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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Detroit’s Snow Policy

The collapse of community surfaced with a vengeance in Detroit, Michigan recently when the snow started falling on January 2, 1999. Twenty one inches of snow fell over the next two weeks and city officials still had not plowed the residential streets.

That is not an oversight. It is a policy of many years standing. “Side-streets” are not plowed. To illustrate the policy, regardless of weather extremes in a regularly wintry city, there are only 59 plows for 2,400 miles of roadway — far, far less than other northern cities of comparable size.

This studied incapacity to perform a vital city service for its residents has led to predictable outcomes. Emergency vehicles cannot reach homes. People slip and fall in the snow hardened with ice. Many cannot get to work on time, if at all. Schools are closed. The elderly are endangered.

The Postal authorities on January 14th announced that mail carriers will honk their horns, like the Good Humor man, to let residents know they are there so that people can hazard into the drifts to pick up their mail — their bills and notices.

At the same time, the city Department of Public Works says the storms have cost $2.5 million — $1 million more than the department had budgeted for snow removal all year. Note that this sum is for the nation’s tenth largest city with a population of one million. This sum is also equal to what Chrysler’s president, Robert Eaton, makes in less than 10 days from his huge compensation package.

The Mayor, Dennis Archer, behaves as if he is out of central casting for a movie about bumblers. He finally asks the city council for more money two weeks after the storm froze Detroit. He asks the state of Michigan for financial assistance. He asks the federal government to declare a state of emergency in order to obtain federal funds to plow the residential roadways.

Run this scenario of metropolitan incapacity and desperationpast the good burghers of Snow Capital Buffalo, New York which already has received nearly five feet of snow and you’ll be greeted with disbelief or worse. I’ve been in Buffalo during and after large snowfalls years ago, before the stunning technological developments of late 20th century America, and the streets were cleared quickly. So were the sidewalks by people who owned homes and stores and believed that doing this was just doing what comes naturally in a civil society.

I grew up in a hilly Connecticut town of 10,000 population. After great snowfalls, the streets were cleared faster than they are now with far more modest equipment. But even now, my home town gets the job done overnight or the following day for an area almost the size of Manhattan Island.

What’s going on then in Detroit — the Motor City for the world’s largest automobile industry? Abandoned by its corporate rulers and its political governors, that’s what.

The corporate bosses do not live in Detroit. They live in nearby wealthy Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills where their streets are smooth and clear. GM headquarters in Detroit is accessible to these executives because they are on main thoroughfares that are plowed.

GM is more experienced in getting rather than giving. What these bosses have demanded from City Hall are subsidy packages and property tax abatements, including one amounting to $350 million for one factory. Reporting hyper-record profits for years, GM and Chrysler (Ford Motor Co. is in Dearborn) could have donated the money for more plows and/or contributed more trucks for a week or two. These companies are, after all, in the transportation business. But they lack civic pride and civic responsibility.

As for the city officials, so much discredit has been heaped upon them by the people that they cannot get enough volunteers out to clear the streets and some of the remaining schools that are still snowbound. What are we paying our taxes for, declared some Detroiters.

Here and there were demonstrations of community spirit. For a week, 150 homeless men working with a group called Operation GetDown have been “digging out the homes of pregnant women”, the Detroit Free Press reported. Several small businesses lent their trucks, snowblowers and shovels.

The Detroit city government has been pressured repeatedly to produce federal, state and local corporate welfare packages for its big corporations. Now when the city is overwhelmed with snow, these big companies are content to watch the hapless Mayor Archer beg for federal disaster assistance — for snowfalls that cities for decades have been able to handle routinely by themselves.

Today, Detroit means community breakdown.