In Detroit, civic spirit skids into snow bank; Big automakers sit idle, while city slips up in effort to clear streets


THE COLLAPSE of community surfaced with a vengeance in Detroit, not long after the snow started falling on Jan. 2, 1999.

Twenty-one inches of snow fell during the next two weeks. When it was over, city officials still had not plowed the residential streets.

That was not an oversight. It was the result of a policy dating back many years.

Side streets are not plowed.

This city, which regularly sees rough winters, assigns only 59 plows for 2,400 miles of roadway -- far fewer than other northern cities of comparable size.

Such studied reluctance to perform a vital city service has led to predictable outcomes. Emergency vehicles cannot reach homes. People slip and fall on the snow hardened with ice. Many cannot get to work on time, if at all. Schools are closed. The elderly are endangered.

On Jan. 14, postal authorities announced that mail carriers would honk their horns to let residents know they could hazard into the drifts to pick up their mail.

At the same time, the city Department of Public Works said the storms have cost $2.5 million -- $1 million more than the department budgeted for snow removal all year. Note that this outlay is for the nation's 10th-largest city, with a population of 1 million. (This amount is also equal to what Chrysler's president, Robert Eaton, makes in less than 10 days under his compensation package.)

Detroit's mayor, Dennis Archer, has behaved as if he came from Central Casting for a movie about bumblers. He asked the City Council for additional snow-removal funds two weeks after the storm froze Detroit. He also asked the Michigan government for financial assistance; and he asked the federal government to declare a state of emergency so the city could pay for the plowing of the residential roadways.

Relate this story of metropolitan ineptitude and desperation to the good people of Buffalo, which has received nearly five feet of snow, and you'll be greeted with disbelief or worse. I've been in Buffalo during and after large snowfalls years ago, before the stunning technological developments of late 20th-century America, and the streets were cleared quickly. So were the sidewalks, by people who owned homes and stores and who believed that doing so was an obligation of living in a civil society.

I grew up in a hilly Connecticut town of 10,000. After great snowfalls, the streets were cleared faster, with much more modest equipment, than they are today. But even now, my hometown gets the job done overnight or the next day, in an area almost the size of Manhattan.

So, what happened to Detroit -- home to the world's largest automobile industry? Abandonment by its corporate rulers and its political governors, that's what happened.

The corporate bosses do not live in Detroit. They live in nearby, wealthy Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills, where the streets are smooth and clear. General Motors headquarters in Detroit is accessible to these executives because the offices are on main thoroughfares that get plowed.

GM is more experienced in getting rather than giving. What these bosses have demanded from City Hall are subsidy packages and property-tax abatements.

Reporting record profits for years, GM and Chrysler (Ford Motor Co. is in Dearborn) could have donated the money for more plows or contributed trucks for a week or two. These companies are, after all, in the transportation business. But they lack civic pride and civic responsibility.

As for the city officials, so much discredit has been heaped upon them by the public that they cannot get enough volunteers to clear the streets.

"What are we paying our taxes for?" some Detroiters have asked.

Here and there were demonstrations of community spirit. For a week, 150 homeless men working with a group called Operation Get Down have been "digging out the homes of pregnant women," the Detroit Free Press reported. Several small businesses lent their trucks, snow blowers and shovels.

The city government has been pressured repeatedly to help produce local, state and federal corporate-welfare packages for its big corporations. But, when the city is overwhelmed by snow, these companies are content to watch the hapless Mayor Archer beg for federal assistance.

Today, Detroit means community breakdown.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate with the Congressional Accountability Project, P.O. Box 1446, Washington, D.C. 20036. This article was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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