Thursday, October 1, 2009

Time’s warp — and the legacy of Coleman Young

Posted By on Thu, Oct 1, 2009 at 12:03 PM


We were wondering what was going to come of Time Inc.’s much-touted Assignment Detroit. That’s the project that includes buying a house in West Village, near the better-known Indian Village, to house a retinue of correspondents, some for short stints, others for the long haul. Encompassing representatives of Time, Fortune, Money, Essence and Sports Illustrated, their associated websites and CNNmoney, that’s a striking commitment of journalistic resources these days. And no doubt it’s driven by a desire to do more than the kind of drive-by journalism that the city’s seen all too many times. (It’s also a great advertisement for Detroit real estate bargains, since they’ve let it be known that their six-bedroom, four-bath manse would have cost half a million in most other cities; they got it for one-fifth or less of that.)

Well, the biggest sign of the editorial investment is out now, a Time magazine cover story, "Detroit: The Death -- and Possible Life of a Great City," that’s a mixture of boilerplate on the city’s demise and the Big Three-UAW slide

with a little ray of optimism about the alternative energy for not-so-big auto

and a take on former Mayor Coleman Young that’s mind-numbingly simplified.

Among the chief reasons “Detroit careened off the road,” writer Daniel Okrent tells us, is “the corrosive two-decade rule of a black politician who cared more about retribution than about resurrection

a talented politician who spent much of his 20 years in office devoting his talents to the politics of revenge.” His posture to the city’s remaining white residents “could have been summed up in the phrase Now it’s our turn.” His response to job losses was “good riddance.” And he was clearly a politician who had no interest in working with suburban politicians “who detested him every bit as much as he had demonized them.”

We’re hardly uncritical when it comes to Young. We sometimes joke about the incinerator as Detroit’s answer to the Aswan Dam, and lament the mentality that turned the charming, grassy knoll of the original Chene Park into an also-ran Pine Knob on the river. Don’t get us started.

But the massive efforts to carve out city neighborhoods for the GM Poletown and eastside Chrysler plants hardly suggest a mayor who was unbothered by the job situation here; and while he should have had a better sense of what keeps small businesses in the city — in fact, he should have spent a little more time in general thinking about the small things that make cities livable as well as the big ones — we’re hard-pressed to see where his attitude amounted to “good riddance.”

The regional tax that provided for the expansion of Cobo Hall in the 1980s — then on the verge of being obsolete — couldn’t have happened without skill in cooperating with political forces across Eight Mile. And if Young’s relationships with white politicos admittedly ran hot and cold, redevelopment of the Foxtown area, and what other such successes the city pulled off, couldn’t have happened without alliances with white business. You wouldn’t have guessed any such things possible from the account of Okrent, a former Detroiter who recalls the seemingly halcyon ’50s and early ’60s of his youth.

Bill McGraw, one of the most city-savvy voices of the Detroit Free Press for many years, was also a consummate Young observer. Last Sunday he said farewell to readers in a column that included a short, but far more nuanced appraisal of the articulately foul-mouthed mayor:

Smart, witty, charming, well intentioned and misunderstood, Young in his first two terms was probably Detroit's best mayor during the city's 50-year decline. His combativeness about racism was a tough pill for many white people to swallow, and he stayed in office far too long.

Too bad Bill wasn’t given more space to talk about Young and his other swan song impressions — seemed Bill was just getting warmed up when the piece ended — and too bad the Time piece never bothered to tap the knowing observations of Bill and plenty of others around town with similar immersion in the subject.

Interestingly, on “The Detroit Blog,” another component of

Assignment Detroit, Time staffer Darrell Dawsey, a Detroit native, takes much the same tack in criticizing Okrent, who came in from — as Dawsey puts — the magazine’s “mothership” to write his piece. (The blog, by the way seems to building an interesting composite picture of the city. Subtitled “One year. One city. Endless opportunities.” — you gotta say they’re starting off with a positive attitude. We haven’t spent as much time with another Assignment Detroit blog at CNNmoney, but it too seems well worth checking out.)

A couple other thoughts about the package:

• Even as boilerplate on the city’s decline, the Time piece draws more on the thinking of Ze’ev Chafets Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit, (making the 1967 riot a pivot point, ignoring the degree to which whites and capital were already fleeing the city) than on the longer and more complex — and we’d say informed — view of Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Dawsey makes a similar argument — without naming Chafets or Sugrue — for the longer view in his blog posting. (We’ve written at length about Sugrue in the past in the context of recent Detroit historians and an interview about a visit to his now despairing childhood Detroit neighborhood and the essay that grew out of that visit.)

• You don’t have to be black nationalist to wonder about the Time “Committee to Save Detroit,” a posed group shot of Oakland County Exec L. Brooks Patterson, urban farmer Greg Willerer, Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, blight buster John J. George, charter schools exec Doug Ross, Riverfront Conservancy leader Faye Nelson, and state Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed. Our best count puts just two African-Americans — Worthy and Nelson — on the committee.

• And then there’s always the image issue, in the literal sense of the word — typically the Time package is heavy on dilapidation shots, including the cover. Just how do you represent this place? Well, to represent one kind of representation, we’ve added to our vocabulary the term “ruin porn.” That’s after reading the transcript from the NPR program On the Media, discussing the genre in general and the Time Detroit depiction in particular.

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