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Detroit: Rebuilding the Dream


Detroit SkylineIt has been called the city that moved America; the city that spawned the sound of a generation. For decades, Detroit was the assembly line of the American Dream. Its auto factories produced the cars that made possible the suburban life that defined the American middle class and provided jobs and wages that lifted more families into the middle class.

Now, with its abandoned factories and vacant lots, Detroit symbolizes the deterioration of the American Dream it once fueled. So, it is only right that Detroit is one of the first stops on the road to rebuilding that dream. Today, the Congressional Progressive Caucus brings its Speak Out For Good Jobs tour to Detroit. Caucus members promise to "listen to what everyday Americans have to say and take that back to Washington with them as they continue to fight to reinvigorate the American Dream."

If so, Detroit has a story to tell; one of a city and a dream in decline.

A Dream in Decline

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Detroit's downward slide began, but in the past 30 to 40 years it has paralleled a middle-class decline driven by stagnant wages and the offshoring of good jobs that grew America's middle class. Those jobs led African Americans in the South to migrate north, and immigrants to America's shores in pursuit of a dream that their willingness to work hard would place within reach. Those jobs and that dream, by 1950, drove Detroit's population to its peak of 1.8 million.

Today, the jobs that made Detroit the Motor City are long gone, and the dream that fueled its growth has stalled. The unemployment rate for Detroit, at 11.3%, surpasses the unemployment rate for rest of the state. The city's black unemployment rate, at 25.7%, surpasses the overall rates for the city and the state. Many of those who have jobs don't earn much. The census shows that Detroit's per capita income is nearly half the national average, and that one third of its citizens live in poverty.

Just as jobs left Detroit, so have its people. Sixty years ago, the promise of good jobs and the promise for a better life caused an influx of workers from across the country, and around the world. Now, the absence of both good jobs and much hope for their return is fueling an exodus. Michigan is the only state that has lost people in the past decade, and Detroit probably has a lot to do with that. The city lost 25% of its population in the past decade, dropping to 790,000 from 951,000 in 2001, an echo of the "white flight" of the 1960s and 1970s, as black people escape Detroit's high crime and poor services for deteriorating "second-hand" suburbs.

As a result, Detroit's vacancy rate has risen to 27.8% from the 10.3% rate reported in the 2000 census, as job loss and foreclosure crisis fueled population loss. (The city's had 55,000 foreclosures since 2005, and another wave is expected when moratoriums are lifted.) A lot-by-lot survey of the city revealed that fully a quarter of its lots are vacant.

Scrap City

Detroit has become a city of abandoned buildings, abandoned people and abandoned dreams. Its empty buildings, vacant lots and abandoned factories are sites for the adventures of urban explorers, who wander its ruins as archeologists might wander through the ruins of Pompeii, looking for clues about how the people who once occupied them might have lived, and hints about what caused the decline of this once great city. They post videos and photographs of their explorations on sites like YouTube and Flickr. Professional photographers seem to find a kind of sad beauty and mystery in Detroit's ruins, and capture that mystery in evocative imagery.

But the story of how Detroit went from being the Motor City to Scrap City is no secret. There's no mystery. The decline of Detroit isn't the result of unknown circumstances. It's what happens when manufacturing disappears, taking jobs with it. It's what happens when people and their dreams of better lives for their families and brighter futures for their children and grandchildren are abandoned.