Detroit’s year of reckoning

Jan 1, 2003 at 12:00 am

Kwame Kilpatrick was understandably beaming a few weeks ago when he rolled out plans to redevelop three miles of the riverfront, all the way to Belle Isle.

This considerably excited the media, though most of the locals I knew yawned. After all, they dimly remember the headlines touting that old margarine pusher Lee Iacocca’s plans to put a casino in the abandoned Hudson’s building.

And even the dimmest of the inmates stopped scanning the skyline for any trace of Dennis Archer’s promised riverfront casinos months ago. Any old-timer could name half-a-dozen more will-o’-the-wisp redevelopment schemes. But this time, the money seems to be there, some of it at least, and so it seems this will really happen.

So we’ll have a nice park or two and a pleasant three-mile walkway. This is nice, and the kind of thing every city should have. I support and applaud it; yippie.

But to come to the point, so what? Drive the streets of Detroit’s neighborhoods and look. Take a good look. Now tell me how the new Tri-Centennial State Park will help lift these streets up to decent. Drive down Woodward from the suburbs as I do, and view the immense, slowly collapsing, abandoned apartment buildings.

They wouldn’t put up with that in Baghdad. What is this — the poorest nation on earth? Should we seek foreign aid from Bangladesh?

Years of studying poverty (mostly as an armchair intellectual) has led me to an astonishing conclusion, one shared by the real experts. There is a reason most of these people are poor, which is that they don’t have money.

Meaning, they don’t have jobs. Now even in these economically sluggish times, there are some jobs that do not require advanced degrees. But they tend to be in what we mistakenly call the suburbs, which is now the real city. Three times as many people live there as live within the borders of the city of Detroit.

Many Detroiters — some say close to half — do not have cars of their own, and so cannot easily get to where the jobs are. The bus systems are neither efficient, coordinated or anything to depend on in a Michigan January.

When he was in the Legislature, and when running for mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick talked a lot about regional transportation. But he’s been mostly silent since. Yes, I know there isn’t any money. The state has a huge budget deficit and the legislative purse is firmly in the hands of outstate Republicans.

But weren’t we told he had all this bipartisan ability and connections? Someday, sooner perhaps than we’d like to think, fossil fuels are going to be hard to come by. But putting that aside for a minute, let’s face the city’s real problem:

Detroit is not really a flesh-and-blood city so much as it is a rotting black ghetto with office buildings, sports arenas and casinos. Sorry, but that’s true. Yes, there are a few high-rise apartments, home to the rich elderly and fashionable yuppies, and even some homes where better-off people can live, provided they have some way to send their kids to some fancy private school, or truck them out to someplace like Orchard Lake.

But there are insufficient stable middle-class Detroiters of any color. When Kilpatrick was elected, I was curious whether his style would be more like that of Dennis Archer, the corporate dealmaker, or that of his boyhood idol, Coleman A. Young.

So far, indications are that he is mainly a dealmaker, one with odd touches of old black nationalist sentiments and rhetoric. Deals are sometimes needed; the rhetoric was old even in Coleman’s time. Blacks have political power. Now they need resources.

What would be ideal is some sort of federated regional government. That, however, isn’t going to happen, and so what Detroit needs instead, frankly, is a whole lot of white people with kids and dogs moving in and a strategy to get them there.

Shocking? Sound like … racism? It’s exactly the opposite. Detroit has little diversity today, and desperately needs more. So far, the powers that be have shown little interest in taking any steps to do something about it.

City Council’s Sharon McPhail has a plan to provide college educations for the children of people who are willing to move into the city and stay for a number of years. “That will tempt blue-collar white folks who know that otherwise their kids won’t be able to get a good education,” she says. Does her plan make sense?

She’s a pretty savvy lawyer, and claims to have run the numbers. But the mayor and council have shown little interest in even looking at it. Instead, all have been fighting over whether McPhail should be allowed to serve as Ecorse city attorney. I can argue that both ways, but if her plan could begin to re-establish a thriving city, I’d be happy to appoint her empress of India and corporation counsel for Dubai.

Frankly, this is going to be the year in which we find out what Kwame Kilpatrick and his administration are made of. He’s had his shakedown year. This one will be harder. The state is going to cut millions of dollars from revenue sharing; the economy is stagnant, and there are no major elections to serve as distractions.

The prudent will advise him to hunker down, make cuts, hold the line. That’s fine if you are Bloomfield Hills. Detroit isn’t. What’s needed is something bold.

Napoleon supposedly once said, “I’m surrounded, outnumbered and my men are low on ammunition. My only choice is to attack.” He forgot to add, make sure you aim … but, otherwise, that sounds like exactly the strategy Detroit needs.

By the end of the year, we ought to know if we have the right general.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]