety of text messages that seem to show that Kilpatrick, indeed, had an affair and tried to cover it up. It’s likely another blow for Detroit and, I strongly suspect, it will end in Kilpatrick’s resignation.

As fascinated as I am with every last sleazy detail, however, it seems highly likely that nothing is going to change for the city even after Kilpatrick leaves and the city finds a less sleazy mayor.

Although Time Magazine put him on its list of the country’s worst mayors, however, Kilpatrick has actually done some things that might please conservatives and libertarians: He has cut property taxes, worked to attract business, and trimmed city payrolls. But I’m not sure if anyone–right or left–has confronted the real problem: Detroit, under Kilpatrick and all his successors, has cared too much about big business and not enough about setting up a city that people want to live in.

The city, for example, was perfectly willing to use eminent domain to destroy thriving neighborhoods and replace them with massive new auto plants. The city proper actually has more auto assembly jobs today than it did in the late 1970s. Kilpatrick himself has made ample use of tax credits and incentives to attract Quicken Loans and remodel a long-vacant hotel. GM received lots of city help in buying the massive renaissance Center Complex in the downtown and remodeling it to be its new headquarters.

None of this, however, does much good for the population in a city that has virtually no sizable supermarkets, not a single movie theater in its downtown area, and very few restaurants outside of a few-block Greek Town section. Aside from a few Home Depot stores, the city has no big box retail either. The result, not surprisingly, is that it’s a place where almost nobody actually wants to live. Until Detroit provides a friendly economy for these consumer services, it’s never going to make an economic comeback…even if it dumps its sleazy mayor.