Too little, too timid 

Mayor Bing punts on the ballyhooed Detroit Works program

Detroit today has too few people spread too thinly across too many square miles, and not enough money to take care of their needs.

Nobody disputes that much. The question is what can be done about it? There are now perhaps no more than 700,000 mainly poor, mainly poorly educated Detroiters rattling around in a city that once housed at least 1.9 million of them. City government is in tough shape. The long-term deficit, which had been declining, was $155 million at the start of this year, but is now likely to increase.

Thanks, that is, to state government's revenue-slashing policies. So how can the city possibly meet Detroiters' minimal needs?

There's no way they can get more money out of the residents, who already pay some of the highest tax rates in the state. Tax rates could (and should) be raised in the suburbs, if the politicians had the political will to do so. Detroiters don't have it to give.

To say they are poor is also beyond dispute. More importantly, they don't have any real prospect of being otherwise. Mayor Dave Bing's estimate of the real unemployment rate is somewhere around 45 percent. That's when you count the so-called "discouraged" workers, who have dropped out of the labor force because they don't see any point in looking for jobs that aren't there.

Many of these folks are also, in all likelihood, unemployable. Recent reliable estimates are that 47 percent of Detroit adults essentially cannot read. What can they possibly do to make a legal living, one in which they pay taxes in today's economy?

More than a year ago, officials in Mayor Bing's administration began talking about "shrinking" or "repurposing" the city, that is, trying to get the people who remain to move to fewer neighborhoods, under the theory that a smaller area would be easier to service.

That made some sense, though the idea also left me uneasy; it reminded me of a government invaded by the Nazis desperately trying to withdraw to a smaller, and more easily defensible perimeter.

What nobody ever talked about was what would happen to the essentially abandoned areas. Would they be fenced off and left to feral swine? Would they be taken over by roving armed gangs?

What would the city do about the one stubborn old lady on an abandoned block who refused to move? Legally, Detroit would have no power to move her, unless they used eminent domain to seize the land for a civic project. The answer, I was eventually told, was this:

The city wouldn't try to make anybody move. Instead, they would pour extra resources into a selection of better, more viable neighborhoods. This would be an added incentive for people to live there. Eventually, it was hoped this would have a snowball effect.

The mayor's program to get this done was called Detroit Works, and we were told it would eventually identify four to 10 stable neighborhoods, which would then get better resources.

We then waited for the neighborhoods to be identified ... and waited and waited. A week ago, we got the answer ...

And it couldn't have been more disappointing. 

At the last moment, our all-star basketball player mayor lost his nerve and failed to make the much-needed three-point shot. Instead, he dribbled the ball weakly down the court, hoping someone else would grab it.

Instead of identifying a bunch of neighborhoods, the mayor announced that his plan would focus on the entire city, a clear abdication of his responsibility to make hard decisions.

Hello, Mr. Mayor. The city doesn't have the money to take care of all its neighborhoods, which was the reason for the Detroit Works program in the first place. What he proposes is to focus on three areas — the Boston-Edison area near Midtown; Palmer Woods and nearby neighborhoods in the north; and a growing chunk of southwest Detroit.

Fine. But here's the existentialist kicker into absurdity. Detroit won't give them any extra resources other areas won't get. Instead, the entire city is supposed to get "enhanced" city services over the next six months. (If you are asking, "How in the hell can they do that? There is no money," you are guilty of being a rational adult.)

But stay with the mayor in Cloud Cuckoo Land for a moment. After six months of the wonderfully enhanced services, the city will study and analyze what worked well in the three targeted areas.

Then, they will apply what they learned elsewhere! Can't you just imagine the scenes at City Hall. "Hey, Mr. Mayor! People like it when they have streetlights and the fire trucks actually come when called! Who knew? They also are happier when there are enough cops so people can't take 5-year-old girls out of their homes, smother them and set them on fire! God, we learned a lot!"

Presumably, City Hall will then put what they learned into practice. (Except, again, that there is no money.) In fact, Bing even used Gov. Rick Snyder's favorite phrase, "best practices," to describe what he wanted to do. Snyder normally uses that phrase to mean "limit and take away benefits from workers in the public sector."

What Mayor Bing means by it isn't clear, unless it is shorthand for doing nothing at all. Dave Bing seems to have gotten cold feet. He knew that the demagogues and "Afrocentrists" on City Council would have screamed bloody murder at the thought of nicer neighborhoods getting special treatment. They'd rather we all went down together, until everyone who can walk and think has left.

In other words, like a true politician, he punted. That's what politicians do. Statesmen, on the other hand, make hard and sometimes unpopular choices. Detroit has boatloads of those.

Always did. We need a few statesmen, and that's what a lot of people thought Dave Bing was when they elected him.


So what's the solution? Frankly, the odds were that, at best, even a well-executed "Detroit Works" scheme would be a way for Detroit to fail more slowly, or to arrest decline ... for a while.

What's needed is to reverse the decline, and the population loss, and there is a clear way: immigration. Detroit should throw its doors open and open its arms wide to any educated immigrant, or any that promised to create jobs. That's what the city needs.

There is a huge prejudice against increasing immigration, under the wrongheaded idea that immigrants take jobs from poor people. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Ask Steve Tobocman, the former state legislator who now runs something called the Global Detroit Initiative.

Immigrants are job creators, not job takers. In Atlanta, which has six times as many immigrants as Cleveland, the unemployment rate among inner-city blacks is considerably less.

Newcomers to this country created one-sixth of all new businesses started in Michigan during the most recent 10-year period we have hard figures for. What's more, they created almost one-third of all new high-tech, new-economy firms.

Vancouver got to be prosperous by encouraging panicky Chinese to move there after Hong Kong was taken over by the mainland in 1997. We could come up with a similar strategy.

Whatever else you think of him, Rick Snyder, who made a fortune in high-tech, gets that too. Immigration made this nation, he told a conference at Wayne State recently, and "is going to again be the key to our success in the future."

Incidentally, if you aren't foreign-born yourself, there's a simple way to study the descendant of a successful immigrant, one whom Geronimo would have considered an illegal one.

Look in the mirror. 

More by Jack Lessenberry

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