Detroit serves as an imperfect cautionary tale

I lived in Detroit for a summer once, in an apartment that was circled by the kind of barbed-wire fence you see around prisons. I wasn't sure if Detroit was being protected from me or the other way around.

This was quite a long time ago, but Detroit's decline was already underway, for all the now-familiar reasons: the riots of the 1960s that the city would never fully recover from; the way its fortunes were too intertwined with its dominant industry, the car companies; the unstoppable flight to the suburbs.


Still, I doubt anyone could have predicted back then that Detroit would end up where it is today. Bankrupt, above all, but also as this municipal metaphor for — well, it's not always clear for what.

It's become quite the cliche to bemoan that a city — say, Baltimore — could turn into "another Detroit." Or "the next Detroit." Or, "God forbid, Detroit."


With Detroit filing for bankruptcy in July, the largest city ever to find itself in such straits, it seemed like the city had finally hit bottom. The much-reported details of its descent have been truly horrifying: the 40 percent of streetlights that have gone dark, the average 58 minutes it takes for police to respond to a 911 call, the recently floated prospect of selling the city art museum's Van Goghs and Rembrandts to stave off creditors.

It's the ultimate train wreck of a city, and though the rubber-necking is understandable, it has taken on a certain unseemliness.

It would be one thing if these Detroit-doomsdayers were talking about finances, because indeed, therein lies the real cautionary tale — of unfunded pensions for public employees and excessive borrowing to cover costs, for example.

But instead, it sure seems like a lot of the impending-Detroitism comparisons aren't really about the bankruptcy. Detroit gets waved around as the ultimate symbol of everything that can ail a city: crime and vacant houses, rising taxes and shrinking property values, corrupt politicians and ineffectual leadership.

In this past week alone, I heard Baltimore being invoked as the next Detroit first because of a car crashing into a paint truck into a Mount Vernon bar, then I read Baltimore could be heading toward Detroitdom because of the extra burden of the so-called rain tax. At least, though, we got an actual report this week from George Mason University researchers, as The Baltimore Sun's Luke Broadwater reported, concluding that Baltimore's sound policy decisions had made it financially resilient, avoiding the fate of Detroit.

Sometimes I think it's the optics: You no doubt have seen the ruin-porn of Detroit, the artful photographs of abandoned houses with trees growing out of the windows, and the empty factories littered with broken glass, graffiti and the ghosts of their former industrial glories.

Unfortunately, a truly valid example of Baltimore as Detroit in the making is how we've started getting our own civic porn, such as that awful website that compiles pictures of apparently drugged-out people on the street. Although I suppose in this case, we've actually surpassed Detroit — holding up actual and troubled people rather than decaying buildings to make the point. I'm so proud.

It's tempting to think that these are the pictures that tell you more than the 1,000-word story.


But the story of how Detroit got to this point is a complicated one — and a unique one. Every new tax or closed business or, in truth, government policy that you disagree with does not a Detroit make. But everyone has a favored villain — it's the unions, it's the auto industry, it's the blacks, it's the Democrats, it's the high taxes, it's the state or the feds turning their backs on urban America.

No one group can send a city of Detroit's size and place in history over the edge. This becomes quite clear in what is essentially an autopsy report that The Detroit Free Press published last Sunday, titled: "How Detroit Went Broke." It's a clear-eyed report, the result of reporters combing through 50 years of financial documents and interviewing dozens of sources, plus some amazing graphics, laying out the hows and whys, the mistakes and missed opportunities, that were decades in the making and ultimately landed Detroit in bankruptcy court.

I'm no doubt biased, given that the reason I spent that summer in Detroit was to work as an intern reporter at the Free Press. But the report is an antidote to the another-Detroit syndrome.