But none of it worked. Rather than becoming a showplace for the transformational power of urban policy, Detroit is remarkable mostly as a burial ground for good intentions — of both Democrats and Republicans.
Last month, Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy, sobering evidence that decades of government and private-sector intervention was no match for decades of residential and business flight that eroded the city’s once ample tax base.
“It is as if the tide is going out and I take a fire hydrant and pump as much water on the beach as possible,” said Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economist. “No matter how long I pump, there is still going to be more sand showing.”
Still, political leaders kept pumping.
One reason was that the city symbolized that American era when blue-collar workers with high school educations, or less, could enjoy middle-class comforts as long as they were willing to work hard.
“Detroit has always had a special place in the American psychology,” said Henry G. Cisneros, who served as secretary of housing and urban development during Bill Clinton’s first term as president. Not only was Detroit the center of the automobile industry, but it was also a major destination for the vast migration of African Americans from the South in the first half of the 20th century, he said.
Detroit’s status made it an irresistible symbol for political leaders. For years, one sure sign that a politician was running for president was an appearance at the Detroit Economic Club.
“Part of it is, Detroit has always occupied such a place in American history, because it was in many ways where the American Century, from an industrial perspective, began,” said Chris Lehane, who was an aide to Al Gore when Gore was Clinton’s vice president. “It occupies a certain mystique, which is why what happened hits people so hard.”
Nobody has done an accounting of the money that has flowed to Detroit through the years in the name of urban renewal. But researchers note that the city has been a major recipient of federal money since the Model Cities program was launched as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
“Detroit has certainly seen its share of urban initiatives,” said Eric Scorsone, an economist and faculty member at Michigan State University.
Few have fared particularly well. The $500 million Renaissance Center, which was privately funded, has been derided as a fortress that is difficult to navigate and cuts off a key part of downtown from the Detroit River. It was sold to General Motors in 1996 for just $76 million. GM moved its headquarters there and invested heavily in renovations to make the space more inviting, but much of the retail space remains vacant.