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Tough Choices in the Rust Belt

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.

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  • LarryD

    My thesis is that these cities suffer, first and foremost, from bad governance.

    In addition to the corruption, their city governments have started pursuing policies that the elite urban gentry like, but are bad for everyone else. Basically, de-industrialization. Industry is so ugly and dirty, you know. And it makes the working class so bourgeois, can’t have that.

  • TeeJaw

    Maybe these emergency managers might try reading about Sir John Cowperthwaite and learn how he brought untold prosperity to Hong Kong.

  • Anthony

    WRM: nasty, brutish, and short… – Thomas Hobbes.

  • a nissen

    Type “Detroit light rail decision” into your browser search line today and up comes a screenful of the pros and cons about Detroit finally being encouraged to do the right thing and change its mass transit planing from light rail to bus rapid transit so as get more of its people sooner to the jobs that now exist only for those with a car. The WSJ story that alerted me focuses on that point, to its credit.

    Rather elementary, if not but for corporate statism, the snowed idealists in its tow, and the forced gains increasingly fissuring the rest of us into two phony camps—to confirm the growing fissure, check out the comments at WRM’s link to the Atlantic blog that in other times would be called more innocuous than brilliant. Wow.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The Government Monopoly does not and cannot create productive jobs. Every dollar the Government spends is capital that had to be taken first from where it was working in the private economy. Trying to save cities and towns that have failed or are failing, because they have done and continue to do stupid things, is a waste of money that would have provided the capital for real productive jobs. The Blue model must DIE, putting it on life support just prolongs the agony.

  • Anthony

    “Fixing America will be hard” WRM and Mahler and McArdle speak to difficulties; entrenchment of culture and attitudes reflecting poverty as emphasized by you, Mahler, and McArdle implies the problems. Yet, I think Marcus Muhammad gets to nub of redevelopment ideas and purposes in places like Benton Harbor – gentification where possible.

    I think regarding issues of enduring disaffection/alienation/poverty/etc. you can envision a chicken or egg conundrum. That is, given that 46.2 million Americans (“they are low-wage workers, single mothers, disabled veterans,the elderly, marginalized factory workers, the severely mental ill, the formerly incarcerated, the undereducated, and the fallen middle class….”) live below poverty line can economic transformations and blue model policies be indicted solely? Perhaps, WRM, systemic arrangements, self-valuation, and capital markets (operative, not formal) provide feed back loop. In one respect you are right: no one can predict what will work;
    but we need to ask ourselves if the Benton Harbors reflex more than programmatic/institutional inadequacies – also, we ought to ask why broad populace in these places appears not seriously concerned about its destiny in a democratic system.

    Earlier in another post, I quoted Thomas Hobbes. I should have counterbalanced with human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse… – John Stuart Mill.

  • Pete Dellas

    It’s simple, really: Just as government didn’t build the city but, rather, industry did as the result of workers needing housing in close proximity to their employment, so government can’t save the city but, rather, some form of industry can. Governments can’t create the jobs necessary to lift people out of poverty and reliance. Only industry can do that. Therefore, all government must do is to get out of the way of industry and the problem will eventually be solved by businessmen who can exploit the unused and available labor force. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, the free market has been the greatest force in history to lift people out of poverty.

  • Ranger Rick

    Even among rust belt cities, the severity of Benton Harbor’s troubles are almost unique (though Detroit itself comes close). For over thirty years, it continually elected for itself progressively more corrupt mayors and city councils, who promised their constituents unlimited goodies from the public purse. Once in office, the scoundrels did a very good job of embezzling every nickel they could find. By the late 1990s, nearly everything in the public trust that wasn’t nailed down had been taken by the procession of ever worse office-holders.

    Simply giving the place over to a broke State government for oversight, while long overdue, will not be enough to reverse the slide. Industry no longer needs the Lake Michigan access that was the basis for the prosperity Benton Harbor enjoyed at the turn of the last century. And the Greater Chicago Area (of which Benton Harbor finds itself on the extreme periphery) is over-saturated with luxury golf complexes as it is. There are 2 other luxury courses within Berrien County (ie, within 30 minutes on I-94), plus a free public course in Benton Harbor itself.

    Simply put, other than as a charity case, there is no reason for the city to exist. Whirlpool maintains its corporate HQ there, with an attached research facility. However, the employees for that site largely live in neighboring St Joseph, and actual manufacturing is handled elsewhere. Until it creates its own reason to live, the city will continue its death spiral.

  • FeFe

    I fail to see any gain in the obsession with sports programs “for underprivileged youth” over the last 40 years. Academic performance nor transferable life skills have cause to preen. They seem the conduit to promote personality over sportsmanship, and higher education over being productive.

  • goodonyaa

    It seems a tried and untrue method of urban renewal, in which affluence and the affluent are imported, but little to nothing is done for the existing residents. There is no “economic agency” in a luxury resort for the poor residents of Benton Harbor, and by that I mean a large number of living wage jobs for locals to shore up the economy and tax base. This resort will provide a relatively small number of jobs for the locals, primarily in the traditionally low-wage hospitality sector. The few well-compensated management jobs are sure to be filled with outsiders.

    I don’t envy the state of Michigan for having to deal with an economic basket case like Benton Harbor, which is probably the worst of many in that state. However, this resort just doesn’t pass the smell test.

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