The decline of the manufacturing Rust Belt has been one of the great American tragedies associated with the decline of the Blue Model. Once vibrant, working-class cities have become hollowed-out crime-ridden shells of their former selves. Decades of well-meaning attempts to deal with this have so far produced a confusing hodgepodge of conflicting policies which have yet to show many results. In a long and very worthwhile city profile in the New York Times, Jonathan Mahler looks at the impact of these plans on a small, mostly poor and mostly African-American city in Michigan where appointed state officials have replaced a failed local government:
Harris is Benton Harbor’s “emergency manager.” He was first sent to the town in April 2010 under a law that provided the state with limited authority to intervene in the financial affairs of failing cities. His power grew exponentially last spring when Governor Snyder and the state’s Republican Legislature passed Public Act 4, which allows emergency managers to renegotiate or terminate contracts, change collective-bargaining agreements, even dissolve local governments (subject to the governor’s approval). They have almost unfettered control over their respective cities. This approach to governing is still in its infancy, but if it proves successful in Benton Harbor and elsewhere, emergency managers could be dispatched to troubled municipalities across the state. […]Over the course of the night, Lange circled the various hotspots — parks, parking lots, stoops — where people tend to collect to play dice or buy and sell drugs (generally crack, heroin or cocaine) and dispersed the gathering crowds. “I’ve found that this has cut down on a lot of the violent crime,” he told me. “When people gamble, they’re going to get mad.” He stopped frequently to move small children out of the streets and back into their homes: “How you doin’? Where’s your parents?” […]Of course, golf is integral to the plan. A national golf program for underprivileged youth will have a state-of-the-art training facility at Harbor Shores, and the high-school golf team is using Harbor Shores as its home course. (A member of the girls’ team hit one of the first holes-in-one there.) Harbor Shores will also host the 2012 and 2014 Senior P.G.A. Tour Championships, which are expected to bring 10,000 to 15,000 visitors a day to Benton Harbor. “Hopefully, when they get off the course, they’ll come over here and party with us,” a real-estate agent who sells Harbor Shores homes told me one afternoon in the Arts District.
The article touches on nearly every program ever dreamed up for distressed cities: luxury developments, boosting tourism, urban revitalization, cutting budgets, new police methods and emergency government management have all been contemplated and tried, with varying degrees of success. Yet each of these proposals comes with a downside — a new golf course and a hipper downtown may bring in rich visitors, but the associated gentrification could push out the city’s poorest inhabitants. Similarly, emergency management by the state makes it easy to bypass corrupt city governments, but disenfranchises the population. Finally, a great deal of taxpayer money has been spent on the city, and there seems to be precious little in the way of growth to show for the investment.Fixing America will be hard. Megan McArdle has been writing some brilliant posts over at The Atlantic on the thicket of problems involved in fighting poverty and helping poor communities. Benton Harbor, despite its ability to attract nonprofit money for its redevelopment efforts, is a particularly tough case. A poor, badly educated population deeply alienated from mainstream society and without a strong (and honest) indigenous political leadership is going to have to walk before it can run. Nobody can predict what will work and what will not and some communities will never come back.Read the whole thing.