Michael Barone
Detroit, once one of the nation's most vibrant cities, faces imminent bankruptcy. That's the headline from the report last month of emergency fiscal manager Kevyn Orr, issued 45 days after he was appointed this spring by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to take over the city's government.

"The path Detroit has followed for more than 40 years is unsustainable," Orr said, "and only a complete restructuring of the city's finances and operations will allow Detroit to regain its footing and return to a path of prosperity."

The police department, his report says, "is in disarray." Nearly one-quarter of fire department operations could be "largely inoperational" on any given day. The city-owned electric grid "has been a disaster," and the city's water system, which serves a region with 4 million people, "has a history of dysfunction."

The city's 78,000 vacant structures and 60,000 vacant land parcels "present an ongoing public safety and public health concern."

It's a tragic situation that could be regarded as just the fault of corrupt public officials. The most recent former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, has gone to prison.

So has former City Council President Pro Tem Monica Conyers, the wife of 48-year congressman John Conyers.

But Detroit's problems are more fundamental. Detroit is an extreme case, but similar problems afflict many of our central cities.

As it happens, I was, in some small sense, present at the creation. I grew up in Detroit and in affluent suburban Birmingham, and in the summer of 1967, I was an intern in the office of liberal Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh.

That was the summer of Detroit's six-day riot, in which 40 people were killed. Part of the time, I found myself in the misnamed command center with the mayor and Gov. George Romney.

In my childhood, Detroit was proud of being the fifth-largest American city, the center of the auto industry and the home of Hudson's, the nation's second-largest department store.

Detroit's inventors, entrepreneurs and financiers made it the second-fastest growing city from 1900 to 1930, behind only Los Angeles, which started off much smaller.

Newcomers poured in from eastern and southern Europe, from the farmlands of the Midwest and Ontario, from the hills of Appalachia and the Black Belt of Alabama to work in the factories.

Detroit was the prime example of what I have called "Big Unit America," in which the heads of large organizations -- big business, big labor, big government -- made the big decisions and the hundreds of thousands of people below them, small cogs in a very large machine, carried them out.


Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM