Detroit: The Once Great Shining City Upon a Hill

The fire of 1805 burned the city of Detroit to the ground, leaving little more than ashes and broken dreams. Detroit’s motto, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus ("We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes") was crafted in reaction to this terrible disaster.

And Detroit did, indeed, rise again. It became known as the Paris of the Midwest in the early days of the 20th Century owing to the beauty of its homes and buildings and tree-lined boulevards. In the 1930s, the success of its sports teams led to a reputation as the City of Champions. In the Forties, the United Auto Workers set aside labor concerns to focus on the manufacture of planes, tanks and other war materials which garnered Detroit the name “Arsenal of Democracy.” And, of course, the whole world was enthralled by the beat of the Motown sound through the Sixties and Seventies.

Detroit was the nation’s fourth largest city in the 1950s—The Motor City: rich, prosperous, and growing.

Now, after five decades of failed liberal policies, can the once great shining city upon a hill rise from the ashes anew?

At the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, Newt Gingrich began his speech by responding to Eric Holder’s recent statement that “America is a nation of cowards”:

“Let me say to Atty. Gen. Holder, I welcome an opportunity to have a dialogue with you about ‘cowardice’ anywhere anytime. Why don’t we have the dialogue in Detroit and see if Atty. Gen. Holder has the courage to talk about the failure of the Detroit school system, the failure of the Detroit teachers’ union, the betrayal of the future of thousands of young people. Let’s discuss the total failure of the Detroit political system which has taken a city of 1,800,000 with the highest per capita income in the United States and has driven it into the ground so there are now fewer than 900,000 people there with a per-capita income that is 62nd in the United States. And it’s the function of bad government, bad politicians, bad bureaucracy, and bad ideas.”

The city of Detroit provided the ideal illustration for Gingrich: five decades of failed leftist policies manifested in one troubled city. Gingrich saw the ascendency of Obamunism and subtly asserted that Detroit was a microcosm of Barack Obama’s America: big labor, a strong teacher’s union, high taxes, public utilities, strong gun control, big welfare roles, etc. Many of these policies were implemented by former Mayor Colemon Young, who reigned over the city for 20 years. One has to wonder, could the city that allowed Colemon Young to stand at the helm for two decades actually embrace Newt Gingrich and his ideas?

Real change on the way?
After it became clear that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick would be tied up in legal troubles, and eventually locked up, Detroiters elected Dave Bing in a special election. Dave Bing was, and is, a Democrat, but as the founder and owner of Bing Steel he also has private-sector business experience. Bing possesses an understanding of the basic laws of supply and demand and a strong moral character.

Mayor Bing recently told Michigan radio talk show host Paul W. Smith that he is willing to consider a new idea from Newt Gingrich. Gingrich spoke at the 2010 Mackinac Policy Conference in late May where he suggested making Detroit a “tax-free” city for ten years. It would certainly be unprecedented for a mayor of Detroit to adopt such a radical supply-side economic approach. Even expressing interest in such a prominent conservative such as Gingrich is very un-Detroitian.

Bing has already ruffled some feathers with his open support of Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency financial manager of Detroit’s public schools. Since being appointed in 2009, Bobb has uncovered wide-spread abuse including over 3,800 unauthorized dependents on employee health-insurance rolls, a $1.3 billion school budget that was not being managed by a chief financial officer, a $332 million budget deficit, and sparsely populated schools with declining enrollment.

Bobb has already closed 29 schools and has recently announced a three-year plan that will close 32 more. Robert Bobb has an unconventional idea of the “purpose of a school;” he believes that schools exist primarily to educate students and not to provide employment for education bureaucrats (crazy isn’t it?).

Mayor Bing has said, to the dismay of the city council, that he would like to take control of the Detroit Public Schools system when Bobb’s contract expires. Bing would undoubtedly continue Bobb’s work. Kwame Kenyatta of the Detroit City Council has expressed disapproval of the mayor’s budget, taking affect on July 1, because it is the result of $101 million in cuts made by the mayor, saying: “The greater harm is that come July 1, you’re going to have an impact on city services that are already at the basement level”.

In crossing out 65 lines of spending expenditures in the council’s proposed budget, Mayor Bing showed great fiscal restraint but his actions will create more critics. Council members, locals, and education bureaucrats will insist on more spending for more programs and Bing will have to be the adult in the room saying, “OK, but how are we going to pay for all of this?” Bing recently announced the closing of 77 city parks. The city-park denizens will most emphatically denounce Mayor Bing but they ought to keep in mind that Bing is trying to do something that has not been done in Detroit in ages: balance a budget.