Detroit’s future, and ours

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You, dear reader, hopefully now know the results of this week’s Detroit election, unless the mess in the city clerk’s office was even worse than feared.    Unfortunately, thanks to our deadline schedule, I had to write these words before the votes were counted. Naturally, the easy thing would have been to write instead about fishing for marlin on the River Raisin, or something.

Yet whoever our next mayor is, we are facing a crisis like none other in our state’s history.

We are in bad trouble, and we need to think about this, right now. Here’s the situation: Detroit not only has a massive city government budget deficit, the city is in terrible shape. How bad is it? Here are a few mind-numbing statistics:

• Probably more than half the population is “functionally illiterate,” meaning they can’t read or write enough for ordinary, practical needs. That’s based on a study a dozen years ago that showed the rate was 47 percent, and the flight of the black middle class has only continued since then.

• One-third of the population lives below the federal poverty level, which means families of four with less than $19,000 a year.

• Property taxes are 73 mills, close to the highest in the state.

• The schools are terrible by virtually any measure.

There’s more, lots more, and none of this would change in a hurry if one of the 12 apostles were to become mayor. Nor does it matter that the grass is being mowed better in the city parks.

Things have been getting steadily worse for decades. There are two — and really only two — theories why Detroit is a disaster. They are 1) white flight and looting, and 2) racism and black irresponsibility and mismanagement.

Talking any more about either is a bad idea. We’ve been fighting the racial wars in this city forever. Look where it’s gotten us.

Need someone to blame for Detroit’s woes? Let’s agree to blame ... sunspots. Or ourselves, all of us, which is more honest. We need, right now, to drop the blame game and all the racial posturing. Let’s face the truth.

We have to fix Detroit, or Michigan is doomed, and the well-to-do white business interests are especially doomed. How in the world can this state be competitive with this giant ruin in its heart, when other states have flourishing major cities?

Don’t give me any horse exhaust about the suburbs being the real city now, etc., etc. Yes, there are some nice office buildings out there.

But the city is where the downtown and the cultural attractions are, and that happens to be Detroit. Do you really think we’ll be able to attract a lot of bright new people and cutting-edge jobs to an area whose core, outside the few blocks of stadiums and restaurants, is mostly a huge, rotted-out, desperately poor, crime-ridden ghetto?

Joe Harris, the city’s auditor general, says he thinks the day will come when the city won’t be able to pay its bills and meet its financial obligations. When that happens, Lansing will have to send someone in to run the city.

There are those who, secretly or otherwise, would like that. One can sympathize with an accountant who thinks so. Especially after years of financial mismanagement and a mayor who paid to keep limousines idling in the street, and wasted money in many other ways.

However, think about what having the state take over Detroit would really mean. Detroit would be essentially reduced to colonial status. There would be an overseer who would be the city’s economic dictator. Nobody would be able to make any spending decisions except the emergency financial manager, who would be appointed by the governor.

The citizens would be politically powerless, for all practical purposes. And the emergency financial manager wouldn’t be able to do anything to help the city, except get the books in order and balance the budget.

Who wins when that happens?

We can do well in this country and this state if we work together. We’ve had a hard time doing that, but we better learn fast.

The next few years are going to be very, very difficult, whatever happens. We have a president and an administration obsessed with trying to win a hopeless war they’ve already lost. Every month, they spend more money on Iraq than would be needed to completely restore Detroit. We aren’t going to get a lot of help from them, so we have to do it ourselves, here, in this city and this state.

Surely there are enough wise men and women in the city and in the suburbs who can see these simple truths: 1) The real city is the metropolitan area, and we’re all in this together. 2) Detroit is the spiritual capital of Michigan. Always has been; always will be. If it’s a mess, we’re all a mess.

We can fix this, if we’re willing to try to get beyond race and selfishness and political posturing. As I’ve argued before, when the Berlin Wall came down, East Germany looked a lot like Detroit. West Germany looked a lot like West Bloomfield. I know; I was there.

Immediately, without much argument, the rich half of the country began building up the poorer half. Today, they have come an amazing distance, and are already well on the way to dominating the continent’s economy.

We have to do that here. Otherwise, there really isn’t any hope for Michigan. We’ll soon resemble one of those wretched countries like Guatemala. The poor will live in sprawling hopeless ghettos. The few rich will live in fortified, gated and guarded ghettos of their own. Those who live outside the metropolitan area will pay as little attention to it as possible.

Meanwhile, the talented young will keep leaving.

That’s the world we are fast approaching. So let’s decide to stop it.



Still Way Overdue: Last week, Wayne State University’s Organization of Black Alumni honored Viola Liuzzo with its top award at its annual banquet. Liuzzo was neither black, nor an alumna, but she was a true martyr.

Forty years ago, she became the only white woman murdered while fighting for civil rights in the South. She was gunned down by Klansmen who were chasing her car after the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. An FBI informant in the car either did nothing or helped kill her.

Her act of bravery led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. When she died, she was a student at Wayne State, hoping to get a nursing degree. Tara Young, a member of the OBA, has been fighting to get WSU to give Liuzzo a posthumous degree, but so far the university has said no.

“They say they have rules that they can’t give a degree to a dead person,” Young says. “That’s the least they could do after her sacrifice.” Young says that the nursing alumni had voted to make Liuzzo an honorary fellow alum. That, sadly, is not quite the same as recognition from WSU itself.

This year, Wayne State did — at long last — present the President’s Distinguished Service Award to Viola Liuzzo. But that’s not enough.

There ought to be something on campus named for her and, yes, anyone who died in a successful effort to give millions of citizens the vote. She, and they, deserve an honorary degree from the school she was attending. Period.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. Hear him weekdays at 1 p.m. on WUOM (91.7 FM or
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