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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 04:51 pm

Dancing around the issue

Does Detroit hold lessons for Springfield?


Western part of the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, Mich.

“It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” – King Kong

The Motor City finally ran out of gas. The recent bankruptcy of Detroit’s municipal government has been explained and re-explained. It was a single-industry city, the equivalent of the mining camp, that failed to diversify its economy. It was badly run, meaning both incompetent and corrupt. Its public employees unions bled it dry, shortsighted politicians neglected its public infrastructure and housing stock, pusillanimous judges handcuffed the cops’ fight against crime.

All these things happened in Detroit, to be sure. But in “Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?,” Pete Saunders, a planner and blogger on matters urban, offered his view that these failures were the consequences, not the cause, of its collapse. The cause was white flight abandonment “on an absolutely epic scale.”

“People skirt and dance around the issue when they talk about the loss of Detroit’s tax base,” writes Saunders. “What Detroit lost was its white people.”

For reasons that can’t be explained in this or a hundred other columns, white people in Detroit were most of the owners, the movers, the doers, the people with the money and the ideas. They owned the stores, ran the companies, pulled the strings. No city can lose more than a few such people without suffering; Detroit lost hundreds of thousands of them. Saunders calls them hit-and-run drivers. “They were the cause of the accident, they left the scene of the crime, and they left behind others to clean up the mess and deal with the pain.”

The exodus left the City of Detroit with insufficient resources, human and material, to fix the problems that were left behind. What were those problems? That’s ultimately the point of Saunders’ jeremiad. Detroit didn’t fail because a lot of white people left. Rather, white people left because the city had failed in ways that were only coincidentally related to the new population mix.

Saunders identifies these factors as the cause of the rot.
A poorly developed civic consciousness
A housing stock of poor quality, cheap and disposable, particularly outside of the city’s traditional core
A poorly developed and maintained public realm
A downtown that was allowed to become weak
The expansion of road network into the periphery, and the simultaneous failure to expand the pubic transit network
A local government organization type that lacked accountability at the resident/customer level

Very interesting, but what, you ask, does that have to do with Springfield? An interested reader alerted me to Saunders’ analysis because he thought it offered what he called “an interesting perspective” for the capital. Longtime readers of this column and its predecessor will recognize in his list complaints that I have registered about the City of Springfield’s approach to city management over the years. If you add poor schools (in fact poor students) and fears (usually exaggerated) of crime, you have a pretty accurate checklist of complaints about the city that I – and you – have heard for 30 years.

And, as has happened in much bigger cities, those failures of policy happened in the context of racial change. The out-migration has occurred during decades in which the number of new black city residents outpaced growth in the white population. African Americans now make up 18.5 percent of Springfield’s population – up from 6.8 percent in 1960.

Ought we to conclude that Springfield is a mini-Detroit, and that abandonment and its consequent financial collapse will, like the newest chain store, finally come to Springfield too? Certainly the capital also has lost a lot of its middle class to its suburbs. But while poor policies have diminished the city, there is no evidence of wholesale abandonment of the city by the white bourgeoisie. In 1960, for instance, the City of Springfield accounted for 57 percent of the population of Sangamon County. Today the City of Springfield accounts for 59 percent of the population of Sangamon County.

While there has been massive middle class flight from Springfield’s older neighborhoods, most of those people fled to….the City of Springfield. Detroit, like most every big city, is surrounded by incorporated places and cannot expand. Springfield in contrast has vast amounts of land to the north and west and south it has annexed for development as suburban-style enclaves. What I have come to call New Springfield – the suburban-ish agglomeration west of MacArthur, which now runs through the middle of Springfield – is like Troy, one of Detroit’s prosperous suburbs, while Old Springfield shows all the early symptoms of Detroit-style abandonment.

Disaffected residents have been able to move up in Springfield without moving out, thus achieving the social distance from the poor they crave while staying within the City of Springfield. So my reader had it half right – Detroit’s experience does offer an interesting perspective – for half of Springfield.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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