Detroit is everything that conservatives hate—labor unions, black people, pensions—so in some quarters there’s almost a kind of glee around this idea that Detroit is a preview of the American future. But it’s total nonsense.
It is undoubtedly true that many American municipalities will have to end up paying less in pension and health benefits to retired public sector workers than has been promised in the past. And it is at least possible that some of these cities will avail themselves of bankruptcy to do so. But what’s disturbing about Detroit’s fate is obviously not the specific details of municipal finance, it’s the decline of a city. It’s the poor state of its public infrastructure and its building stock. It’s the high crime and falling population. It’s the poverty and lack of jobs. But this is emphatically not America’s future. When I was born in 1981 you really could look at the state of urban America and see decline everywhere. Population was falling everywhere. Crime had risen for two decades everywhere. Crack was poised to explode onto the streets. Detroit was heading downhill. But so was New York and Philadelphia and D.C. and everywhere.
Today? New York is booming. D.C. is booming. I wouldn’t say Philadelphia or Baltimore or Providence were exactly booming but they’re now all growing. Crime is falling. People are moving to downtown Los Angeles, and in many major American cities the biggest thing holding growth back is high prices as construction supply fails to keep up with growing demand. A small slice of downtown and midtown Detroit has actually managed to hop on the urban revival bandwagon, but it’s a very small slice mired amid a larger portrait of decline. It’s very sad. But part of what makes it sad today is that it’s relatively singular. The city has continued to decline at a time when other large American cities aren’t in decline.