Detroit: Post Bankruptcy

The city's historical ward system produced mostly corruption and inefficiencies. An at-large city council wasn't much better. Now comes a city split into seven districts. Welcome to the brave new world of Detroit.


Photograph by Justin Maconochie

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Detroit has acquired many nicknames in its more than 300 years of existence — Rock City, Motor City, and Renaissance City. But there’s a new name looming on the horizon: District City. In November, for the first time in almost a century, Detroiters will elect council members based on a nonpartisan, seven-district system (in addition to two at-large seats).

The new districts are intended to establish a much higher degree of accountability for residents and local business owners. The representatives will need to quickly educate themselves on the present state of affairs and offer a vision of progress in their locality. In essence, each council member overseeing a district will become the ultimate block captain, answerable to every imaginable constituent.

To get up to speed, both during and post-bankruptcy, the representatives can tap Detroit Future City, a new master plan. Within its 350-plus pages is information about new employment districts, the most promising residential neighborhoods for reinvestment, more efficient transportation modes, and innovative ideas to make use of acres of vacant land.

As the city seeks to address more than $18 billion in liabilities, align city services with the most efficient number of workers, and create more public-private partnerships to boost operations, the way forward offers hope. Trouble is, without a roadmap, the new crop of leaders may succumb to the infighting and entitlement that saw the city file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in mid-July.    

So where is Detroit going?

While the city lacked any kind of formal government until 1802, it wasn’t until 1824 that the council replaced the board of trustees as the legislative body. The first council consisted of five aldermen, the mayor, and a recorder.

The system worked well, but as Detroit grew in population and the industrial age advanced, government operations became overwhelming.

By 1915, there were 42 council members representing 21 different wards. Corruption and factionalism ran rampant in a city where the population was more than 925,000. The new city charter of 1918 sought to change that by limiting the council to nine seats. The charter also switched to a nonpartisan, at-large format.

The system of at-large elections has continued — but it will end when the new city council system kicks off in January 2014. Although the early 20th century legislation may have ended the corruption of Detroit land barons, it did not permanently halt malfeasance and fraud. Over the years there have been calls for a revision to the at-large format to instill equity and responsiveness. Whether representation by district will streamline government operations, improve services, and spur development remains to be seen.

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