Sunday, May 01, 2011

Daniel Williamson: The Urban Machine

I’m quite familiar with Detroit. I’ve been there many times. I was born in Sandusky, Ohio, and I can see that many Detroiters are familiar with my hometown, too, as evidenced by the license plates of the cars snaking their way along the roads leading to Cedar Point.

Ohio has a Rust Belt problem, too. On two occasions (2002 and 2004) I was the Republican candidate for state representative in a portion of Ohio’s Rust Belt, encompassing Lorain, Oberlin, parts of Elyria, and the vicinity. I didn’t win the elections, as one would expect in such Democrat bastions, but I had a chance to think long and hard about remedies for Rust Belt decay as I drew up my own economic development plans for the district I hoped to represent.

It would take a book to detail each facet of what I envisioned, and even my own blog, to date, contains only a fraction of my proposals, so I don’t plan to elaborate much within this thread (it’s already a wall of text, as it is), but my approach to urban renewal differs from most other approaches I’ve come across. My approach is different because my assessment of the causes of the decay are different. While I readily agree that Detroit’s economy must be diversified to counter the prevailing trend, I do not think that the auto industry is at the root of the decay at all.

Attitudes are at the root of the decay.

Most obvious to us Republicans is that the residents of these areas have an attitude that they will only vote for Democrats. As I met voters door-to-door, they expressed opinions on issues that matched up very well with Republican Party platform planks, but they just couldn’t see it. Somehow, these Democrat voters thought they had more in common with their Democrat officeholders than they did with the Republican candidates, but that was far from the truth. The Democrat politicians have always fed these voters propaganda that are just words that the voters wanted to hear. Often, the actions of these Democrat politicians contradicted the words they’d utter to the electorate. To get right to the point, the Democrat politicians flat out lied. Such deluded voters never get the kind of representation that they think they are voting for.

One-party rule is repressive in an American metropolis (but to a much much lesser degree) just as surely as it is repressive in dictatorial regimes. With that kind of entrenched power, there is no accountability. There could be accountability if the voters would occasionally vote Republican to purge some corrupt Democrats from the halls of power, but they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that the Republicans in their own city are more evil than the self-serving Democrats who’ve been helping themselves to the spoils of the city for scores of years. Somehow, they need the blinders removed.

One would think that the unraveling of Kwame Kilpatrick would have spurred a rejection of the status quo, but they just shuffle in some other Democrats to replace the Democrats that just got ousted. Other Democrat politicians whose names are not Kilpatrick are emboldened that voters will never truly clean house, so they have a green light to conduct business as usual. Mostly what made it into headlines, though, about the Kilpatrick episode were just about an exchange of text messages. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Much more lies beneath the surface than that, and it extended, and continues to extend, beyond Kilpatrick and his cronies.

In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer exposed in greater detail the corruption of one-party rule in county government. Clevelanders were ticked off at the corrupt politicians who were exposed by the media, but they wouldn’t go so far as to clean house by electing a slate of Republicans, but they at least voted for a restructuring of county government according to a plan drawn up by Republicans.

I guess that’s a start. In Cleveland, voters finally learned that the economy of the region was hampered by Democrat politicians who were more interested in extorting and shaking business enterprises down (for their own personal enrichment) than they were in helping the businesses to grow (which would have benefited the whole population) If you were a business, what would you do? Put up with the shake-downs? Give in to the politicians’ demands for kickbacks in exchange for freedom from political interference in your business? Or would you rather just relocate, and avoid that headache altogether? This is why the top brass of these Rust Belt cities must wine and dine to attract enterprise.


If it weren’t for wining and dining and cutting a back room deal, the city wouldn’t look attractive enough to
set up shop there. If there wasn’t such favoritism, such horse-trading, such pay-to-play kickback schemes, on top of icky high tax rates, businesses would come of their own accord without need of further enticements.

One-party rule in Republican strongholds can also harbor political corruption that evades accountability, but we’re discussing Detroit, so, ’nuff said about that.

Another attitude is that the future is unfamiliar territory to lifelong residents of these cities. They yearn for the good old days, and don’t want to part with the vestiges of those treasured eras. The truth of the matter is, the good old days really never were all that good. Problems festered back then, too. Just like a song can play on the radio that can remind you of a time of life when you had more vitality, the same can be said of fixtures and landmarks that no longer serve any useful purpose. In Detroit, this can lead to wariness of other industries perceived to potentially supplant the auto industry.

People have emotional ties to this sort of stuff that prevents them from moving on, that prevents them from pushing the frontiers, that prevents them from being on the cutting edge of 21st century technology and innovation. Another manifestation of this is opposition to infrastructure upgrades, particularly the transportation grid, that might be seen as wrecking the neighborhood, such as widening a street into an arterial thoroughfare or adding a highway interchange that requires the exercise of eminent domain and the services of wrecking balls and bulldozers.

'Also, think of all the enterprises that manage to find a suitable property on which to set up shop only to have the local historical society put the kibosh on demolition and new construction plans. They cling to the remnants of the past so religiously that they are willing to chase away the future to preserve the past. They’ll mount a campaign to get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the firm will have to abandon all their best-laid plans. The jobs and the commerce that would have improved the outlook for the city’s future are forfeited.

New public buildings whose proposed plans call for demolition of existing structures may have to jump over these same hurdles. Also, when school enrollment drops to the point where closing some schools are warranted, watch neighborhoods spring into action to make sure it’s not their school that’s closing, even if a newer, safer, more useful and sustainable structure will be the new destination for the neighborhood’s students, and even if few families with school children still reside in the neighborhood compared with generations past.

There are attitudes about education and career preparation that need to change, too. I’ve been a substitute teacher in Lorain, Ohio, and there are students who actually think that they can live at their parents’ house for the rest of their lives without having to work, never mind the fact that they’ll outlive their parents, so eventually there will be no one else to support them. There are some who want to live a life of thuggery, who view time in jail as giving them some street cred, and who may even rely upon prison as a fallback option for obtaining food and shelter if they aren’t faring well out on the streets.

Others delude themselves that they’ll become a pro football player or basketball player without ever having to prepare for college in order to play at the college level. They fancy themselves as the next LeBron James or Kobe Bryant that jumps right from high school to the pros, never mind that they don’t have the work ethic of LeBron or Kobe, so they’ll never really develop their skills. They think that some recruiter will scout them out during their high school games even though their team is not a winning team, and, even at that, they can’t even log enough quality minutes to get their names printed in the sports section of their own local newspaper. There are students who plan to live in style by playing the lottery until they win that multi-million dollar jackpot because they believe the state lottery’s hype that they can get lucky and win big so long as they keep playing. No lottery ever advertises how many people lose, nor how much cash they end up losing.

There are some who fashion themselves as future rap stars, yet they have such a limited vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine them becoming accomplished wordsmiths who can string together any compelling memorable lyrics. I told a high school class that despite the high unemployment rate in Lorain, there were still high-tech, high-wage jobs that companies had difficulty finding qualified applicants for. I mentioned nursing and engineering among the examples. The students asked me, “What’s an engineer?” They didn’t know. I told them an engineer is essentially an inventor, and that local firms had to conduct national job searches to fill those jobs.

Most prospects, though, had little desire to relocate to Lorain because their skills were in demand in other places where they already had connections, such as relatives. Another reason for so little desire to relocate to Lorain is that Lorain is commonly perceived to be a drab decaying town while other cities where they can get hired are so much more vibrant. Since the companies can’t find workers willing to relocate, the companies, themselves, relocate. What we really need is home-grown talent–engineers who do not need to relocate because they already have ties here. How can we raise up a generation of engineers in our cities when the students don’t even have a clue what engineers are or what they do? The citations presented here only confirm that Detroit automakers have to go all the way out to West Coast places like Stanford to recruit qualified workers, but their efforts to entice those prospects to Detroit isn’t as fruitful as they’d like them to be. Lack of homegrown talent is killing Detroit.

Akin to political attitudes, there are the attitudes of The Powers That Be who, though they might not be politicians, they still wield power within the town. Some of those powers might be industry moguls, but there are also mafia dons in the mix. A mafia don doesn’t care, really, whether a town’s population is shrinking or not so long as no new rivals for power emerge. For such folk, a vibrant, growing city might be exactly what they don’t want, for, with all the people that a thriving city will attract, some of those new arrivals might emerge as rivals for power. To hold on to power, it’s better to shrink the town so that it isn’t at all attractive to outsiders.

Seriously, some of this decay is by design.

Youngstown, for example, an important mafia link halfway between NYC and Chicago, has its urban planners engaged in designing how to shrink the city rather than to grow it. Detroit has some huge downtown casinos that have no qualms about cannibalizing Detroit as long as they can keep separating Detroit residents from the money in their wallets. Detroit residents who’ve gambled their money away can’t very well invest in home improvements to help beautify their neighborhood.

The casinos don’t care if all the houses become dilapidated so long as their tall, sleek, always-good-as-new neon-lighted towers highlight the city’s skyline. They dupe the city into thinking that they’re revitalizing it even as they suck the lifeblood out of it, just like they dupe gamblers into thinking they’ll get lucky even as they extract every last dollar out of patrons’ pockets.

I’d spent some time configuring ways to clean up polluted brownfields in my district, but Ohio issues bonds in a statewide program to, supposedly, revitalize brownfields. The only brownfields that get revitalized, though, are the ones where companies see the value of a location but want corporate welfare, i.e., government financial assistance, to pay for the environmental cleanup. The state government pays the big bucks out of the bond funds to attract the business, but the state doesn’t get big bucks in return. It’s the company that will make the big bucks.

These bond funds provide all kinds of cover for backroom deals and political patronage while cloaking themselves in the banner of environmental protection, but the pay-to-play attitude that prevails in these negotiations behind closed doors does a disservice to Rust Belt communities. Brownfield revitalization is not prioritized according to the hazards that these properties could pose to residents.

Instead, deal-brokering rules the day as an unholy alliance between developers and politicians cherry-pick the most prime properties while none of the bond funds get allocated to clean up any properties other than those that the developers want to get their hands on. The persistent neglect of the other brownfields only heightens the perception of urban decay, which, in turn, presents obstacles to marketing the city in such a way as to attract new commerce.

I drew up lots of plans for infrastructure upgrades as well as outlines of pathways to pursue in improving educational outcomes in the local schools in order to share these ideas with editors, reporters, and voters while on the campaign trail, but attitudes, not a lack of carefully crafted proposals, were the major impediment to undertaking any revitalization initiatives, not just my own proposals, but anyone else’s as well.

About the Author: Daniel Jack Williamson is a Republican from Sandusky, Erie County, Ohio. He received his B.A.from Ohio State University where he majord in international studies. He is the publisher of

1 comment:

Mark Chesler said...

...In a June 26, 1994, Cleveland Plain Dealer article entitled Environmentalists Leery of Possible Loopholes, Chris Trepal, co-director of the Earth Day Coalition in Northeast Ohio, lambasted the enabling VAP legislation as "one of the poorest public policy measures I’ve ever seen." A clairvoyant Richard Sahli, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council, echoed his sentiment in the May 26,1994, Cincinnati Post, "We do predict there will be a lot of shoddy cleanups under this bill the state will never catch." Testifying before the House Energy & Natural Resources Committee on behalf of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, Cincinnati environmental lawyer David Altman asserted, "This bill is a definite bait-and-switch. What it is supposed to do and what it does is two different things."

A seminal, 152 page 2001 Gund Foundation funded study by the Green Environmental Council confirmed the critics’ predictions. A dearth of agency resources to provide meaningful regulatory oversight combined with the lack of a credible, established enforcement mechanism has rendered the feckless, industry aligned program toothless. "It’s a broken program - it doesn’t work," declared the council’s Bruce Cornett in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Both the Sierra Club and Ohio Citizen Action opposed the 2000 $400 million Clean Ohio state bond issue out of concern the fungible proceeds could be utilized to prop up the lame Voluntary Action Program and create a trojan horse polluters slush fund. "This is the governor's attempt to whitewash his EPA," charged Jane Forrest Redfern, environmental projects director for Ohio Citizen Action in a November 1, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer article. Dedicated professionals, veteran Ohio EPA bureaucrats attempted to rectify the problem. According to the October 4, 2000, Cleveland Plain Dealer, "EPA staffers who shared some of the environmentalists’ concerns, at one point launched a quiet but unsuccessful campaign to disband the program."

For six years after the Voluntary Action Program’s 1996 implementation, the U.S. EPA refused to extend program participants federal immunity and threatened to decertify the Ohio EPA due to the VAP’s expansive, inhibiting secrecy provisions and tangible lack of transparency. In a brokered, bifurcated modification to the Ohio VAP that "frankly doesn't make sense at all," according to Ohio Public Interest Research Group director Amy Simpson (Akron Beacon Journal, February 24, 2001), an alternative "memorandum of agreement" VAP track with enhanced public access was crafted. Companies that elect the original, opaque, "classic" option, which conceals under an embargo the extent and nature of contamination, will not be afforded U.S. EPA liability insulation. "Why Ohio would want a two-headed monster is beyond me," quipped the Ohio Environmental Council’s Jack Shaner. In SCA’s case, the jaundiced, green and incompliant wants to hide what you can’t see.

Mark Chesler
Oberlin, Ohio