Detroit, Mich., fell on hard times recently when the snow started falling on Jan. 2, 1999. Twenty-one inches of snow accumulated over the next two weeks, and city officials still did not plow residential streets. That streets were left unplowed was not an oversight. It was the result of a policy of many years standing that dictates that the city’s “side streets” are simply not plowed. Because of that policy and in spite of the often extreme weather of this regularly wintry city Detroit employs only 59 plows for 2,400 miles of roadway far, far less than other northern cities of comparable size.
Detroit’s studied incapacity to perform a vital city service for its residents led to predictable outcomes. Emergency vehicles couldn’t reach homes. People slipped and fell in the snow. Many couldn’t get to work on time. Schools closed. The elderly were endangered.
The city’s Department of Public Works said the storms cost $2.5 million $1 million more than the department had budgeted for snow removal all year. Note that this is the sum allocated for the nation’s 10th largest city (population one million).
Detroit mayor Dennis Archer finally asked the city council for more money two weeks after the storm had incapacitated Detroit. Then he asked the state of Michigan for financial assistance. Later he asked the federal government to declare a state of emergency to obtain federal funds to plow the residential roadways.
Run this scenario of metropolitan incapacity and desperation past the good burghers of snow capital Buffalo, N.Y. which already has received nearly five feet of snow this winter and you’ll be greeted with disbelief. I’ve been in Buffalo during and after large snowfalls years ago, long before the stunning technological developments of late 20th century America, and the streets were cleared quickly.
So what’s going on in Detroit? After all, it is the home of the world’s largest automobile industry. Why aren’t GM and Chrysler helping their community? GM was certainly quick to demand subsidy packages and property tax abatements including one amounting to $350 million for one factory from Detroit. It got what it asked for, and it’s been reporting record profits for years. Couldn’t it have helped the community that’s contributed to its success even just a little? GM is, after all, in the transportation business. Clearly it lacks civic pride and civic responsibility.
Of course most GM executives don’t live in Detroit. They live in nearby wealthy Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills, where the streets are smooth and clear. And GM headquarters in Detroit is easily accessible to those who live outside the city because it’s adjacent to main thoroughfares that are regularly plowed.
But what about everyone else?
Well, everyone else had to fend for themselves. At least for a while. Here and there a few demonstrations of community spirit could be found. According to the Detroit Free Press 150 homeless people working with a group called Operation Get Down “dug out the homes of pregnant women. Several small businesses lent their trucks, snow blowers, and shovels. It was an exemplary effort and one that should have been followed by citizens and corporations alike.
Detroit city government has been pressured repeatedly to produce federal, state, and local corporate welfare packages for its big corporations. But when the city was overwhelmed with snow, the big companies were content to watch the hapless Mayor Archer beg for federal disaster assistance for snowfalls that cities have been able to handle routinely by themselves for decades.