Alexander Gray ’14 brought a new perspective on Detroit’s struggle with bankruptcy: while much of the debate around Detroit’s struggle with creditors is framed as conflict between pensioners and Wall Street, municipal bonds are held by many middle class investors. He said this means that the results of Detroit’s pending bankruptcy will be widely felt.
Gray, who spoke recently as part of the Center for Urban and Global Students (CUGS) Global Vantage Point series, was joined by Crystal Rosa ’14, who – inspired by the shooting death of a young man she once served as a counselor to – immersed herself in Boston’s Dorchester community to study everyday violence and its impact on academic achievement.
Gray and Rosa are Levy Grant recipients, whose research was made possible by the Steven D. Levy ’72 Fund for Urban Curricular Programs. They presented their research during the latest installment of the CUGS series, entitled “Detroit and Boston: Cities in Crisis”.
Gray, a double major in economics and urban studies, visited Detroit in August of 2013 to conduct his research. In addition to the frequently discussed issues surrounding Detroit’s bankruptcy – the decline of the auto industry and the sharp decrease in Detroit’s population – Gray examined the on-the-ground reality in the city and the less frequently cited factors behind the crisis in the Motor City.
Detroit is a city shaped by its love of the automobile, and this is apparent in more than just the industry that it gave birth to. The city is extremely large: almost 140 square miles (compared to Hartford’s 18). Its population lives in clusters throughout the city, connected by long stretches of road. This makes the city extremely expensive to maintain, he says.
When the draw of suburbia diminished Detroit’s population, the costs associated with running the local government did not fall along with the population. Coupled with generous public pensions, the declining tax base and a still expensive local government made meeting the city’s obligations a challenge. In March of 2013, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of financial emergency for the city. In July, Detroit filed for bankruptcy.
Gray cited the relocation of Quicken Loans to downtown Detroit as cause for optimism about the city’s future, and was sure to mention that Detroit deserves recognition for more than the crisis it is in the news for.
“There is a rich cultural history, a lot of great historical landmarks,” he said. “You can really feel the cultural vitality.”
When drawing conclusions about what Detroit’s situation means for other cities, Gray drew some important distinctions. He pointed out that Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia all have higher pension obligations per capita than Detroit. The primary difference is that when manufacturing left those cities, they were able to replace it with new industries, something Detroit has struggled to do.
Rosa, a senior double majoring in anthropology and Italian, presented her work, entitled “Everyday Violence in Dorchester Massachusetts.” She conducted her research using participant observation over the course of two months living in Dorchester earlier this year.
Intending to bring awareness to the violence plaguing Dorchester and identify how exposure to violence affects attitudes toward education, Rosa conducted a series of interviews with both youth and adults in the community. Although interviewees had many definitions of violence, all said that they were exposed to it. And among 13- to 21-year old participants, 90 percent indicated that they viewed education as unimportant.
Rosa also cited research showing that exposure to violence has been linked to depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance. This was consistent with many of her findings in a neighborhood facing the challenges of poverty.
With respect to solutions, Rosa said she identified only two after-school programs in Dorchester that were available to young people in the neighborhood. She also called for more resources in schools and better engagement from parents and guardians. Referencing her own experience growing up in a Boston neighborhood not unlike Dorchester, Rosa highlighted the importance of parents encouraging their children to see the value of an education.
“You don’t know how important education can be until you’re exposed to it,” she says. “You don’t know until someone shows you.”