Going for the Gusto

The real prosperity is in the richness of community and trust in your neighbors.

A good friend of mine, a lifelong Detroiter in her 70s, has had enough and is planning to leave the city as soon as she can. A couple of weeks ago someone broke into her car. A few days later somebody broke through three doors — a locked storm door, a barred security door and the regular wooden door — to rob her house on a Sunday morning while she was at church.

She’s a single woman who has lived in an area of the city between the University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College since the mid-1960s. One of the first black families in the neighborhood at the time, she raised her kids there while working for the Detroit Public Library.

Having since retired, and instead of living comfortably in the home she both paid off long ago and kept up to be one of the nicest on her block, she has to find an apartment in the suburbs and pay rent. She’s probably going to be paying rent for a long time; her father lived to age 85 and her mother to 103. At best, she’ll get a few thousand dollars for her home on a block where at least half the houses are empty and falling down.

That’s among the bigger problems in Detroit: People can’t live here and feel safe and secure in their homes. We can’t feel that our children are safe on the streets or even in school. I don’t support the emergency manager law. It’s undemocratic. That’s flat out true. We’ll find out if it’s illegal when the federal suit against Public Act 436 is decided. Polls released last week showed Detroiters essentially split about it, with a few more percentage points of people opposed to it than in favor.

Regardless of how that plays out, it makes little difference that a lifelong friend who lives near me will be farther away. And she really didn’t want to have to move.

All of the dysfunction of southeast Michigan has led to this. We’re fighting about an emergency manager who will make little difference in the big picture. He’s most likely a bean counter who will do what he’s asked to do but probably little in the way of fixing what got us to this point. Detroit’s financial crisis is directly attributable to the fact that people started leaving town in the early 1950s and pretty much haven’t stopped. We have an infrastructure that was made to support 2 million people and we’re finally taking steps to downsize it for the fewer than 700,000 who now reside here.

Many of the suburbs were created and thrived in opposition to Detroit. But that was a very temporary and false prosperity that has begun to fall apart — I see the empty strip malls when I drive through the suburbs — and not only are people fleeing from Detroit, they’re fleeing from Michigan. That’s what has to be fixed. When you read the objective reports on areas that thrive economically; it’s not about a Democratic area or a Republican area; it’s not about right to work, or abortion or gay people; it’s not about black or white; it’s not about high taxes or low taxes. The main thing that defines economically thriving areas is that they have a large number of well-educated young adults living there — age 25 to 35. These are the people who drive the economy of new ideas. When young people graduate from Michigan universities they leave the state. We need to keep them and their ideas.

That’s part of the thinking behind the state taking over Detroit. Young people want to live in thriving cities. But the solution is woefully inadequate. Snyder should have had the chutzpah to take over southeast Michigan. There are plenty of politicians in Lansing who want to do something about Detroit but don’t think expansively enough to realize the problems are bigger than just the city. The same power that allows them to impose solutions on Detroit could be used to impose solutions on the region.

Peter Hammer, a professor at Wayne State University’s Law School and director of the school’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, has long been alert on this point to little attention thus far. 

“My biggest fear is that the Emergency Manager plan won’t work because the [scope] of the mandate does not map onto the frame of the real problems facing the city,” says Hammer. “If you take an accounting frame the goal is to balance short-term revenues with short-term expenditures. If revenues are falling, the job of the EM is in a draconian fashion to make sure he cuts expenditures faster than revenues are falling, and that’s a death spiral. The failure of regionalism and the long-term tensions that create a wall around the city is not going to improve.”

Just last week, Edward Kurtz, the emergency manager of Flint, made a similar point. After cutting costs and doubling the water rates, the city has a balanced budget but is teetering on the brink of dysfunction.

“How many more employees can we lay off and still provide the basic services,” Kurtz asked rhetorically in an interview with Bloomberg news. “We can’t just keep putting it on the backs of the people who live in the city. Pretty soon, we won’t have anybody left to tax.”

If Orr’s goal is to hack and slash to balance the books short term, then we will soon be worse off than we already are. Last week he didn’t show that by maintaining the mayor and city council, along with their salaries. That kept them in their offices and not leading protests in the streets. We’ll see where this goes in the long term. Imposing the EM is undemocratic. The federal lawsuit filed last week by opponents of the EM law will establish if it is legal or not. In the meantime this us-and-them fight is getting us nowhere.

Many black people in Detroit are scared that white people are going to come in, usurp their political power, and steal the city’s “jewels.” Many white people in the suburbs are just scared of the black people in Detroit. The reality is that most suburbs are no longer lily-white, and there are many residents — of all colors — who have left the city but still think of themselves as Detroiters. It’s getting past the circle of distrust that will create an atmosphere where young people will want to stick around and grow our economy.

“We need to pivot from this point as a region and confront our history of racism and white flight, and build on regional reconciliation,” says Hammer. “Snyder needs to impose on the region, just like he imposed on Detroit, a regional transportation system. Everything follows from good transportation. Good transportation is going to benefit Detroit and the region. It will establish interaction. It is the single most important thing he could do.”

That may seem a far cry from keeping the neighborhoods safe so my friend can live there, and a lot different from having police on every corner to chaperone us on our way. But there are ripples that happen from good public transportation. One of them is economic development in the region because people can get to jobs, and there’s more economic development around train and bus stops. The value of real estate soars around train stops, and commercial enterprises around them thrive because people need to buy things when they are headed home. More people walking home means more eyes on the street and crime drops. Not to mention that a better economy makes fewer people feel like they need to take things from others.

That’s where the real fight should be. There are plenty of buildings downtown for Dan Gilbert to own, and there is plenty of land in the neighborhoods for the urban agriculturalists to farm. And when the city folks sit down with the outstate folks to talk about crops and farmers’ markets, that’s when people will see our commonalities and realize we’re all in this together.

That’s more important — and will take longer — than balancing some books. And it will take a more expansive and sophisticated perspective than folks on either side of Eight Mile Road wanting to put those people in their places. The real prosperity is in the richness of community and trust in your neighbors. Too bad that can’t happen soon enough to keep my friend nearby.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]