Detroit’s Dug­gan de­liv­ers growth

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL ge­orge.will@wash­

With bib­li­cal suc­cinct­ness, and fore­shad­ow­ing a res­ur­rec­tion, Mike Dug­gan said, “Let there be light!” and 65,000 LED street­lights re­placed the 40 per­cent of the city’s street­lights that were bro­ken when he took of­fice in 2014. They are among the many rea­sons that on Nov. 7 he, the first white mayor here in 40 years, will win a land­slide re­elec­tion in a city that is 84 per­cent black. Iden­tity pol­i­tics is friv­o­lous; Detroit, af­ter a bruis­ing ren­dezvous with real­ity, is se­ri­ous about re­cov­er­ing from its near-death ex­pe­ri­ence.

In Dug­gan, Detroit has found its Fiorello La Guardia — a short, stocky, cheer­ful, plain-spo­ken in­car­na­tion of his city. In 1983, when Dug­gan re­turned, fresh from the Univer­sity of Michi­gan Law School, “there was no­body my age on the streets.” The Hous­ton Chron­i­cle was be­ing sold at a busy in­ter­sec­tion to un­em­ployed au­towork­ers scan­ning the clas­si­fieds for Texas jobs. In 1950, Detroit was com­pa­ra­ble to, and per­haps richer (by per capita in­come) than, Chicago. Soon, how­ever, it was bleed­ing pop­u­la­tion, head­ing for bank­ruptcy as Greece on the Great Lakes, a dystopia plagued by dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, soar­ing crime, packs of feral dogs and a po­lit­i­cal class fea­tur­ing in­com­pe­tents leav­ened by felons.

Dug­gan, a Demo­crat in a city with non­par­ti­san elec­tions, won in 2013 as a write-in can­di­date, telling vot­ers, “You in­vite me to your home, I show up.” Hun­dreds of house par­ties later, he was cus­to­dian of a pros­trate city that had shed 260,000 res­i­dents in 13 years. Its 143 square miles could hold San Fran­cisco, Bos­ton and Man­hat­tan with room to spare. By 2000, cat­tle could have been grazed in vast post-ur­ban swaths. In 1950, the city had been home to 1.8 mil­lion; by 2013, it held two-thirds fewer. In the stam­pede away, many peo­ple aban­doned their houses to the Mid­west­ern el­e­ments. Most may­ors brag about build­ing; Dug­gan does, too, but also about de­mol­ish­ing — 12,000 aban­doned struc­tures since 2014. His “Board Up Brigades” — this is dis­tinc­tively Detroit — will seal off 11,000 and de­mol­ish 9,000 within two years. Says Dug­gan: “Tear down the burned-out houses, peo­ple will buy the oth­ers.”

Po­lice and EMS re­sponse times have been dras­ti­cally re­duced; 275 parks are fully main­tained, up from 25 four years ago, when the grass was some­times taller than the 8-year-olds. Such gran­u­lar at­ten­tion to the small stuff is hav­ing a huge pay­off: Res­i­den­tial util­ity hookups are in­creas­ing. For the first time in his 59 years, the city is ex­pected to grow. “We can’t build of­fice space fast enough” for firms mov­ing here be­cause “mil­len­ni­als don’t want to move to the sub­urbs and drive a mini­van.” How­ever, a suc­cess­ful city re­quires a large mid­dle class, which can­not ex­ist with­out good schools to an­chor young fam­i­lies. Detroit’s fu­ture hinges on this.

And on can­dor about Detroit’s past. In this 50th an­niver­sary year of the 1967 ri­ots (43 killed, 342 in­jured), Dug­gan in a re­cent speech re­called the 1943 riot (34 killed, 700 in­jured) ig­nited by hous­ing griev­ances among the 200,000 South­ern blacks in con­gested wartime Detroit, the “ar­se­nal of democ­racy.”

Dug­gan ex­plained that the seeds of Detroit’s vi­o­lent de­cline were sown by fed­eral pol­icy. Cre­ated in 1934, the Fed­eral Hous­ing Ad­min­is­tra­tion in­vented and en­forced “redlin­ing,” ex­plic­itly steer­ing new mort­gages away from blacks to main­tain the racial ho­mo­gene­ity of neigh­bor­hoods. A 1946 FHA man­ual said: “In­com­pat­i­ble racial groups should not be per­mit­ted to live in the same com­mu­ni­ties.” And: “Prop­er­ties shall con­tinue to be oc­cu­pied by the same so­cial and racial classes.” And: “Ap­prais­ers are in­structed to pre­dict the prob­a­bil­ity of the lo­ca­tion be­ing in­vaded by . . . in­com­pat­i­ble racial and so­cial groups.” In­vaded.

Dur­ing the war, when a de­vel­oper sought FHA guar­an­tees for pro­posed hous­ing on the last of the farm­land still within the sprawl­ing city, the FHA ini­tially re­fused be­cause the de­vel­op­ment would be con­tigu­ous with a black neigh­bor­hood. The real es­tate mag­nate pro­posed a so­lu­tion: I will build a wall. It would be be­tween his de­vel­op­ment and the in­com­pat­i­bles. He did; you can see it to­day. Mol­li­fied, the FHA guar­an­teed mort­gages on the white side.

Al­most half of all post­war sub­ur­ban homes built in the United States had FHA mort­gage guar­an­tees. From 1934 through 1962, whites re­ceived 98 per­cent. The 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down racially re­stric­tive real es­tate covenants came from Detroit, but too late to pre­vent dele­te­ri­ous racial res­i­den­tial pat­terns. In the 1960s came “ur­ban re­newal,” a.k.a. “Ne­gro re­moval” as ad­min­is­tered by sev­eral of the last white may­ors be­fore Dug­gan, who, in an un­likely place, might be Amer­ica’s most ac­com­plish­ing politi­cian.

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