If Detroit is the chocolate city, it must be the crummy kind of chocolate. You know, crumbly, oversweetened and, well, it's just not a box of fancy truffles.
At least that's what it's like in most Detroit neighborhoods. We've all seen those places where there are piles of debris and abandoned, boarded-up, burned-out houses. Junk cars sit in the street or in yards.
Like the McNichols-Davison area where City Councilmember Brenda Jones went a few weeks ago to view the blight she had read about in a newspaper report. One of the TV news stations showed her stepping through the trash in really high heels, expressing shock that people lived in such squalor. "I will be fighting for the neighborhood you can believe that," she said.
Jones requested reports from the city Buildings and Safety Engineering Department and the Department of Public Works. She requested a neighborhood assessment from the mayor's office.
By golly, she's going to make things happen. That cuts to the core of Detroit's neighborhood problems. There are precious few people fighting to make things happen in the neighborhoods.
Of course, City Council members should be fighting for the neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, I think Jones should adopt the neighborhood as her own and see to it that the garbage is picked up, the abandoned houses are fixed up or destroyed, and kids can get safely to and from school.
In fact, since our council members are elected as at-large representatives of the entire city, I think each council member should adopt a neighborhood to look out for. That would be the council member you call when things in your neighborhood need fixing. That would be the council member who would get booted from office in the next election if things weren't getting taken care of in your neighborhood.
Seeing as there are only nine council members, some neighborhoods would have to go without a special representative (for the time being). Let's say Rosedale Park, Indian Village, Boston Edison, Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Green Acres and the University District. These neighborhood have high numbers of well-educated professionals people who know somebody they can call about problems. Let's just say that, by and large, things get done in those neighborhoods.
Downtown seems to be moving along as a central party district with stadiums, casinos, restaurants and clubs. OK, we still need some riverfront developments (as soon as somebody ponies up to depollute the earth) and a couple more Compuwares would be nice. But the mayor can look after that.
"Every mayor from [Albert E.] Cobo [1950-57] on has really focused on downtown and midtown development, hoping the spillover would help the neighborhoods," says Charlie Hyde, a professor of history at Wayne State University. "Kilpatrick is the first mayor who has really tried to do something in the neighborhoods."
That would be the city's Next Detroit initiative, which focuses on developing six neighborhoods. But if each City Council member adopts a neighborhood to personally fight for, you get nine neighborhoods focused on. That's three more. And each neighborhood gets its own guardian angel, rather than just general city accountability. Or, as it is now, unaccountability.
Wait a minute! There is a system where each area of the city has it's own representative. Where residents vote for someone who lives in their neighborhood to be responsible for getting things done in the neighborhood. They use it in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Louisville, Dallas and numerous other places. They call them wards, boroughs or districts and somebody is directly accountable to them.
"Any city that works, they've got strong neighborhoods because you've got political systems which support strong neighborhoods," says Ed Zifkin, a former Detroiter who now lives in the Chicago area. Zifkin is a developer who has done projects in Detroit and Chicago. "There's somebody to go to who has a vested interest to fight for the community."
Think about it. If you live over by Dequindre and Palmer and there is a problem with traffic, dumping or criminal activity, who you gonna call? Even if you find someone to call, what can you do if nothing happens?
Mostly what happens is somebody calls a meeting at a school or church or recreation center in your neighborhood. A few people stand up and complain and somebody makes officious-sounding noises about taking a look at it or doing a study or something. In the end, things pretty much stay the same.
At least in a ward system there's somebody to call on the carpet for that. My brother, who lives in Minneapolis, says that recently, "We voted our council person out because she supported downtown development over development in the neighborhood."
Now that's neighborhood clout.
In Detroit running for council is a popularity contest. Is there really any other reason that Martha Reeves is a council member? And once you're on council, you can pretty much stay there unless you get arrested or die.
In a district system, you are accountable for what happens. And if you don't come through, somebody who will can bump you off in a localized election.
Detroit ran on a ward system until 1918, when the city charter changed the council from a system of 21 wards to nine at-large members.
"They had to live in the area they represented," says Hyde of the previous system. "It forced them to live with their people."
Whenever the idea of Detroit returning to this system comes up, somebody starts bleating about corruption. You have to worry about that no matter what system you have. So you need safeguards. That doesn't seem like a major problem where the system is in place. And you can always vote the rascals out.
The big deal is accountability. Zifkin says that when he first started developing property in Chicago, he had a problem with a permit. He called the alderman, who said, "I'll meet you at City Hall and walk you through it."
Contrast that to his Detroit experience: "There was little clarity on what you had to do. Our paperwork would get lost. It was hard to get decisions made. When things got stuck there was really no place to go."
Ask Brenda Jones about it. As of last week the reports she requested from the city had not arrived in her office. And that's after about three weeks.
I would have asked her about it personally, but I called her on three days and couldn't get her on the phone for 10 minutes. An aide in her office told me it was because she was tied up in meetings about the city budget. Fair enough; it's their busy time of the year. Aside from the annual wrangle over the budget, there's not much else they really have to do.
"In Chicago they keep regular office hours when I could just go in and talk to them," says Zifkin.
OK, Chicago is not the Garden of Eden. But the bottom line is we need political accountability at the neighborhood level. Detroit deserves that and more.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]