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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.


A great American city, now deeply, abjectly, humbled.

And Boston? It's smaller than Detroit — only 48 square miles — and went through its own loss of population, from 801,000 in 1950 to a low of 563,000 in 1980. An observer at the time might have thought the futures of both cities to be alike. But Boston's story took a very different turn. Since 1980 the population has slowly climbed; it's now 636,000. Middle-class families in Boston stayed, and now the city is seeing a flood of newcomers. White flight has reversed, especially among the young, the college-degreed, and empty nesters. Detroit's per-capita income is $15,261; Boston's is $33,158. Only 12 percent of those living in Detroit have a college degree. In Boston, the figure is 43 percent. Far from bankrupt, Boston's finances are solid and its budget balanced. Business is booming as well, reflected in a low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent.

The difference between the two, I think, comes down to basics and in particular, to one key essential: public safety. In 1980, both cities had reputations as crime-ridden and dangerous. Over time, even as crime rates dropped nationally, Detroit just got worse. Last year's homicide rate was the highest ever, and the city regularly ranks as the most dangerous in the country. During the same period, crime in Boston dropped precipitously, thanks in large measure to a series of crime-fighting reforms dubbed the "Boston Miracle." Boston was soon being called one of the nation's safest big cities.


It seems pretty clear that, in general, people like living in cites. They relish the diversity, the intensity of entertainment options, and the constant, stimulating change. But safety concerns can easily trump all of that. A murder the next street over, a neighbor getting mugged, and pretty soon the "for sale" signs are up. The borders of cities are porous; no wall keeps in people or businesses. If crime rises, nearby communities beckon. Those who can afford to leave do so. Those who can't afford to leave stay. And, as the levels of wealth and income drop, so does the tax base. That forces city services to be cut, which in turn pushes people out even more.

It's a vicious cycle, the result of which is Detroit. Conversely, improve public safety and the cycle becomes virtuous — the result of which is Boston.

To date, much of the Boston mayor’s race has focused on higher-level matters, such as managing downtown development. These are the kind of concerns one has when everything else is going right — the problems of success, if you will. But of late worries about crime have re-emerged. Gun violence is up; the specter of the Marathon bombings continues to loom. The candidates are starting to talk more about public safety and that is as it should be. It’s the core issue, the criterion by which those who want to be mayor should be judged. Get it wrong, and Motor City here we come.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com