A series of photos from the British newspaper The Guardian is making its way around the internet. Titled "Detroit in Ruins," the photos are both sad and terrifying: the pocked facade of Michigan Central Station, the cobwebby vault of the United Artists movie palace, a dentist's chair and drill between peeling walls of the Broderick Tower, the East Side Public Library with dusty books littering the floor. Detroit has been compared to a war zone and a Third World country, but these photos resemble a post-apocalyptic movie. A scene from the 1961 version of The Time Machine comes to mind, when Rod Taylor picks up a book in a ruined library, and it crumbles in his hands.
The only time I visited Detroit was on a church bus trip in 1965, when we had breakfast in a coffee shop downtown before crossing over into Canada. For a long time I kept a through-the-window snapshot of a clean street busy with pedestrians of all ages and colors. I don't know what the same street would look like now, and my knowledge of Detroit today is second-hand. But my husband, whose only visit took place four years ago, was shocked.
Everyone wants to know the reasons, and there are many. The decline of its major industry, the corruption and incompetence of its government, an over-reliance on federal assistance, a tendency of its voters to elect symbols rather than substance, all share some blame. But other cities have had the same problems without this degree of desolation. It may be that Detroit has passed, or is passing, a tipping point, when the gravitational pull is almost too strong to resist.
That would be tragic, for a metropolis that was the incubator of the industrial middle class, the pulsing heart of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "arsenal of democracy," and home to thousands of decent hard-working Americans who care deeply about the place but feel powerless. But bone-headed decisions that do not address any of the real problems are still being made.
For example, the Detroit Free Press just reported that the public school system will spend $49 million in federal stimulus money to distribute laptops to sixth- through12th-grade students. This is a school district where students often can't take textbooks home because there aren't enough to go around, where the graduation rate hovers around 25 percent, and more than a quarter of school buildings have closed. The intentions are probably good, but this sounds like another of those symbol-over-substance decisions.
Computers are worse than useless to a student who has not learned to comprehend a text and prioritize its content, but as long as we're talking symbols, what does it mean to pass out laptops in a city that won't pick up its library books? Where abandoned buildings tilt crazily and pose a hazard to firefighters because there's no money to clear them away? Where the Motown Center, abandoned for 30 years with sheet music and artifacts still inside, is finally razed in 2006 to build a parking lot for the Super Bowl?
"If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3) It may not be too late to rebuild Detroit, but the first step is repairing the foundations, not splurging on electronics.