Detroit in Ruins

Detroit has become the largest city in the nation’s history to declare bankruptcy, filing for Chapter 9 protection on July 18. The move comes after a nearly six-decade decline in the city’s financial fortunes. Here’s a look at the blight that has overtaken many parts of the city, and a look back at the destruction of earlier upheavals.

According to emergency manager Kevyn Orr, 38% of the city’s budget is being spent on “legacy costs,” mainly pension and debt service. Orr halted payment on $2 billion in debt in June. The city faces total liabilities of about $18 billion.

Orr has submitted a reorganization plan to help the city deal with $11.5 billion in pension, retiree benefit, and unsecured debt payments it cannot afford to pay. Unions have vowed to fight the cuts in court, but have so far not threatened to strike.

Said Michigan governor Rick Snyder, in approving the bankruptcy filing: “The fiscal realities confronting Detroit have been ignored for too long. I’m making this tough decision so the people of Detroit will have the basic services they deserve and so we can start to put Detroit on a solid financial footing.”

The bankruptcy filing comes as city services are stretched to the breaking point. Among the problems: 30,000 broken streetlights (about 40% of the total), served by a power grid that is “deteriorating,” with 31 sub-stations in need of decommissioning.

Police forces have been reduced by more than 40% over the last decade. Fire stations are described by city officials as “old and not adequately maintained.” City vehicles are deemed “aging” and “poorly maintained.”

There are an estimated 78,000 blighted buildings, meaning they are either in ruins or abandoned. Two-thirds of the city’s parks have been closed since 2009.

As business has fled or gone bankrupt over the last decade, high unemployment has contributed to the erosion of the city’s tax base.

Attempts to lure businesses to Detroit have not been able to stem the tide.

The city’s population has fallen to just 700,000 residents, dropping 26% in just the decade from 2000 to 2011. Pictured, a blighted neighborhood stands within sight of the giant Chrysler Motors building in the distance. [Sorry, but that’s General Motors. Chrysler is in Auburn Hills.]

Detroit’s violent crime rate is five times the national average, and the highest of any city larger than 200,000 residents.

Scenes of Detroit’s decline are everywhere.

FIGHTING BLIGHT: Numerous private and charitable organizations have attempted to alleviate problems associated with so many blighted and abandoned buildings.

INDUSTRIAL DEVOLUTION: Factories and industrial and commercial buildings have been abandoned across the city.

NEIGHBORHOOD NIGHTMARES: Thousands of private homes have been abandoned or foreclosed, leaving formerly teeming neighborhoods more like ghost towns.

SUMMER OF FIRE: Detroit faced a civil crisis that shook the city for decades afterwards during the long, hot summer of 1967. The “12th Street Riot” erupted on July 23 after a police raid on an unlicensed bar. The violence that followed exposed the raw state of race relations in the city.

The riot lasted for five days, with news reports filled with allegations of looting assaults, beatings, and deaths.

Then-Governor George Romney sent in thousands of National Guard troops to help restore order, and President Lyndon Johnson ordered paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne to provide assistance.

More than 4,000 persons were arrested over the course of the riot.

The final toll would count more than 40 deaths, hundreds injured, and $50 million in property damage.

A presidential commission, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, investigated the causes of the riots, and placed the problem in stark racial terms. Read the report: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Race riots had occurred in Detroit as far back as 1863, and a major outbreak of violence occurred in 1941 even as the city’s manufacturing plants were busily feeding the war effort. Before federal troops could quell the violence that year, 25 black residents and nine whites lay dead.Attempts to lure businesses to Detroit have not been able to stem the tide.