“We’re Silicon Valley, we’re not Detroit. It shouldn’t be happening here. We’re not the Rust Belt.” — Xavier Campos, San Jose councilman
Hyperbole is the crudest way to make a point. It’s also the easiest way to lose an audience. But there’s a desperate talking point going unchallenged in local government circles, and it involves the D-word.
When a levelheaded analysis won’t do, politicos summon Detroit, which declared bankruptcy this summer, as an example of rising crime or the coming economic tsunami. As an example, last week a story in The New York Times focused on San Jose’s pension reform efforts, as Measure B—passed by 70 percent of voters last year—continues to be tested in court. In the first paragraph of the story, the writers set a worrisome tone about rising pension costs. “Yet even here, in the city that bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley, the economic tidal wave that has swamped Detroit and other cities is lapping at the sea walls.”
It’s a lazy comparison, one so detached from the reality of the situation that The Gray Lady got its first quote from Xavier Campos, the perpetually investigated East San Jose councilman who couldn’t write a memo unless his staffers phone-booked his high chair and pre-sharpened his crayons.
Libraries and community center hours have been cut, the paper notes. Potholes and burglaries are growing. Police are leaving for better-paying departments. There’s graffiti in a skate park. Cue Campos.
“We’re Silicon Valley, we’re not Detroit,” he said. “It shouldn’t be happening here. We’re not the Rust Belt.”
Leaving aside the fact that Campos, who almost never speaks to local media but found time to trash his own city to the Times, has a fair number of skeletons in his closet, and his suspicious dealings actually resemble those of Detroit’s recently indicted elected officials, let’s take a look at a few facts:
· Detroit’s population has dropped 63 percent in the last 60 years. In that same timeframe, San Jose’s has grown by 1,000 percent.
· Forty percent of the streetlights in Detroit don’t work.
· Unemployment in Detroit is near 19 percent, which is actually an improvement from 27 percent in 2009. Of course, many people have just up and left. As of this summer, the South Bay had 6.5 percent unemployment.
· There were 46 homicides last year in San Jose. In Detroit there were 411.
As these numbers show, the comparison between the two cities is not just lazy; it’s intellectually dishonest. With a divided council, San Jose chose to tackle future pension payouts—everything accrued is left untouched—by ballot measure. Campos offered no alternative other than remaining at the bargaining table, where the police union and city staff clearly refuse to blink.
Councilman Ash Kalra had the most eloquent argument for why Measure B would crumble under litigation, but it’s unacceptable to simply hope the market will correct itself when growing pensions costs already account for a quarter of the general fund.
When I visited Detroit last month, I didn’t see the future of San Jose. Unfortunately, I saw a city that looks beyond saving. Two tall brick towers that have been gutted and stenciled with white graffiti welcome visitors to downtown. Lot after lot features homes that have been gutted for copper wire and aluminum siding or torched for insurance payouts. A church near downtown looked like it belonged in Dresden. Michigan Central Station, an architectural marvel that once acted as a central railroad hub for America, hangs empty and broken over the city like a mausoleum.
Most people in Detroit are friendly, but many seem to have a stare that lasts just a little too long. Everyone is sized up as a threat or mark. There’s a desperation in Detroit that is unfathomable by San Jose standards.
And there’s a desperation some politicians and pundits have to be taken seriously, so much so that they’ll invoke the political version of Godwin’s law to make a point. Part of that law states that anyone who invokes the Nazis has jumped the shark and their argument should be rendered moot.
There is only one Detroit. And it is not here.