This article first appeared in The Nation.
The headline juxtaposition boggles the mind. You have, on one day, “Detroit Files Largest Municipal Bankruptcy in History.” Then on the next, you have “Detroit Plans to Pay For New Red Wings Hockey Arena Despite Bankruptcy.”
Yes, the very week Michigan Governor Rick Snyder granted a state-appointed emergency manager’s request to declare the Motor City bankrupt, the Tea Party governor gave a big thumbs-up to a plan for a new $650 million Detroit Red Wings hockey arena. Almost half of that $650 million will be paid with public funds.
This is actually happening. City services are being cut to the bone. Fighting fires, emergency medical care and trash collection are now precarious operations. Retired municipal workers will have their $19,000 in annual pensions dramatically slashed. Even the artwork in the city art museum will be sold off piece by piece. This will include a mural by the great radical artist Diego Rivera that’s a celebration of what the auto industry would look like in a socialist future. As Stephen Colbert said, the leading bidder will be “the museum of irony.”
They don’t have money to keep the art on the walls. They do have $283 million to subsidize a new arena for Red Wings owner and founder of America’s worst pizza-pizza chain, Little Caesar’s, Mike Ilitch, whose family is worth $2.7 billion dollars. (“Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend me your pensions!”)
How did Governor Snyder possibly summon the shamelessness to justify this?
Here’s how. He said, “This is part of investing in Detroit’s future, That’s the message we need to get across.… As we stabilize the city government’s finances, as we address those issues and improve services, Detroit moves from a place where people might have had a negative impression…to being a place that will be recognized across the world as a place of great value and a place to invest.”
Where, oh where have we heard this argument before? What city has heard the false promise that stadium construction on the public dime would be a postindustrial life raft? There are actually many, but none have heard it more and paid the cost quite like Detroit. A new Red Wings arena would be the city’s third publicly funded major sports stadium, joining the Tigers’ Comerica Stadium and the Lions’ Ford Field. Each of these was billed as a “remedy” to save the city. Each of these has obviously failed. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. Try to fool us three times? Go to hell.
I spoke with Marvin Surkin, co-author of the classic book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. He said, “These are more than just remedies that didn’t work. They are part of the problem because stadiums don’t address the central issues of falling population, falling tax base, declining wages, unemployment and the underfunding of schools.”
Surkin is correct. If anything, this kind of corporate welfare has over the last generation exacerbated Detroit’s existing problems. Why? Because it siphons money out of the city services — things like schools and hospitals — while creating the very kinds of jobs that are the antithesis to those that once built Detroit into the third-largest city in the United States. No living wages. No job security. No tax base. Just spanking new stadiums for suburban sports fans, which Detroit residents will be able to enter only if they’re selling foam novelty fingers.
As Neal DeMause, who runs the indispensable website Field of Schemes, said to me:
“There’s absolutely no reason on earth that the state of Michigan couldn’t say to Mike Ilitch, ‘Sorry, Detroit has more important things to do with its money.’ Instead, though, the governor seems content to let Ilitch cut to the front of the line for public funds, on the grounds that ‘who doesn’t get fired up’ about hockey. Even if you limited it to economic development projects, putting money into fixing city schools or restoring streetlights would do far more for Detroit’s business prospects than a hockey arena. This just goes to show the problem with carving out shares of tax revenue to go to development authorities — they end up basically serving as slush funds for developers, even when the city treasury is otherwise empty.”
There is a right-wing narrative about Detroit that the city is in peril because of some combination of the 1967 “race riots” and greedy unions. The reality is that black and brown residents of Detroit made Motown and those “greedy unions” built a stable working class that could realistically dream of a better life for their own children. The breaking of Detroit should be seen, the words of David Sirota, as an indictment of right wing economic orthodoxy. Instead, the bankruptcy has been used as a warning to other cities that unions, pensions and a culture of resistance are roads to ruin.
With this Red Wings arena, Snyder, Ilitch, and their ilk may have gone too far. The commitment of Detroit’s corporate masters to this stadium project actually acts like an autopsy, revealing who has really destroyed the Motor City. As legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs put it, a conservative agenda has “been strip mining cities by privatizing almost all services, attacking public workers and their unions, while at the same time providing billion-dollar tax cuts for large businesses and cutting revenue sharing to the cities.” In a city that’s 83 percent African-American and built on union labor, it’s a pelt long desired by the Snyders of this world. Neoliberalism has destroyed Detroit. Free trade deals have destroyed Detroit. Corporate welfare has destroyed Detroit. It’s perverse of Snyder and Detroit’s anti-union, pro-stadium mayor — and NBA hall-of-famer — Dave Bing to see stadiums as symbols of Detroit’s revival. They are symbols instead of its decline.
More and more people across the world are getting wise to these kinds of priorities. Perhaps Detroit should keep its eyes on Brazil, where mass discontent with the quality of schools, hospitals and the government led to marches on stadiums built or refurbished for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. One of the slogans amongst the Brazilian masses was “A giant awakes. Come to the streets.” In Detroit, if no one can afford to go to the game they might have no choice but to come to the streets.