Look at Detroit, an utter basket case of a city, bankrupt and seemingly beyond hope, and marvel at how different and how much better off is Boston. But the line between Boston and Detroit is short. Detroit’s downfall could, in the not-so-recent past, have been Boston’s too, and it might be again. The fortunes of cities — ascendant or descendent — are no accident, but rather a consequence of conscious choices. It’s a sobering reminder during this year’s mayor’s race: the next man or woman in charge risks losing it all.
In 1950, Detroit, with 138 square miles, had a population of 1.8 million, making it the fourth-most populous in the country. Today it’s just a shade over 700,000. Once densely packed and vibrant, vast stretches are now empty and desolate. Over 78,000 buildings stand abandoned. Half of its 305,000 properties can’t pay the property tax they owe. The unemployment rate is 16.3 percent, more than double the nation’s average. City services — police, fire, road work, and the like — are spotty and underfunded. Middle-class residents have fled; those left are poor and predominantly African-American. And the latest blow: Last week the city filed for bankruptcy. The state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, estimates Detroit owes over $18 billion.