The ruins of old America

By Cate Long
April 26, 2013

A stronghold of America’s establishment may be about to be toppled. The world’s largest Masonic Temple in Detroit will be foreclosed for unpaid taxes. The bones of twentieth-century America are withering away. Detroit’s WXYZ reports:

It’s a nationally registered historic landmark built in the 1920s.

It’s a symbol of art, culture and grandeur.

And according to county tax documents; it’s in foreclosure.

Wayne County says the owners of the Masonic Temple have forfeited their right to the Detroit building because of more than $150,000 in back taxes.

The Masons once represented one of the strongest fraternal organizations in America. Their “lodges” or “temples” are found across the states as relics of a once strong national organization. In many ways, the decline and abandonment of these edifices is a mirror-image of the decline of American manufacturing. Detroit, once the wealthiest city in America, had both the largest and grandest Masonic Temple and manufacturing base. Now both have crumbled to ruins.

Recent commentary from the GW Bush Institute talks about Detroit’s decline:

Detroit has demonstrated that a city can go backward, passing its ‘take-off’ stage and thus presenting the phenomenon of what might be called ‘de-development.’ It may just be possible that a city’s economy can fail so badly it might be said to be crossing the ‘turn-off’ barrier, a point of no return. With a shrinking population, no capacity to generate tax revenue, and no new businesses of scale that would provide a consequential number of new jobs, the city might just find itself in a place from which there can be no self-generated recovery.

Detroit is just one of many U.S. cities in this situation:

Detroit is not alone in this process of reverse growth. There are at least 25 cities in the U.S., including Buffalo, Gary, and Hartford, where indigenous economies have shown no capacity to expand for over five decades. In the 1960 census, each was counted among our 100 most populous cities. Today, each of these cities has conditions similar to those of Detroit, albeit smaller in scale, but with equally devastating impact.

Detroit and other economically collapsing cities need radical new approaches to halt their decline. One possibility may be to remove all property, corporate and personal income taxes and any other fees for anyone establishing manufacturing facilities in their communities. If states and possibly the federal government would match this tax relief by granting a five or ten-year tax holiday to new manufacturers, you might see entrepreneurs willing to risk their capital in these economically abandoned places. Cities must do more than create start-up zones and mentoring programs.

Detroit will never return to the glory days when it erected the world’s largest Masonic Temple. But it can move more aggressively to reignite economic development. The path may be to return to its roots as a manufacturing powerhouse.

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