Was Detroit ever alive to begin with?

Over at National Review, Kevin D Williamson has contributed to the vast seas of ink that have been spilled on the subject of Detroit over the past few years with Progressivism Kills, which puts the onus for the decline and fall of that city firmly on the heads of its leaders, who have been progressive, liberal Democrats for decades. He also chronicles the social and economic breakdown of the city: services cut back, parents arming children, a lack of doctors who accept Medicaid and so on and so forth.

“Detroit is what Democrats do,” he writes. “The model of Detroit politics is startlingly familiar in its fundementals, distinguished only by its degree of advancement: Advance the interests of public-sector unions and politically connected business cronies, expand the relative size of the public sector remorsely — and when opposed, cry ‘Racism!’ When people vote with their feet, cry ‘Racism!’ When the budget just won’t balance, cry ‘Racism!'”

I can’t say that all Democrats do that — it’s never happened in Vermont that I know of — but big city mayors certainly do.

Boston’s James Michael Curley used race and class to play his working class, Irish Catholic supporters against his Boston Brahmin opponents. The city paid dearly for it, too: Boston’s WASPs were in charge of local and regional banks and they refused to lend money to the city while Curley was around, so successor John Hynes turned to federal urban renewal funds to get construction projects paid for. Boston was gutted like a fish, as neighborhoods like the West End and Scollay Square were torn down, the former for luxury apartments and the expansion of Massachusetts General Hospital and the latter for the damnable sterility of Government Center. The edges of both continue to fester like open wounds. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed for highways and superblocks, cutting off the North End and bringing dangerous housing projects and empty expanses of pointless green space to Boston.

Although, it’s still debatable over the extent that Detroit mayors like Coleman Young used racism to hide their failings and evade responsibility for the city’s problems, it’s worth noting that race has played a part in the social breakdown of Detroit, from discriminatory hiring and lending practices in former times to racial biases in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

But as much as I enjoy progressive-bashing, I can’t blame mere politics for what’s happened to Detroit.

While other progressive cities aren’t exactly well-run, most of them have never come close to Detroit’s depths. For instance, San Francisco seems to be perpetually on the verge of a class war, Chicago is a police state, Philadelphia would be Detroit, but is close enough to New York and DC to be full of gentrifiers, New York is a nanny state run by a would-be Communist dictator and Boston is just pretending to be a major city. But except for Philadelphia and, perhaps Baltimore and St. Louis, they haven’t come close to experiencing the social breakdown Detroit has. They have lost jobs, lost population and lost representation in Congress, but they never saw anything like children being armed by their parents.

However, there were places in all these cities where these sorts of breakdowns did occurr. Places which went from winning major awards to being demolished just a few years later and which are still metonymous for murder, rape, crushing poverty and other social problems: the Projects. In its social condition, Detroit resembles nothing less than a vast, quasi-Corbusierian housing project.

The Projects, it’s true, were built by utopian progressivism at its height, but they were merely the epitome of certain ideas about urban planning which are quite bipartisan. Cities are complex systems, concentrating all of human existence and possibility within a fairly small area. This is especially true in the United States, which is home to just about every ethnic, political and religious group in the world. Cities have to be able to accomodate bankers and communists, Shi’a, Sunnis, Sufis and Jews, Blacks, Whites, rich and poor — and that’s without considering the fierce loyalties that develop towards the neighborhoods or districts one lives in. As a result of this complexity, of the obvious need for organization that respects the variety of modes of existence and the needs everyone has for work, hopusing, food and so on, cities exhibit a remarkable degree of self-order.

A classic example of this is the rebuilding of Tokyo following World War Two. Because the city was built of wood, most of it was destroyed by American bombers, who sometimes used incendiary weapons, as with the infamous Doolittle Raid, but even conventional weapons started fires. After the war, with the city destroyed, the government bankrupt and the country’s industrial base gone, the government of Tokyo decided to rebuild the infrastructure, but left the people to rebuild the city.

According to “When Tokyo Was A Slum“:

What those residents built was, essentially, an enormous unplanned settlement — a settlement that, in some respects, was built much the same way that Dharavi, the huge unplanned settlement in Mumbai, is being developed today. Communities like Dharavi are growing everywhere in the world, and are often subject to hostility and neglect by officials. Yet in many ways, these places are growing similarly to the way postwar Tokyo did — a form of urban growth that created what is now widely seen as one of the world’s greatest cities. If the Tokyo’s success can be attributed even in part to the way it grew, then it’s a living tribute to the type of urbanism that now fuels the growth of unplanned settlements like Dharavi.

On the other hand, Detroit was carefully planned. And American planning is the imposition of a simple order, usually a geometric one, as seen from an idealized viewpoint, like on a map, on to a complex one. Unlike a complex order that evolves from a few simple rules, the “order” in am American city is imposed using a multitude of complex rules, from zoning and taxes to street-widths and business licensing.

You can see it on Google Earth: the geometric precision of the streets, the careful zoning — Detroit’s zoning code is 800 pages long, by the away, according to Charlie Gardner, and mandates the low density SFDR for preserving property values and stabilizing the character of an area even though property values have plumetted and buildings are abandonded, attrracting arson and junkies.

The basic building block of American urban order is seperation, which developed out of the settlement of the United States. The interior of the country was mainly settled by farmers, who, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, owned their land and had little to fear by way of military attack. So they lived in freestanding houses on their property, needing some sort of personal transportation to get into town to sell their produce, buy what they needed and socialize. They also would have had horses anyways for use as draft animals. As a result the idea of home, work, play and shopping being seperate from each other was present from the first.

American conditions contributed one other factor: unlike Europe, where forests had mostly been cut down centuries before, wood was plentiful in the New World and, without pre-existing brickyards or quarries (or enough stone masons, for that matter), it was a natural building material. Unfortunately, wood is also flammable and having detatched buildings would have reduced the risk of fire. Notice that in most cities and small towns, the only buildings that are attached are usually downtown, where the economic benefits of more efficient land use and sturdier building were enough to outweigh the plentitude of wood and encourage brick and stone construction. The main exception is New York City, where ordinances forbade wooden construction after the Great Fire of New York in 1835, resulting in the houses built of brick or brownstone from Connecticut and New Jersey.

Europe did give us one important legacy: wide streets. Beginning with the Baroque, in order for a nation, prince, bishop or city to demonstrate how powerful and great and rich they were, they would create wide, carefully designed monumental avenues through their cities. These streets would be the ones with the palaces, statues and monuments on it, where the ruler could parade their army and stage grand pagentries. Americans also adopted the wide street as a symbol of progress and wealth, not to mention as a firebreak, real estate speculation and continuation of a pre-existing road. But wide streets have a consequence: if you have them in your city from the beginning, you often can’t afford to pave them at first, and so they’re dusty or muddy or frozen and you need some kind of transportation to get around. Cities like Washington, DC and Detroit have been singled out by urban planners as being designed for the automobile before the automobile.

In the Projects, the seperation was carried to its extreme. People were according to their statistics, not individuals. When a slum population was resettled, its member families were put into projects according to their income levels and if a family’s income moved between one level and another, it could find itrself being moved into the project for that income group. The Projects themselves were seperated from the city by wide streets, green space and an emphasis by project management on project self-sufficiency — they had their own “club rooms,” “game rooms” and similar “community resources” all focused on forcing people to interact on the Project’s terms and not their own, or with other residents of the city. The Projects were also seperate by use. While there might have been a management office and a project convenience store, they were otherwise exclusively residential. This meant that there were no constant comings and goings to supervise the public spaces, because everyone tended to leave and return at the same time. The Projects’ isolation from the city at large also meant that people from outside the Project would rarely venture to it and the desolation surrounding it and its monotonous appearance would have led people to avoid crossing it if they could.

No city life could hope to take root in such conditions, much less being violently uprooted from where it had. The result, even in projects with active tenants’ association, was a breakdown in social life. Seperation from the city became, for people with no choice, isolation from society, work and culture. The unsupervised public spaces meant that children weren’t watched over and raised, resulting in juvenile pranks becoming juvenile delinquency and adult criminality. The people best able to lead the communities also tended to be those best able to raise their income and be either removed for that reason or they would leave in the face of the unsafe conditions developing.

The result was a total social breakdown in the Projects, which have become proverbial for their criminal conditions and poverty. Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green have become the most famous examples and both have since been demolished – and not without failing to take care of the problems that spawned them in the first place. Williamson himself has written of Cabrini-Green and how the project’s demolition merely spread the criminals it bread into wider swaths of Chicago.

The same phenomena are evident in Detroit. Everything has been carefully seperated from everything else by wide streets, highways, green space and zoning; there’s no place for life to take root, much less flourish; the people with choice have largely left; most businesses have closed or moved away. Crime is rampant and now the city is bankrupt, unable to pay its bills. It’s Pruitt-Igoe writ large across an entire city. What’s more, the conditions were there from the beginning.

Urbanism is not constrained by politics. There are libertarian urbanists, like myself and Stephen J. Smith; there are libertarian suburbanists, like Randal O’Toole. The mid-century skyscrapers built by the titans of capitalism in New York City don’t look dissimilar to Soviet or Nazi designs and as Nathan Lewis noted, traditional cities the world over share features like narrow streets and attached buildings whether they were built by Indians, Inca, Greeks, French, Berbers or Arabs. Rather, what is at work, is a contrast between those who believe that life should be simple to the point of monotony and those who believe that life is better with more choice, complexity and possibility. The planners of Detroit believed in a barbarous monotony, not unlike the principles of Fordism that helped make the city famous. I believe that it is possible for progressives, libertarians, conservatives and socialists alike to choose civilization or barbarism because it’s not a political choice.

Progressivism couldn’t have killed Detroit — the city was never alive in the first place.

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