A Heartbreaker Named Detroit

As a native Milwaukeean, Detroit breaks my heart. There are just a few cities that you can go to that you remind you of home. Chicago and Cleveland are the big two. Cincinnati is reminiscent, but a bit too southern. Detroit — or what used to be left of Detroit — was another. (Minneapolis is an entirely different kind of place.)

So pieces like Matt LaBash’s recent cover piece for the Weekly Standard disturb me. Websites like this one are fascinating and frightening chronicles of how bad urban decay can get. I have always thought that a conservatism that has no concern for places like the inner-city of Detroit is not a conservatism that I want to be part of.

But one cannot, I think, make a great city by litigation or subsidy. Here in Milwaukee, the ACLU has filed a complaint with the Federal Department of Transportation alleging that actions of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in approving the certain aspects of the reconstruction of I-94, including the partial closure of a city interchange and the construction of a new suburban interchange, violate the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VI and its implementing regulations. It also complains of a decision to widen the freeway (which runs through the city) from six to eight lanes instead of using the money for commuter rail.

What interests me about the complaint is that it is based upon highly contested propositions of what will best serve minority communities in the city of Milwaukee. The proposed changes, it says, discourage development in the city closer to the areas in which minorities live (although the interchange to be partially closed is in a predominantly white part of the city) and, since minorities are less likely to have cars, they are less likely to benefit from freeway construction.

Title VI does have broad anti-discrimination provisions but applying them here would seem to require resort to standards that the statute does not supply. Are minorities hurt or helped by greater access to and from outlying areas. There is a body of thought that holds that, if you make it harder to get in and out of the city, the city will prosper.

While that may have been an effective argument in 1956, I am not so sure that it works any longer, and  Detroit, it seems, provides some evidence for my skepticism.

While today we think of the demise of Detroit with the fall of the auto industry, the death of the former preceded the decline of the latter. Detroit long ago became the hole in a metropolitan donut.  As Labash reports, a thriving Chrysler left the city’s Highland Park for Auburn Hills because, among other things, the occasional bullet would whiz across its property. The tragedy, of course, is that while Chrysler left, the bullets still fly. Transportation policy could not have prevented and cannot reverse what happened.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that transportation policy can’t have an impact on metropolitan areas.

But I’m interested in the larger question that the complaint raises about the use of anti-discrimination laws in this way. It is one thing to interpret anti-discrimination laws to prevent the exclusion of minorities and quite another to interpret them to compel policies that are thought to serve the interests of minority groups as envisioned by a certain set of ideological presuppositions. I understand that you can call the failure to do so “discrimination” and “advancing minority interests” is a standard of sorts.

But it does not seem to be one that is capable of judicial application without essentially calling upon judges to act in accordance with their individual policy preferences. Returning to my earlier remark about a conservative urbanism, a conservative judge might find another set of policies — i.e., those thought to discourage marriage or to inhibit effective law enforcement — as disserving the interests of minorities.

Cross posted at PrawfsBlawg and Shark and Shepherd.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rolando Mintos

    Very powerful content.

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