Motor City breakdown

Menino oversells the role of government

“I’d blow up the place and start all over.”

That was the quip from Boston Mayor Tom Menino about Detroit that has caused such a stir. Menino’s comment, which appeared in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, prompted Detroit Mayor Dave Bing to hit back, expressing dismay that the mayor of a city that recently experienced a deadly bombing attack would use such a phrase.

Menino apologized on Wednesday for what he called a “poor choice of words.” The much more interesting part of Menino’s swipe at Detroit, however, was his suggestion that the city’s woes are largely the result of “inaction” and the absence of strong leadership.

Menino’s comments raise an important question about regional economies, municipal government, and political leadership. Just how much can the leadership of a city influence its trajectory and shape its economic fortunes? Are America’s downtrodden urban centers – places like Detroit or Gary, Indiana — mostly the victims of inaction and inept leadership, or are other, much greater forces largely responsible for their plight?

The Detroit dustup centers on an exchange toward the end of a short Q&A with Times reporter Mark Leibovich in which Menino is asked in which US city, other than Boston, he would be interested in living. Menino mentions Baltimore (“a nice little city”) and then, somewhat inexplicably, says, “Detroit is a place I’d love to go.”

“What would you do in Detroit?” Leibovich asks.

“I’d blow up the place and start all over,” says Menino. “No, seriously, when it takes a police officer 90 minutes to answer a call, there’s something wrong with the system. Forty percent of the streetlights are out, most of the buildings are boarded up. Why? Inaction, that’s the problem — leadership.”

The way political leaders are ultimately sized up is always a function of some combination of the set of skills and judgment they bring to their position, the random play of events over which no one has control (luck), and the fundamentals that are in place that favor or disfavor the place they govern.

In this equation, Menino seems to place an inordinate weight on the impact of political leaders, implying that Detroit would be a well-functioning city with solid municipal services and no blighted buildings if it had good city leadership. The reality is that political leaders can set a tone and try to shape the direction a city goes in, but they are largely powerless over the bigger forces that determine whether a city is experiencing boom or bust.

Detroit has been the victim of a decades-long slide, a downward spiral that has at its center the reliance on a single, low-skill industry that is today a shell of its former self. Municipal service delivery is clearly a mess. Some of that, no doubt, is simply because the city is broke, with an eroding tax base and the wholesale flight of nearly its entire middle class. The thousands of boarded-up houses reflect economic forces well beyond the power of municipal government to correct.

Detroit, which last month became the largest municipality in US history to file for bankruptcy, has an industrial economic base that has been decimated. Meanwhile, it has a population weighted down by extraordinarily low educational attainment levels at a time when the global economy is rewarding regions rich in knowledge-based workers and punishing ruthlessly places like Detroit that lack a high-skills workforce.

Would Detroit’s fortunes be different today had Menino presided there for the last 20 years rather than in Boston? Under his steady, constituent-focused lead, perhaps they would be better, but it’s very unlikely that they would be dramatically different. The problems Detroit faces are being driven by global economic forces that are far too strong to be turned around by even the most dogged urban mechanic.

Similarly, Menino has benefited enormously from serving during a time when Boston’s built-in assets – world-renowned health care and medical research, technology innovation, higher education, and finance – are being rewarded in the global economy like never before. That has put a tremendous shine on his tenure. To appreciate the degree to which Boston’s boom has more to do with fundamentals of our regional, knowledge-based economy than with any particular policies or politicians, look across the river to Cambridge, where science and technology companies are booming every bit as much as they are in Boston.

This is not the Boston of the 1950s or early 60s, when the Hub of the Universe was an economic backwater in decline. Nor, much to the Motor City’s detriment, is it the Detroit of that era, when the auto industry capital of the world enjoyed one of the highest median household incomes in the country. Over the last half century the two cities’ fortunes have reversed entirely.

“The underlying base of the recovery of Boston and the destruction of Detroit is our good fortune in terms of the industries we have and the misfortune of Detroit,” says Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

Bluestone, who grew up in Detroit and whose late father served as a vice president of the United Auto Workers, says political leadership surely plays an important role in how a region fares. He says Detroit has suffered in recent decades from poor leadership that was often more interested in race-based finger pointing than in tackling the city’s mounting problems (though he doesn’t put Bing in that category). He says Detroit has also been saddled with poor leadership in the corporate community, which has largely disengaged from the city’s challenges. Menino and Boston’s business and nonprofit community, on the other hand, have worked well together, says Bluestone, much to Boston’s benefit. But all of this has played out in recent decades in the context of fundamental economic attributes of the two cities that couldn’t be more different.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“You’re dealt a hand, a set of economic conditions, and you can improve upon or it not,” says Bluestone. “Detroit was dealt a bad hand and played it badly. We were dealt a great hand and played it well.”

Detroit, which has suffered from inept city government, could surely benefit from the sort of steady hand Menino has applied in Boston. Municipal corruption and weak business leadership have added further to its woes. But it’s a bit too glib to think there is a quick City Hall fix for seismic shifts in the economic order that have been dragging Detroit down for decades.