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Gary, Indiana: The New Detroit?

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We got trouble, right here in Gary, Indiana. Business Insider reports that the city is practically a wasteland, with 6, 500 of 7,000 public properties abandoned. And that’s not all:

Things are getting so bad that Gary officials are thinking about cutting off city services to about 40 percent of the city’s land and moving residents to more viable parts of Gary, NBC reports. This is a drastic move, but it may be necessary as the thousands of abandoned properties are attracting criminals.

What went wrong in Gary is no mystery, and not very different from what happened in Detroit. Corrupt and incompetent governance, with a one party local establishment and a venal union leadership in cahoots combined with the erosion of manufacturing to drive a great American city into ruins. We suspect that the coroner’s report on the city will include some of the sweetheart deals with politically connected Wall Street firms that we’ve seen in both Detroit and Birmingham. And once the harsh light of day shines on the city’s pension plans, we suspect that some nasty surprises will pop; urban political machines thrive on pension mismanagement.

The financial crisis of 2008-9 accelerated the deterioration in municipal finances and set off an avalanche of large scale local government bankruptcies. Jefferson countySonoma countyStockton, San Bernardino have all fallen off the cliff and now Gary is headed for disaster. The economic recovery now taking place will, we hope, pick up steam and give troubled cities a respite. But if cities, counties and even states like Illinois don’t make some big changes, the problems will only grow worse.  City services, including education, will deteriorate and millions of lives will be blighted by bad governance and knee-jerk blue thinking.

The transition from an industrial economy to an information economy is a tough and wrenching one; bad governance, corruption, and knee-jerk adherence to blue model thinking will just make things worse.


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  • VanSpeyk

    Professor Mead,

    Sir- Reading my newspaper last week, I learned that you recently visited my country – the Netherlands. It saddens me that I became aware of this only after the fact. I would have liked to ask you a few questions regarding your on going reporting of the tragic fate of Detroit. I hope that you allow me to do this now.

    You often blame the problems of that city, which are massive, on the domination of city politics by one party, specifically the Democratic party. However, how do you explain the differences between Detroit and that other city which is solidly ‘blue model’, namely Portland, Oregon? By contrast, Portland is doing great and so is Sweden, a country dominated by social-democrats for decades.

    Shouldn’t we be honest here and open our eyes to the fact that the real reason that Detroit suffers from African-levels of crime, corruption and decay is that it is dominated by African-Americans? You now mention Gary, Indiana as suffering from the same problems as Detroit. Are you aware of that city’s demographics? Here, I looked it up:,_Indiana#2010_census

    Do you really think the old saw ‘demography is destiny’ is not in order here? Just like Scandinavians re-created their homeland in the Midwestern states, so it seems have African-Americans in the cities where they predominate. Why is this so hard to admit?

    I can sympathize up to a point. After all, if even James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, could be crushed for voicing his opinion that racial equality is not supported by the evidence, then what chance does a respected historian such as yourself have against the inevitable onslaught? Still, I think you have a duty to report the truth. Your people are counting on elites such as yourself to guide them during this era where so many of their natural leaders have betrayed them (think Mr. Clinton celebrating white dispossession).

    Van Speyk

    • Anthony

      Not speaking for WRM (he’s quite able to do that for himself), yet I am compelled to address a specious proposition concerning both Gary Indiana and Detroit Michigan social and economic demise. As citizen of both Protestant and Europe Netherlands, your interactions with Africans have maritime context. However, your extrapolation to black Americans may need more than logistical empiricism. Detroit and Gary are both rust belt cities in crisis. Yes, both have/had democratic governance and large scale inmigration prior to WWII of native blacks. Similarities to examples you posited are like comparing apples to oranges (forgive trite cliche). Gary and Detroit are municipalities within U.S. Federalism while Sweden, Netherlands, etc. are nation states with distinct institutional historical dynamics (in in elementary logic a false analogy). Nevertheless, your assertion that both cities have majority black populations ergo common cause of demise resemble circular thinking (similar to early 20th century dismissal of Leakey’s theorem). Moreover, you upbraid WRM for eschewing “race talk” in drawing your hasty generalization but perhaps as an American with both southern roots and Anglo Saxon heritage WRM understands institutional differences across the Atlantic vis-a-vis black Americans and/or Africans require more nuance. I’ll conclude with this: poverty and prosperity are determined by institutions; and politics (governance) determines what institutions a nation has or its municipalities.

    • foobarista

      Frankly, it may be a timing issue. NYC or even seemingly well-managed “blue” places like San Jose, CA aren’t all that much better off than Detroit in terms of having huge pension hangovers, too much highly-paid city bureaucracy, etc. I don’t know much about Portland’s city finances, but other cities in Oregon aren’t doing that well. Detroit had a double-whammy of expensive governance with a near-complete loss of its industrial base (due in large part to bad governance). At least San Jose has decent weather and a white-collar tech economy that isn’t quite as exposed to government stupidity as blue-collar metal-bending jobs. (It isn’t as exposed because tech work isn’t unionized even in CA, isn’t as exposed to workman’s comp, etc.)

  • bpuharic

    WRM’s anti-union bias continues to be on full display

    The fact is corruption is endemic in America, whether in Gary or in LA or TX. Unions can be corrupt but his simplistic, childlike faith in the market has been shown to be wanting

    Unions have great potential to act as a check on unrestricted corporate power…which is exactly why corporations destroyed them

    I’ve been to Gary many times and the situation is a bit more complex. The reliance on steel, manufacturing, etc., all played a role. But to blame unions is ridiculous. After all, unions played NO role in the 2007 depression caused by 30 years of Supply side economics.

  • ljgude

    I used to live a few miles north of Gary on Chicago’s south side in the lat 60s. 40% of a city abandoned! That is a dramatic sign of something. Blue model failure? I think that is a fair take, but America has a longer history of decay and renewal that I am aware of at my current age of 70. In September of 1960 my father took me to college. After we had parked the car near 114th Street and Broadway just south of the campus my father looked around and expressed astonishment at how much the neighborhood had deteriorated. He had graduated in ’35. Take the train from DC north to NY and New England and you will see the ruins of late 19th and early 20th century industrial America. It is the scale of the current destruction in Detroit and Gary that tells us something is amiss. There are other examples of devastation. Like the thin strips of prosperity near interstates with decay beyond. The particular social and economic decay of central California so vividly described by Victor Davis Hanson. I think part of this decay is caused by the restless American quest for the new that is always moving on and abandoning the past. And part of it too is system failure. WRM’s iron triangle of Big Business, Big Government and Big Labor – the core of the Blue model – ceasing to function in the information age as it did in the industrial age.

  • john70

    2010 Census – Gary, Indiana – The racial makeup of the city was 84.8% African American… (wikipedia).

    2010 Census – Detroit, Michigan – The racial composition of the city was 82.7% Black or African American… (wikipedia)

    Any other discussion is useless.

  • john70

    I forgot to mention that Vermont too has a big government and it is a very blue state (socialist). Still, Vermont is looking much better than Detroit and Gary. So, it’s not necessarily the policies, it is the people.

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