Friday, August 18, 2006

Black Flight by Jack Lessenberry

Years ago, I was talking with Desiree Cooper, an African-American attorney who is now a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, but who has lived in many different states and in Japan. I asked her if she thought integration, the dream of the early civil rights movement, would ever be achieved. She said “integration is the period between the time the first black family moves into a neighborhood and the day the last white family moves out.”

Sadly, she seems to have been right. That is, as far as housing is concerned. You can go most any place and see interracial couples holding hands, or mixed-race dinner parties.

But with the exception of small, isolated enclaves in intellectual or artistic communities, blacks and whites just don’t live together. The reasons for that aren’t about to be solved here. But this is something that has to be faced when we talk about saving our cities.

Blacks are now pouring out of Detroit for the same reasons the few remaining whites are leaving. They want precisely what the whites do – good schools for their kids, good city services, lower taxes, and the ability to feel safe from crime.

To move from Detroit to Southfield, say or from Saginaw to Bridgeport, usually makes sense for the family that is moving. But it has disastrous effects on the place and people left behind. Once people start to leave, the city begins to lose tax revenue.

So the city is forced to increase taxes, cut services, or both. This drives more people to move out, so the city has to increase taxes further on those left . . . creating a classic vicious circle.

Detroit is now in population freefall. Those who are left are mostly too old, too sick, too young or too hopeless to get out. Flint, Pontiac and other older cities are clearly on the slippery slope as well.

Every sign is that things will continue to get worse. And that’s crazy, because it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a solution, an effective and relatively simple one:

Metropolitan Government.

That’s what you have in Indianapolis. That’s what you have in Nashville. That’s what you have in Miami-Dade County. You merge city and county government together.

Look at those places. Those who live in the suburbs have a vested interest in the city doing well. Those in the city get the benefit of more resources. Naturally in some places, notably Detroit, this is complicated by race. Blacks fear losing political power.

Those in the suburbs don’t want to pay taxes to help out the city. Yet if we do nothing, all these fears are going to come true anyway. Sooner or later, if present trends continue, Detroit will be insolvent and have to be taken over by the state. Then Detroiters will lose political power and we will all pay heavily, in more ways than one.

It’s up to us. And the longer we put off facing our problem, the more painful the solution is going to be.

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