Pontiac city as stalled as car it no longer makes
With its emergency services disbanded, the urban zone is a living metaphor of penury, writes CARL O'BRIENin Pontiac Michigan
IT’S A flat, four-mile drive from the affluent tree-lined streets of Bloomfield Hills to the empty lots and abandoned homes of Pontiac. But it’s a journey that crosses some of deepest ravines of America’s social divide.
Pontiac, a city of about 60,000 people, is in crisis. The police and fire services have been disbanded to save money (neighbouring areas have taken over their duties). The last Pontiac car – named, proudly, after the city – rolled off the local assembly lines in 2010. In its wake, the only remaining auto-assembly plant in the city finally closed.
The rapid depopulation of the area has resulted in eight public schools closing, while layoffs are rampant and small businesses are shutting down. The median family income is now $30,000, just above the poverty line.
Pontiac was a place built for the age of the motor car. It helped create a sprawling city of detached, family homes with white picket fences. Today, swathes of the city resemble a post-apocalyptic wasteland: there are overgrown lots, boarded-up windows and handwritten signs on some street corners advertising bed-bug exterminators.
“Pontiac is a bankrupt city,” says Kent Clark, a pastor and chief executive of the Grace Centres of Hope, an organisation that works with the city’s homeless. “Yet, we’re surrounded by wealthy areas. Many are shocked at the short distance it takes to go from the richer areas into the ghetto.”
Down the road in the pristine neighbourhood of Bloomfield Hills, Mercedes dealerships and dog-grooming parlours thrive in a community where the median family income is more than $200,000. Half of the properties there are valued at over $1 million.
The US is no stranger to these contrasts. Luxury and penury have always co-existed in uneasy tension. But, in this election year, the widening gap between rich and poor – combined with a shrinking middle class – means it has become a political issue like never before.
Over the past 30 years, incomes have soared among the wealthy and super-wealthy. The higher up the income ladder, the bigger the rise has been.
In 1973, the top 1 per cent of earners took home 8 per cent of the national income. By 2007 that figure had risen to 18 per cent. Those at the top in America haven’t enjoyed such a concentration of wealth since 1929.
For a long time, the US was in denial about this growing income gulf. The middle class clung to the promise of affluence for all and, as in Ireland, used mortgages and credit-card debt to make that dream a reality.
The 2008 financial crisis and the economic downturn burst the credit bubble that had allowed the middle class feel much richer than it really was.
“I believe the increase in income inequality is the most important and under-reported economic story of my lifetime in the US economy,” says Michigan State University’s economics professor, Charles Ballard.