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Putting Detroit in context

The symptoms are severe — but far from unique

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With its budget in crisis — and the possibility of an imposed emergency manager looming — Detroit might seem to be a unique case among American cities.

Jarrett Murphy, editor in chief of City Limits, which focuses on the issues of New York and urban policy in general, begs to differ. "If there is a difference, it's a difference in degree and not the underlying quality or characteristics of the problems it's facing," he says, putting Detroit in the broader urban context. 

Adds Murphy: "I imagine people in Detroit think their city's an outlier. I think people in most troubled cities think that they live in an outlier. But that's not the case if you're talking about either the history of cities and federal policy about them over the past 40 years, or you're talking about what cities have gone through in the past three or four years with the economic crisis. Detroit might be suffering the most severe symptoms, but the symptoms aren't distinct from a lot of other cities." Like big cities in general, he adds that in addition to a collapse of manufacturing: "You've got population loss, you've got the inevitable effect of that on a city's finances in terms of the fact the cities always have a higher burden to carry in terms of the services they need to provide and support for both their residents and people who work there. And they have to do it on a declining tax base, and they have to do it despite facing political opposition from the rest of their state and it might affect how revenues are redistributed." 

And, once again, though Detroit's issues are severe with the emergency manager looming, the fiscal weakness of cities creates concerns — or from another perspective, opportunities — for the imposition of a conservative agenda "that is anchored by privatization and decrease in public oversight and a weakening of public ownership." 

"Whether this is a deliberate effort, whether this is a target of opportunity, whether it's a coincidence, it's almost sort of secondary to the idea that this is indeed what's happening," he says.

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