San Jose Is Not Detroit

“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.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.


  1. As usual, a story about this issue makes no mention of the serious offer put forth by the POA with regard to pension reform. Saying that the police union refuses to blink is a complete mischaracterization. No one has a greater interest in the health of the pension system than those who will be counting on it to take care of them. I expect this from Reed’s PR staffers at the Mercury-News, but I hope for better from SJI.

      • On the page you linked, toward the top, there is another link relating to the retirement negotiations that led up to Measure B, entitled:

        Retirement Reform and the Related Proposed Ballot Measure Negotiations.

        I believe it was during these negotiations that the POA offered proposals which which would have provided significant savings for the city with regard to retirement. When you click on that link, you receive this response:

        “We’re sorry, but there is not a web page matching your entry.”


        • The Sunshine Reform Task Force at City hall has managed to purge quite a bit from the archives – fortunately SJPOA downloaded a lot of it and obtained the rest through FOIA requests – I hope some day that massive amount of information returns to the light of day.

      • Here’s a link for you.

        Please note that, although at the time, Chuck Reed was busy lying about the severity of the pension shortfall (the oft-repeated $650 million figure), the real pension shortfall was actually in the range of $265 million. When the unions mentioned in the above-linked offered their proposal for pension reform, Chuck Reed et. al. claimed that the cost savings would not have been realized immediate enough.

        That was a bit more than two years ago. Had the city accepted the offer from the unions, though, by now, the city would have saved nearly $200 million, and the pensions would have been in the green by next year.

        Compare that against Measure B.

        1. It’s illegal. Similar measures have already been adjudicated and it’s been decided in several jurisdictions in the state already. The Orange County DSA law suit was one of the first, and it was already decided before Measure B had been place on the ballot. More recently, the subject of retiree healthcare was adjudicated in L.A. Ironically, the same law firm that is representing the city against the employee groups LOST the L.A. decision

        2. It’s based on a series of lies.

        3. It is a bandaid to cover up the real issues: debt service on the Convention Center, Debt service on City Hall, Debt service on the airport expansion, and $2.6 billion (!) in RDA debt.

        4. It places San Jose in a position where, as an employer, the city absolutely does not compete with other government employers, particularly (but not exclusively) in public safety.

        • Thanks Officer Anonymous. The press release doesn’t link to the actual proposal submitted to the City. I don’t find it listed on the City’s site either. Will appreciate guidance where it can be found.

          Seems like the recommendations should be used to hold our electeds responsible for wisely using our tax dollars.

  2. There are so many problems with this column it is hard to know where to start. How’s this—let’s be honest about the costs—the general fund is less than 1/3 of the total SJ budget.  So, when you talk about honesty—the cost is really about 8% of the total SJ budget.

  3. Finely crafted article. But…
    Detroit wasn’t Detroit until it was. Despite glaring signs, citizens and their officials neglected the warnings – something we share with Detroit, Stockton Vallejo, Riverside, and others in dire shape.

    Yes, Measure B passage is encouraging. But subsequent Council actions aren’t. Our roads are crumbling faster than DOT’s budget enables repairs; we spent hundreds of thousands on bike rentals few use. Ditto for bike lanes that result in more air pollution. Congestion from lane elimination generates more pollution than the lanes were funded to reduce. We pay millions to shore up the Hayes Mansion or the Mexican Heritage Plaza – that benefit only a few while shortchanging projects that benefit many more.

    We’ve spent millions to “end homelessness”, but downtown has more than ever. And budgets for failed programs keep increasing despite billions owed in unfunded liabilities.

    We seem to be paralyzed over police salaries when we have over 800 applicants to gladly fill open positions at current wages.

    No, we aren’t Detroit. Yet.

    • “Congestion from lane elimination generates more pollution than the lanes were funded to reduce.” 

      It totally doesn’t sound like you made this up or anything… would love to see the data you have though wink

      • see

        UCLA has studied emissions v. traffic flow. Best case is steady state between roughly 30-65MPH. Highest fuel economy / lowest emission production. Worst is stop-start.

        UCLA data shows carbon dioxide quadruples going from about 250 g/MI @ 35MPH to over 1,000 g/MI for start-stop traffic.

        The bike lanes were paid for by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District & justified on the basis that enough people would stop driving and start riding to lower overall emissions. The opposite has occurred.

        In addition to more air pollution, we’re suffering an economic loss: increased travel time, higher vehicular operating costs, lower fuel efficiency.

        Sam Liccardo championed bike lanes despite these issues being raised.

    • hahahahahahaha , Measure B passing? thats funny. take a look at case law . Measure B will be crammed down reeds throat where it will fester in his gut. Check the recent rulings in Los Angeles and before that Redding.
      Roads are crumbling because like everything in San Jose , too many corners are cut. get rid of Hayes mansion &mexican; heritage . stop building low income housing that we dont need . Start trying to really bring new business to san jose.
      Most of all keep your word to current employees ,those who keep this city running and safe,NOT the politicians. Compromise is a necessity , pension reform is still needed , but it must be lawful and fair to all. Reed is a joke and has helped san jose circle the drain

    • Arhat, on your last point that we have over 800 applicants to gladly fill open positions at current wages, you are correct.  However, these applicants will simply come here for the academy training and then as quickly as possible laterally transfer to other departments.  Case and point; at least 15 of the police recruits that graduated just last Friday are already in background investigations to be hired at other departments.  You can’t have that much of a salary differential compared to neighboring departments and expect to attract people to work here.

      • Thanks, Mr_j. Not sure what SJPD academy new hires cost us. Seem to recall around $170K / grad.

        Private industry have retention programs. Don’t know what prevents us from doing something similar.

        Every employer has attrition. The real question to my mind is the cost-effectiveness of ours. No employer can match every competitive offer. Further, I understand some pay X% > SJ – a race we’ll never win.

        Compounding the problem is the absence of personnel data.

        Am told that HR fails to obtain exit interview data. Nor has SJ conducted an employee satisfaction survey in years. Seems like SJ is flying blind when it comes to using reasonable practices to attract, motivate, and retain talent. And understand where to focus.

        These become even more important when cutbacks / downsizing occurs.

        • Employees are leaving due to compensation and because of the way they’re treated by the city.  We’ve never asked to be at the top of the compensation heap as compared to other Bay Area cities, but being 20-25%+ less is a little ridiculous.  Additionally, we’ve been demonized, lied to, and generally made to feel like the only problem that this city faces rather than valuable assets that can help solve the city’s problems. 

          It’s not just PD either.  Look how many employees have left the city, or who are planning to leave.  Departments heads, chiefs, officers, etc.

        • Flying blind? There is no mystery as to why officers are leaving and it doesn’t require any studies or exit interviews. Lower pay, lesser and more costly benefits, no protection if an officer becomes disabled while doing their job, an ongoing and breathtaking lack of respect coming from Reed and his allies, and the prospect that all of it may well get much worse in the coming months. That’s about as easy to understand as it gets.

    • I love it when people get so focused on the hyperbole, that logic and common sense go right out the window. 

      “Detroit wasn’t Detroit until it was.”

      Actually, I’m quite certain that Detroit was, and always will be, Detroit.

  4. Well, let’s see, similar parallel to Detroit: They’re donut cities, not having and didn’t have vibrant downtowns, being sprawled out with industries in the outlying areas, not in downtown cores, having one horse industry with significant up and down swings, and both having severe financial problems.  Now, San Jose has high crimes just like Detroit although Detroit is significantly worst.  Lastly, San Jose gets little or no respect from the media.

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