Four Lessons for Philly from the Detroit Bankruptcy Filing

Philly is not the Motor City, but that doesn't mean nothing's wrong here.

As you read this, a judge in Michigan may force Detroit to withdraw its Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition. But it will be back, and you can bank on that.

The filing was sad but not at all surprising, for Detroit had been a city on the ropes since… the beginning of the last century, according to at least one Detroiter. And for decades after that, visitors to the city remarked on its peculiar character and sensed its decline even as it was in decent shape on the surface.

Since we here in Philly seem abnormally fond of comparing ourselves to the stricken Motor City, the bankruptcy gives us a fresh occasion to see whether there are any lessons we can draw from it. Here’s the first one:

1. We have much less in common with Detroit than the naysayers fear. As that aforelinked native noted, good planning and beauty both passed Detroit by. Believe it or not, that makes a big difference in the two cities’s fates. Our predecessors’s investments in both have left Philly with a stronger core, one on which a true revival could be built — and since the 1980s, we’ve built it. That Philly’s population is on the rise while Detroit’s has yet to rebound is one of the biggest signs that we really aren’t Detroit.

Another, less appreciated one:

2. Our neighborhoods — even the troubled ones — are our strength. In sharp contrast to Detroit, whose residents did not form strong attachments to their communities, we have neighborhoods that have engendered those attachments, even among residents who left them. Strawberry Mansion may have half emptied out, but those who remain refuse to let it die. Compare that to the vast abandoned tracts that have completely reverted to prairie in Motown. The presence of that community fabric makes the repair job easier, as newcomers have discovered in a succession of once-downtrodden communities here.

Philly’s good bones also mean that our municipal government, which survived a near-death experience in the late 1980s with an assist from Harrisburg, continues to function and deliver services more or less competently. And yet there are still signs of trouble all around, which brings us to the third lesson:

3. None of this means we can stop worrying. A stronger foundation means that misguided elected officials and shortsighted interest groups won’t cause quite the damage they did in Detroit. But they can still bring everything crashing down with enough time and effort. The City of Detroit has reached the point where it is beyond bailing out, but the bailed-out City of Philadelphia is beginning to show stress fractures once again. The fixes may require medicine some might find as distasteful as a bankruptcy filing — but we’re going to have to make them if we truly want to quiet those naysayers once and for all. It might be easier to make them if we remember lesson four:

4. Diversity is an asset that Detroit lacked and we must nurture. That this has become part of the conventional wisdom about Detroit’s fall has in some ways kept us from truly understanding how much of an outlier that city was. As that same Detroiter noted elsewhere, that city experienced not “white flight” but rather wholesale white abandonment — and then the whites who abandoned Detroit blamed those they left behind for the mess they left, which only made matters worse. That has not happened here, thankfully. And Philadelphia’s recovery has brought with it a growing number of diverse neighborhoods — communities where no one group dominates. Our culture, both local and national, is still not geared toward living with this state of affairs, but if we can figure it out, we will be much better off for it. An ethnically and economically diverse city will be better positioned to survive and thrive in an increasingly globalized economy. We now have both — if we can keep them.