Coming off the island

While Michigan's political leaders meet at Mackinac, task force releases report on Detroit blight.

Detroit is a terribly blighted mess, and we now have documented proof. Just cleaning it up will cost about $2 billion.

And that is wonderful news.

Don’t worry — I haven’t become some sick hipster, salivating merrily while I ponder my next dip into ruin porn. This is good news precisely because we now know exactly how bad things are.

That means we have the information to face the truth and do what needs to be done. Bear with me, and I’ll explain further.

But first, a little background: Last week, just as the economic and political elites were swarming toward their annual event on Mackinac Island, we finally got the long-awaited report of the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. For weeks last winter, teams swarmed all over the city, photographing and chronicling each parcel. When the results were made public, we learned that the city has 84,641 messed-up structures and vacant lots. The task force concluded that a stunning 40,077 of these need to be torn down, preferably yesterday. 

Nearly as many have “blight indicators,” which the report said means they may need boarding up, fixing up, or tearing down.

Actually, when you read the fine print, most of those will have to be torn down, too, since in most cases, “rehabilitation is prohibitive from a cost perspective.” Task force photographers didn’t poke around too much, since they didn’t necessarily want to be, say, shot.

But their best guess is that Detroit has 72,000 buildings that, in the end, will have to be bulldozed. Plus more than 6,000 vacant lots, most of which have been used as dumping grounds for trash. 

Getting rid of all this blight will cost something like $2 billion, $850 million of it for the residential part alone. (Asbestos, etc., makes commercial ruins more expensive to clean up.)

So why is this good news?

Because we finally know the precise nature of the problem — and what it will cost to take care of. You can’t start a journey without a map and a price list, and now we have them. Which is really huge. Does the city have that kind of money right now? Certainly not. 

Detroit might have a few hundred million to attack blight, depending on how the bankruptcy and the “plan of adjustment” play out. We don’t know yet whether the pensioners and active city workers will vote to accept the pension cuts.

Nor has Michigan’s Senate yet approved the state’s contribution to the “Grand Bargain,” which would shore up the pension funds and save the Detroit Institute of Arts from being looted.

Yet we know what needs to be done. 

This year, there is a visible difference in how the state regards Detroit. I saw that last week at the annual Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

Every year, Michigan’s economic and political elite head to Mackinac Island for a three-day conference sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. Hundreds of business people and politicians flock there to network and do deals. 

Journalists go, too, for much the same reasons remoras follow sharks. They give us free food, free drinks, and we have many specimens of our natural prey captive in a small space.

I’ve come to these conferences for years. They have an agenda, and a lot of earnest sessions on things like STEM education to which few attendees and fewer media pay much attention. 

Mostly, everybody is exceedingly polite. They pretend to listen to Detroit concerns, issue statements of regional cooperation, and forget them by the time they pass Pellston on the way home.

This year, things clearly feel different. 

But are they? There are few who know Detroit better than Sheila Cockrel, a white girl who grew up in Corktown and married the most flamboyantly brilliant black politician of her generation.

Later, after his untimely death, she followed him in winning election to Detroit City Council, served four terms, and now runs a civic and educational program at Wayne State called Citizen Detroit.

“This may be the moment when we can have the conversation we’ve needed to about race,” she says. That conversation will be brutally hard for everybody, but is necessary.

It also might be our only chance to reinvent Detroit. “You can’t fix this city,” Cockrel says. “It is broken.” Broken beyond repair. 

“You have to replace it,” she says. 

By that, she means tearing up the city government table of organization, creating departments that make sense.

That has yet to be done. But Cockrel, still a strong Democrat, openly praises Gov. Rick Snyder, for having an agenda, getting it done, and not regarding Detroit as an alien planet.

“Right from the start he started saying Detroit, Michigan,” she says, meaning he signaled that we are all part of a whole.

Even more so, Cockrel is overwhelmingly pleased with what Mayor Mike Duggan is doing. That doesn’t mean she agrees with everything he’s done. She thinks Duggan needs an even wider vision.

“But he is the happiest, hardest-working mayor I’ve ever seen,” she says. “He gives you the feeling he works 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Indeed, Duggan was the surprising rock star of this conference, blowing away a room full of mostly Republican, mostly outstate people not prone to be charmed by him, or Detroit.

Speaking enthusiastically, flipping through a well-crafted PowerPoint show, Duggan riveted his audience with how he’s been selling vacant lots to homeowners who agree to keep them up.

Houses are being sold; red tape cut, absentee landlords sued. The mayor said new streetlights were going in at a rate of 500 a week.

Possibly most encouraging was his announcement of a summer job program for 5,000 high school students next summer. Duggan said the city would share the costs of paying the kids with those companies who make an effort to hire them.

That could be the vast game-changer Detroit needs, Cockrel said afterward. “Tearing down blighted buildings isn’t enough when you have people whose lives are blighted inside.”

There are folks whose families have been on welfare for three and four generations, who have minimal education, with no tradition of work or any idea how to find it. Saving them may be hard. 

Saving the next generation is essential. Detroit hasn’t yet been fixed. The bankruptcy settlement is still far from a sure thing.

Yet suddenly, with the city down and out, we’re seeing a rare new willingness to admit the old ways aren’t working.

This is an exciting and scary time — maybe the city’s only chance to turn things around. Detroit is still losing people. 

Nobody comes here for the schools, or safe streets.

Yet things are getting better. There’s a chance of reversing course, for the first time since the flight to the suburbs began.

Detroit has a chance. If we’re strong enough to take it.

Bizarre irony: The United States of America spent well over a $1 trillion on our decades-long Iraq war, which works out to more than $2 billion a week. For that, we bought more than 100,000 corpses, ours and theirs.

A visitor from Mars might think it would make far more sense for Washington to give Detroit one week’s worth of Iraq spending, to clean up our blight and give us a fresh start. 

However, nobody, not even U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, would dream of asking the Obama administration to do that.

Thank God we’re too sophisticated to think of such a thing.

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