Cities filing for bankruptcy is old news. Hundreds of American municipalities and counties have gone bankrupt over the years — almost three dozen just since 2000.
Detroit's announcement of bankruptcy last week was hardly surprising given the well-chronicled decline of what was once America's fourth-largest city and a symbol of U.S. industrial dominance.
"Ruin porn" documentaries about Detroit's collapse — a downward spiral of crime, corruption, white flight, drug addiction, blight, and a shrinking tax base — are so prevalent as to constitute a legitimate film sub-genre.
Detroit's bankruptcy was shocking only because of the crushing size of the problem: $18-20 billion in debt and huge pension obligations.
The bankruptcy also struck a chord for its subtext, a chord which rings all the way down from Michigan to moss-draped Savannah.
In many quarters the word "Detroit" is less a place name than a euphemism. Judging from the online comments on many a Savannah Morning News story, to some people it's unfortunately become shorthand for any majority-black city with a predominantly African American power structure.
This kind of talk became commonplace in the wake of the 1999 election, in which Savannah City Council had a black majority for the first time. "Savannah is the new Detroit," "Savannah is just like Detroit," "Welcome to Detroit," etc.
It's true that Detroit — despite calamitous population loss that now ranks it below Jacksonville — is still the nation's largest majority-black city. And it's true that Detroit is the most extreme example of white flight in U.S. history, a phenomenon spurred by race riots in the '60s and made worse by globalization and economic downturn.
(Among other things, the easy racial generalization ignores the fact that what was the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, before Detroit's, happened in Stockton, California — a majority-white city with a lower percentage of black population than the nation as a whole.)
The prolific documentaries about Detroit take time to morbidly dwell on the huge swaths of the city which are almost completely barren, houses going for a dollar, some areas so desolate and untended that they're classified as "urban prairie."
But you can find little Detroits everywhere in this country. And they're populated by all kinds of people.
Take a road trip on the lonely two-lanes throughout Georgia and the Carolinas. Drive through the little towns which are barely dots on the map. The scene is distressingly repetitious and familiar.
There are dozens of tiny Detroits throughout these semi-rural areas — hollowed out little towns, once-prosperous Main Streets all boarded up, mind-numbing poverty, no jobs and no prospects.
But always, always plenty of drugs.
Sparta, Ga., was once one of the wealthiest cities in the state. It's now the poorest, where people steal copper from air conditioning units just to buy food. Or drugs.
The once-glorious antebellum homes in Montezuma, Ga., have smashed windows covered with billowing plastic trash bags. The only people with jobs there are the small community of Mennonites.
Off the media radar, huge portions of the United States are at Detroit-like levels of annihilation and desolation, crime and corruption. They just don't have the notoriety of the Motor City, nor the easy stereotypes.
Go to Rutland, Vermont, or Eugene, Oregon, or Chattanooga, Tennessee — smaller cities absolutely ravaged by meth.
"Breaking Bad" is set in New Mexico for a reason.
From city streets to countryside, anywhere there is economic collapse, there is misery and desolation and despair and drugs and crime.
There are a few red flags in Detroit's experience that apply to Savannah, none of which directly involve race. For one, there is definitely the danger of a shrinking tax base combined with outstanding obligations. For another, the ratio of renters to homeowners here remains too high.
But that said... Savannah isn't Detroit.
Detroit's reliance on the auto industry made it the first and worst casualty of world globalization. Its high-paying, highly skilled union jobs were the first targets of the "free trade" worldwide race to the bottom.
By contrast, Savannah has a diversified economy, with a wide range of jobs in different fields. They're not especially high-paying, but they're mostly immune to larger damaging trends.
We have a strong educational community here, which contributes important intellectual capital to the local economy.
And if anything, Savannah is seeing the opposite of white flight, as downtown gentrification continues apace and the African American population shifts to the formerly all-white suburbs.
The next time some nimrod on the internet tells you that "Savannah is the next Detroit," you could more accurately respond that "Savannah was the next Detroit."
The closest Savannah came to being Detroit was in the '60s and early '70s, when white flight left downtown a hollow shell with little foot or auto traffic.
The only good jobs were at the paper mill. No SCAD, no Midnight, no Paula Deen.
Savannah survived that trying time. Detroit didn't.
If Detroit is America's tale of urban apocalypse, in many ways Savannah is America's urban success story. We've come so far as a city in such a short length of time.
Savannah is long past any chance of being the "next Detroit." Indeed, you could make the case that Detroit now is fleetingly positioned to be the next Savannah.
With much worse weather, of course. Nobody can fix that.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.