Sharp: A Tale of Two CitiesWritten by Kenneth Sharp | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When I was growing up in Toledo, it was always understood that when Detroit caught a cold, Toledo got the flu. Toledo was the underdeveloped sibling of Detroit. But just like the old “Looney Tunes” cartoon where the small dog obediently followed the larger Bulldog until the Bulldog was exposed by his fears, Toledo is not dependent on the Motor City nor will Detroit’s bankruptcy doom Toledo.
Detroit’s problems, like Toledo’s, have grown, not addressed or misaddressed for decades. Detroit is a study in hubris and greed and also in the simple desire for a better life for oneself and one’s family.
To begin a few facts: Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the United States, had the highest per capita income of any city and in 1950, there were about 296,000 manufacturing jobs in Detroit. Today Detroit has lost around 60 percent of its population, manufacturing jobs number about 27,000 and Detroit debt share per resident is about $25,000 (facts and figures from http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/25-facts-about-the-fall-of-detroit-that-will-leave-you-shaking-your-head).
In its heyday, no one in Detroit foresaw the future. There was plenty of money and good jobs to go around. As the wealth of workers grew, so did the desire to provide a better quality of life, epitomized by life in the suburbs. This has been classified often as “White Flight” but that is untrue. Anyone of means left for the suburbs. This was true in every city, including Toledo. The city’s core industry was believed too big to fail. Detroit was the Motor City after all and always would be. GM, Ford and Chrysler dictated to the auto world. Their hubris left other manufacturers (yes, foreign ones) and they were able to gain a foothold and then an even larger market share. At the same time, their unions (large businesses themselves) kept increasing the benefits of their members. This in part, gave the competitors an edge, and would also contribute to the collapse of American automotive manufacturing.
The hubris of the automotive elite (and their union head counterparts) was copied by the politicians of Detroit. They promised the store and more, and all of it was to be carried by the shrinking citizen base of Detroit. The automakers saw their market shrink and their workforce, but did not or would not alter their course. All but Ford of the Big Three automakers filed for bankruptcy (some more than once) even after incredibly large (unwise and unnecessary) taxpayer bailouts. The bailouts failed and bankruptcy was the sole option left. The City of Detroit has finally followed suit. The citizens for decades elected politicians more concerned with patronage, image and re-election. The city leaders did not follow or did not care about the city’s actual long-term fiscal health, their limited powers and duties or the citizens of Detroit post election.
Toledo has faced similar problems. The suburbs have grown. Major industry has left, often only as far as the next closest city or county. We have pension and salary issues. However, our pensions, part of a statewide plan, are not dependent solely on the ability of Toledoans to continue to hire enough new workers to fund the old as are Detroit’s. Detroit has gone septic but that does not mean Toledo is already D.O.A. In fact this crisis up north should be an awakening that lets us shake off our inferiority complex. We have been under Detroit’s shadow and left off of Columbus’ radar for too long. It is time to act like grown ups and not like a little sibling to some other entity.
There are surprising signs of growth and life in Detroit that Toledo should learn from because we are not out of the deep water. Sadly Detroit still has not learned. It will be small businesses and entrepreneurs that will bring real stability. In Detroit these small businesses are ever anarchistic (operating outside the scope of central government, not in the misrepresentation of violent lawlessness). These types of businesses always exist; they are the backyard mechanics, second hand resale shops, mobile/corner food vendors, etc. The present city of Detroit has sought to wrangle these start ups that are actually serving the population, with fines and fees, while at the same time giving millions to giant corporations in attempts to lure them. These large big boxes will not be the answer. The small business responding to real needs will. As Henry Louis Taylor pointed out in Black Detroit magazine, though the small businesses like the back yard shop or food vendor account for 10 percent of the cities businesses, they serve about 70 percent of the residents. All big businesses were once small.
Structurally Toledo is not Detroit, but if we continue to elect patronage, image and career politicians using the local offices as stepping stones, then we will not shake off our inferiority complex and will follow Detroit into continued population decline, financial distress and failure.