Two weeks ago I wrote about the extinction-level event facing Seattle small businesses, not just because of the pandemic but because of City Hall’s tolerance of crime. It produced the largest response of any column I’ve ever written, 99.9% in agreement.
It was a nerve that needed to be touched. But I was surprised by the number of readers who took the leap to predict that Seattle would become “another Detroit.” A few others predicted our fate was to be Cleveland or Buffalo.
This destiny is not within the misguided and injurious powers of today’s city political elite, however. Backlashes and elections happen.
Detroit faced an unusual set of calamities to become synonymous with urban decline. Even Seattle’s missteps won’t compare.
For a start, consider the current differences:
The 2018 median household income was $85,562 for the city of Seattle vs. $29,481 for Detroit, according to the Census.
Poverty stood at less than 12% here vs. more than 34% in Detroit.
August unemployment was 7.2% in King County vs. 12.9% in Detroit’s Wayne County.
The Economic Innovation Group’s 2018 Distressed Communities Index examined economic and social well-being metrics to the ZIP code level. Seattle’s “distress score” was 14.5 compared with 97.9 for Detroit.
Before the pandemic hit, Seattle had ascended to become one of America’s “superstar cities.” Not only are the city and region home to two of the five Big Tech giants and high-end outposts of the others, but Seattle enjoys one of the most diverse economies in the nation.
By contrast, Detroit was all about the auto industry.
Perhaps the most astonishing marker of its decline is population. Last year, Seattle stood at 753,675, while Detroit was 670,031. At its peak in 1950, Detroit was America’s fifth most populous city, with 1.85 million people.
Current statistics and conditions aren’t proof that Seattle isn’t headed in the same direction as Detroit, of course. And Boeing moving all 787 assembly to South Carolina — could that land us in an aerospace rust belt?
But such fears are a stretch, and history shows stark differences between the cities.
People often track the Motor City’s decline to the 1967 riots, or uprising if you wish: Five days of violence that left 43 dead. More than 2,500 businesses were looted or burned.
Coleman Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor (1974 to 1994) wrote, “The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings.
“The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the people who fled as fast as they could.”
But the city’s troubles long predated 1967. They can be traced to misguided federal and local government policies, as well as business decisions by the Big Three automakers..
Racial discrimination, conflict, and “redlining” that kept Blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods had a long history, dating to the Great Migration of Southern Blacks coming for jobs in Detroit factories. The effects were far more pervasive and long-standing than what happened in Seattle.
Starting in the 1950s, freeways were rammed through such Black neighborhoods as Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, destroying hundreds of Black-owned businesses and homes. The highways, along with federally subsidized mortgages for whites, facilitated white flight out of the city (the metropolitan area was still among the nation’s largest, at 4.3 million, as of 2019). The result: In 1950, the city was nearly 84% white. In 2019, it was nearly 79% Black.
At the same time, automakers began building new factories outside the city and closing or downsizing their Detroit operations, including Ford’s massive River Rouge complex.
Good jobs were once close to the city’s increasing Black population, often reachable by an extensive streetcar system. By the mid-1950s, the streetcars were being removed and automobiles were virtually mandatory.
With factories out in the suburbs, the Black population in the city was stranded from well-paying employment and ladders up. The Black middle- and upper-classes also left for the suburbs once redlining was outlawed, leaving a desperate underclass in the city.
The domestic auto industry fell into trouble in the 1970s, as complacent executives and union leaders presided over declining quality. Then the industry was ambushed by Japanese imports.
Chrysler was saved by federal loan guarantees in 1980 and the charismatic leadership of Lee Iacocca. But by the 21st century, it was in trouble again and landed in a merger with Fiat. General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Detroit itself landed in bankruptcy in 2013.
Repeated efforts were made to resuscitate the city, from Ronald Reagan’s symbolic holding of the Republican National Convention there in 1980 to more substantial commitments by the private sector.
These included GM moving its headquarters to the Renaissance Center skyscrapers on the waterfront, to Quicken Loan’s Dan Gilbert investing billions downtown and Ford committing to turning the long abandoned Michigan Central railroad station into an innovation center.
Private-equity billionaire Robert Smith, one of the richest Black people in America, announced a project to offer “on ramps” to people with lower access to opportunity. (As is often the case in Detroit, Smith is now fighting a corruption change, this one related to taxes).
Meanwhile, Detroit is pulling in, demolishing houses, returning some former neighborhoods to a quasi-rural condition. Seattle remains one of the nation’s hottest housing markets.
Yes, inattention to Seattle’s challenges will be the hubris that reaps a whirlwind.
But we won’t be the next Detroit.