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Steve Nelson: The Abandonment of a Once-Great City

There are no magnolia trees or vast cotton fields, but make no mistake, the city of Detroit is an abandoned plantation.

The appointment of a financial master to oversee the decaying remains of Detroit is the latest insult in a decades-long urban tragedy. I lived and worked in Detroit during the late ’80s and early ’90s. My very first published newspaper column was in the Detroit Free Press, titled, “Doggonit, I Love Detroit.” Therein I made what small case could be made for the stubborn pockets of lively possibility resting in the nooks and crannies of an already desperate city.

Detroit’s rise and fall coincides with the dramatic industrialization of America, specifically the auto industry. Hundreds of thousands of black Americans, many the direct descendants of slaves, migrated north to provide human fuel for the rapid growth of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. During its heyday, more than a third of Detroit’s citizens were employed by the automakers or the parts-supply companies that arose to serve the industry.

Even in the boom years, the belching smokestacks of River Rouge and the sprawling manufacturing plants were surrounded by a lush necklace of suburbs where the real money of the auto business retreated in evening comfort as the workers labored three sweaty shifts. That lush necklace eventually choked the city, as white workers abandoned the central city and the work was outsourced. Auto executives still golf at Grosse Pointe Country Club and dine in luxury in Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, clucking sympathetically as the city dies a slow, inevitable death.

The death of the black middle class is among the saddest aspects of this decline. During the mid-20th century, Detroit was the site of America’s first thriving middle-class community where most of the institutions — schools, hospitals, arts institutions, and retail establishments — were developed or run by African-Americans. Some of these institutions are now historic sites, shamefully decaying, surrounded by weed-infested empty lots. Large swaths of Detroit sit like scenes of an abandoned metropolis in a horror movie.

This reality has not changed at all since the late ’60s, when Detroit still had the energy to riot. The white flight began then and persistently continued.

And now, the final insult, as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appoints an overseer to manage the death throes of the city. His choice, Kevyn Orr, is a black lawyer and partner in the prestigious Jones Day law firm. This choice, it appears, was at least partially a political strategy, blunting the flashing anger of black citizens who are protesting the loss of constitutional rights of self-determination through the voting booth. In a city where a white-controlled industry had attracted, exploited and eventually abandoned black labor, the plantation parallel seems obvious.

In Detroit and around the country commentary is heated. In recent days, activists have blocked traffic on Detroit-area freeways, drawing both rage and sympathy to the cause. The irony of an auto slowdown in protest could not be deeper.

The city’s unemployment rate has hovered near 20 percent although, like in much of urban America, the real number is almost certainly higher. Tens of thousands have simply given up. The remaining jobs are low wage and declining. Not surprisingly, there is a steady flow of black workers commuting to the suburbs to minimum-wage service jobs.

Some believe that the decline was caused by rapacious unions and their unsustainable wages and benefits. This argument is untrue and has been a national conservative crusade and contributed to the precipitous decline of the middle class. While labor and benefits costs certainly challenged the auto industry, the root cause of Detroit’s decline was opportunistic outsourcing in search of cheap labor and the ability to maximize profit at the expense of the working and middle classes.

The conservatives’ critique is accompanied by accusations, often racially charged, that Detroit is a victim of the corruption and incompetence of black elected officials. The record is not attractive to be sure, particularly in the case of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.But blaming the mess on his misdeeds is like attributing a family’s bankruptcy to the teenager who stole a few quarters from his mother’s purse.

I don’t have a solution, but I could suggest a start. And it’s not to violate the constitutional rights of Detroit’s citizens by taking away the voting franchise, which is all they have left. The fiscal liabilities that have brought Detroit to its knees — no, it was already on its knees, now it’s face down on the pavement — total $14 billion.

During the fiscal crisis of 2008-09, brought to us by the smartest guys on Wall Street, the auto industry that pillaged Detroit was bailed out to the tune of $80 billion. According to an August 2012 White House report, more than $25 billion of that will never be recovered, despite the many billions in profit now enjoyed by the resurgent auto industry.

You’d think a nation that gives $25 billion gifts to major corporations might manage to find $14 billion to save a city that generated much of the wealth and quality of life we all enjoy.

Consider it reparations — and justice.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School.

, a private school.