Shrink What?

Mayor Dave Bing likes to say that we have no choice but to shrink the city. He constantly points out that Detroit was once a city of 2 million people. Now, with half that number, we cannot provide services as if we were that big. This sounds like a reasonable, almost inevitable conclusion.

But it creates a distorted image. The phrase subtly conveys the idea that somehow or other only the population has gone down but everything else is up and running as it always did.

This is not true. Detroit has not only lost population since 1950. We have lost services and infrastructure. Basic services have been cut back, again and again, for years. Trash collection has been restricted. Bulk pick up, once routine, is now reduced to four times a year. Police precincts have been cut nearly in half. Police ranks vastly reduced. Fire stations have closed. Neighborhood City Halls boarded up and police mini stations abandoned. City departments have been decimated. Half our public schools have closed. Rolling blackouts have long been a fact of life. No one expects streets to be plowed in winter or cleaned in summer. Roads crumble.

Virtually every cultural institution has been diminished. The Detroit Institute of Arts is closed Mondays and Tuesdays and operates on limited hours. The Detroit Public Library shares a similar fate and many branch libraries have closed entirely. The Belle Isle Aquarium is shuttered, and, like many parks, much of Belle Isle depends on citizens groups to keep it going. We have closed the highest number of Catholic churches at any time since the European Reformation. Between 1978 and 2000 more than 161,000 homes were demolished, one-third of the city housing stock. The City Arts program shut its doors. Parks and Recreation has been reduced to a hollow shell. Most recently, Mayor Dave Bing blundered into his first major controversy when he unilaterally tried to close down entire bus lines.

In all of this, Detroiters have consistently voted to increase taxes to provide for the common good. At every opportunity we have voted for parks, zoos, museums, regional transport, education and infrastructure. Detroiters have also refused to abandon those things we value. Sometimes we occupied neighborhood libraries and organized committees to keep them going. We organized nonprofits to support cultural life. Neighbors run little leagues, cut the grass in parks and keep up abandoned houses.

Everything that could be reduced, for good or ill, has been. There are few functions left to shrink.

When pressed to explain what he means by “shrinking the city,” the mayor has been vague. He and his supporters resort to the tired example of an isolated house that should not expect quick police protection, rapid responses to fire and emergency or basic utilities.

But this response defies logic. Most Detroiters have long ago given up on rapid response from much of anything in the city. Longtime residents swap stories of how long we have waited for police to arrive in a crisis.

But the reality of utility lines, water, electricity, gas and sewer is that these lines followed the expansion of the city outward. We cannot stop electricity or water at Mack and start it up again a few miles north and east, on its way to more populated areas and suburbs.

The mayor should stop throwing around irresponsible images of shrinking. He prides himself on being a hardheaded business man. He owes us some hard numbers. Just what does he think he will save by cutting off a lone house here and there? How will this save anything?

Right now the little house on the prairie image that the mayor conjures up is nothing more than a ploy designed to confuse our thinking

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