Merry Christmas, Detroit

It's that time of year when we celebrate the birthday of you-know-who, and this year, Detroit, like JC himself, seems to have risen from the dead.

The city is out of bankruptcy, with at least enough cash to pay its bills over the next few months or so. There are definitely more street lights on, and they say services are getting better.

Detroit is glowing in a warm bath of favorable national publicity. Mayor Mike Duggan is seemingly everywhere, beaming and promising to keep the city moving and improving.

Nobody wonders any longer whether there will be a fire sale at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

No longer do Detroiters have a flamboyant criminal as mayor, or the spectacle of a host of council members like Monica "Sludge Girl" Conyers or "Chicken Hawk" Charlie Pugh.

No longer is Detroit a powerless territory ruled by an administrator appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in far-off Lansing.

Yet not all resurrections are the same.

Jesus, for example, after shaking hands all around, supposedly took off for heaven, to return at some future date.

Detroit is still with us, though Motown today might best be seen as a severely ill baby, two months premature, suffering from a lack of nutrition and advanced blight syndrome.

Yes, she's breathing on her own, and we're all hopeful, but it is still dicey. Meanwhile, some politicians would like nothing so much as to cut off her oxygen, and more of them will be taking seats in the legislature next year.

Duggan, that wily Irish pol who once saw to it that Wayne County's McNamara political machine ran on time, put it best:

Yes, Detroit has a chance.

But, as the mayor asked at the press conference two weeks ago celebrating Detroit's emergence from bankruptcy:

"How do you deliver service in a city where the unemployment rate is double the state average, and (where) we've got to rebuild a water system and a bus system and a computer system and a financial system?"

Then, in the understatement of the century, he added, "It's all going to be a challenge." It sure damn well is.

Last week I had lunch with Sheila Cockrel, possibly the closest thing Detroit has to a philosopher statesman. Intelligent, deeply experienced, she was born in Corktown in 1947, and never left. She's seen it all and fought to make it work.

She grew up in the old Catholic Worker Movement, lived through the riot, and for a time was left of far left. She fell in love with and married Ken Cockrel Sr., a brilliant black radical firebrand who ended up on City Council back in the day.

Cockrel more than likely would have been mayor himself, had his heart not suddenly given out one night, as he poured himself a glass of milk in his kitchen. After a time, she took his place on council, winning election to four terms.

She finally left five years ago, burned out from dealing with colleagues too stupid or irrational to honestly confront problems she saw were spiraling out of control.

Sheila Cockrel saw an emergency manager coming before most people did; was the first person to tell me that Duggan was not only going to run for mayor but would win.

Today, she's both upbeat and cautious. Yes, the city emerged from bankruptcy faster and in better shape than she ever imagined a year ago. Yes, that's good.

Yet she doesn't think the city is out of the woods yet. "They need to look at how every department of the city is run," she said. Many Detroit firefighters, for example, are authentic heroes. But they have a time-honored system of working a number of days on, a number off, and many extra holidays known as "Kelly days." As a result, many firefighters are working other jobs; some are running businesses.

Does this really make sense?

Nor is she sold on the new system of electing council members by district. District members still have no power to intervene directly to help a business or resident.

Yet she believes the system is now more vulnerable to horse-trading and other political deals. Brenda Jones upset Saunteel Jenkins earlier this year in their struggle to see which would become council president, by trading favors for votes.

As a result, important committees are being chaired by freshmen; some don't even have a single council veteran.

What is more worrisome, however, is what Lansing may do. Make no mistake about it — plenty of the Republicans who run things in Lansing have no use for Detroit.

Earlier this month, they tried to ram a bill through the lame-duck session of the legislature that would have effectively prevented a city from requiring developers to provide residents with community benefits on big, publicly funded projects.

This was little more than a "Screw Detroit" bill, and proof that, as always, Republicans are in favor of local control, except when they aren't. The bill seemed unlikely to make it this year.

But those who want to stick it to the city will be back next month, with reinforcements. The next legislature will be more Republican, more right wing and probably more malevolent.

What that means is that it is up to not just Duggan but all of us to do whatever we can to make Detroit work. The "plan of adjustment" approved by the courts does include $1.7 billion for new revenue to improve city services, something essential if Detroit is ever going to claw its way back.

But that money doesn't come in a box tied with a ribbon in a bow. The city largely has to go out and get it, by doing a better job collecting income and property taxes.

In fact, the city's entire hopes for the future are based on a plan that depends on a hope and a prayer — and a lot of bailing wire and string. Not to mention, no new recession for the foreseeable future, and no further cuts from the shape.

Detroit has to thread the needle, in other words. Here's hoping the city's leaders do. Anyone who is not cheering for them, and for the city, is a damned fool.

Need a Last-Minute Present?

I know Christmas is tomorrow, but hey, better late than never. If you have a nonfiction reader on your list or anyone who loves labor history, there's a gripping new book out: Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster, by Bob Morris.

Unions tend to be vilified endlessly these days, sometimes even by idiots who don't realize they are the only reason their parents and grandparents had such things as health care and weekends. This book, a labor of love, will not only tell you why they were necessary, it appears to solve the old mystery of who shot both Walter Reuther and, a year later, his brother Victor.

For the author, writing it was truly a labor of love. His father, Ken Morris, was an early United Auto Workers organizer at the hellhole known as the Briggs Manufacturing plant, perhaps the worst place to work in Detroit.

One night, he was beaten almost to death. Morris makes a convincing case that the man behind all three attacks was rogue gangster Santo Perrone, working with one corrupt union official. Frankly, I had a hard time putting it down.