How to save Detroit

Bing's address, hard realities and a modest proposal

Mar 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

"When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on. But I got here and found out ... things were way worse than I ever imagined."—Mayor Dave Bing, Washington Post, February 2011

A half-century ago, when the mayor was still a high school basketball star, Detroit was a happening place. Downtown Hudson's was the tallest department store in the world.

They were, alas, knocking down old City Hall, thanks to the new modernistic City-County Building. (Historic preservation wasn't much on anyone's mind, because Motown still saw itself as a young and vibrant city.) Sure, it had lost a little population, something the experts at the time put down to the freeways, but Detroit still had nearly 1.7 million people.

Seventy-one percent of them were white. But the black population was not only mushrooming, it was making itself heard. "Please Mr. Postman" would be Motown's first No. 1 nationwide hit that year. The Red Wings made the Stanley Cup finals. The Detroit Tigers would stun everyone by winning 101 games, only to be beaten out at the end by the Yankees.

Change was coming, though. That fall, for the first time, a young politician running for mayor would openly court the black vote. With their help, Jerry Cavanagh would pull off the biggest upset victory in Detroit mayoral history.

When he took office, he was only 33 years old. It was an age of young men; the governor, John Swainson, was only 35 when who took office. The new mayor believed in Detroit, believed in the future, believed in cities.

Today, Detroit city is a very different place than those vibrant leaders must have dreamed it would be. Soon, we'll have the final census figures from last year. The city almost certainly has fewer than 800,000 people, the vast majority of them black.

They are overwhelmingly poor, poorly skilled and poorly educated. The affluent have largely left, the skilled have left, many who want decent public schools for their kids have left.

And the city left behind is being crushed by debt.

According to the Washington Post, which did a long story on Detroit last month, the city's long-term debt is $5.7 billion, a figure the city has no realistic prospect of paying off.

The annual budget deficit had been wrestled down to $150 million, before the city got the bad news about the governor's budget. Among other things, it once again slashed revenue sharing, for the umpteenth time.

That's money the city needed to keep going. Last week, the mayor, a good and decent and talented man, gave his annual State of the City speech.

Dave Bing is more than twice the age of the mayor Detroit had half a century ago, and seemed older and wearier than his 67 years. The governor's budget, he said, "has potentially devastating consequences for the city of Detroit. It threatens the concrete but fragile gains we have made."

"We simply can't afford it," he said. Later, when discussing labor negotiations, the mayor said, "I know change is difficult. I know change takes time. But we are getting there."

But is Detroit really getting there? Can it get there?

Bing meant specifically the negotiations, but also Detroit as well, a city he called "a work in progress." Dave Bing is loyal to the city he moved back to to govern. Yet he is also an honest and realistic man.

During his State of the City speech, he talked about building something that they would have taken for granted half a century ago, "a city that works." Detroit doesn't work now. Dave Bing knows that, and admitted as much — something other mayors wouldn't have dreamt of doing.

He spoke, however, of a vision of his version of Detroit as a shining city on a hill, "a city that reversed the cycle of decline by stopping the population drain and [is] beginning to attract new residents ... a city that transformed its economy and made Detroit a major job center once again.

"A city that attacked blight and turned vacant land into opportunity for economic development, jobs and public use. A city that brought residents together to create safe neighborhoods and deliver outstanding public services."

The mayor told Detroiters that this was, indeed, the future they could build, "but not without dealing with today's reality."

Astonishingly, in his speech, he subtly touched on just how divorced from reality Detroiters are. This is, he reminded people, a city where 50,000 false security alarms get pulled every year, a place where, as the mayor delicately put it, "we must also continue educating our residents about the appropriate use of 911." As in, don't call it if your cat is sick.

One thing the mayor didn't mention, however, was what was even then going on behind the scenes in Lansing. The day after the annual State of the City speech, the Michigan House of Representatives easily passed a bill designed to make it easier for the state to appoint emergency financial managers to run troubled cities, school districts or other local governments.

In addition, the bills would give the EFMs broad new powers, including the ability to void labor contracts, and strip local officials of virtually all their powers. Nor would emergency financial managers have to be an individual. The law would permit the state treasurer to appoint a firm to govern a city.

Does that mean, say, that Nationwide Security Contractors could be given total power in Detroit, if it came to that? Damn right it could. Needless to say, this has sparked a far amount of outrage. But the people who would normally rise to protest this were too busy last week protesting the governor of Wisconsin's attempt to destroy public sector unions.

Without much doubt, the bills will sail through the Senate, where the pathetic Democratic minority doesn't even have the ability to delay a bill from taking immediate effect.

Detroit hasn't, we should note, asked for an emergency financial manager, or given any indication that it might. But I can't help thinking of a conversation I had with Joe Harris a few years ago. He was the city's auditor general from 1995-2005.

He told me that sooner or later, it was inevitable. Detroit could delay things a bit with smart management, perhaps. But the city no longer had the resources to pull itself out of this.

Harris, incidentally, is now EFM in Benton Harbor; and may have been given that job as a sort of audition for the really big one to come. But there is a way to avoid all that.

The only way that makes sense. Former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk noted years ago in his classic little book Cities Without Suburbs that the only cities that do well are "elastic cities," that can keep expanding their territory. Luckiest of all are those city-county units that have thriving metropolitan governments — Nashville, for example. Miami, Indianapolis. Imagine that happening here.

Imagine a Detroit that consisted of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The Legislature could create such a super city. What's more, it should. All these places are really Detroit.

Proud Detroiters and selfish suburbanites would resist this, of course. But there really is no other way to create a city that works, that would have the money to educate kids properly and do the sort of things necessary to turn the city around.

Will this happen? Not right away, and maybe not for many years. But until Detroit is a truly functioning city again, there's no way Michigan can ever be rich and great again.