Living in the zoo

Mar 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

Barrels of ink have been spilled over the Detroit zoo controversy, and nearly everyone who has written about it has missed the real meaning. This is not really about the zoo. Not at all. (The zoo will be saved in the end.) What this is actually about is one central blinding and horribly dismaying truth — that blacks in the city and whites in the suburbs intensely and viscerally fear, distrust and loathe each other.

Which, if it doesn't change, means a death sentence for Detroit.

Metropolitan Detroit. All of them, and all of us, whoever you are.

How we all reacted to the zoo crisis illustrated, more than anything else in our recent history, what is in our souls, deep down. I talked last week to a young suburban mother I've known for many years, a highly educated woman who proudly calls herself a liberal.

This was right after Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson's dimwitted call for an economic boycott of the suburbs. "Yes, we would be really torn apart if they stayed out of our neighborhoods," my friend said, voice dripping with sarcasm. Then she caught herself, and stopped, horrified. "Oh my God. That's what happens to every generation, isn't it? They just get exasperated and give up."

Yes, that is what happens, on both sides.

I thought of all the classy black people who get sick of being stared at by security in Somerset Mall. And I remembered the kindly, big-hearted businessman whom I dined with in his Grosse Pointe home late in the Coleman Young administration. He loved Detroit and had suggested things to help the city in the international arena, where he was an expert. But he was giving up. Over and over again he'd been told, in effect, "Get lost, whitey."

The tragedy is that everyone sees the zoo story through the prism of race. The zoo story isn't about race; it's about money, and one more example of the crying need for metropolitan or regional government.

The city cannot afford to pay for the zoo any longer. That's not because it is run by black people; it's because the city is mainly full of poor people these days, and money isn't flowing into city coffers.

So the city needs to be able to stop shelling out the $5 million or so a year it has contributed to the zoo, about a fourth of its total budget. And at the same time, the zoo needs to stay open for the benefit of all the people, city and suburb. By the way, the zoo was our first great regional asset. It isn't even in the city. But it is the "Detroit Zoo" anyway; when it was founded, the suburbs didn't have two nickels to rub together.

Now the world has changed, and it makes far more sense to turn zoo operations over to a private group — the Detroit Zoological Society. This has nothing to do with black or white, only the green of needed funds.

So how did everything fall apart? How did we suddenly get to the point where people were talking about closing the zoo and everyone was calling each other racial names? Here's the truth of what happened, as near as I can make out:

First, on Feb. 18, City Council voted 7-2 against transferring zoo operations from the city to the Zoological Society. The media promptly portrayed the council as a bunch of dimwitted, hostile, sullen, racist blacks who would rather destroy the zoo than turn it over to someone who could save it.

That wasn't what was going on at all. Unfortunately, Barbara-Rose Collins, who has basically managed to act like an idiot most of her public life, managed to help the city's enemies by immediately doing her best to cast things in racial terms. "This is not a plantation," she said. "Black people are no longer owned by white people."

With that, we were all off to the races. But while nobody really knows how Barbara-Rose's mind works (she once held a fundraiser in a strip club, shortly after firing an aide for being gay) there were other, actually legitimate reasons for council to say, hey, wait a minute.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who's as much to blame for this mess as anyone — but who has bafflingly gotten off almost unscathed in the media — dropped the zoo plan on the council at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. Then he immediately took off on an African junket, tagging along with his mama, the congresswoman. The junket was supposedly only for members of Congress, but that didn't stop Our Mayor from grabbing a free trip. Ah ... make that a "trip to bring new business to Detroit." Right.

Sources on both sides of the zoo wars have told me there were legitimate questions, major or minor, over this agreement. But not only was the man who should have been defending it off playing hooky when the city was in crisis, but the members of the council were made to feel like they had a gun pointed at their heads. They were told: Approve this agreement within a day, or the zoo loses $4 million in state aid.

No wonder they rejected it.

Hopefully what will happen is that the mayor will come back, talk with the reluctant council members, persuade the Legislature to restore the missing money — smooth out the agreement a bit so that everyone wins. That's how politics and government are supposed to work. Yet in the racially charged world of Detroit, far too much comes down to color.

Following Barbara-Rose Collins's nonsense about slavery, the media then motored off for a good quote from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, whose earlier career was all about race-baiting. He cut his political teeth on the cross-district busing controversy and cemented his position with his constituents by bashing Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, just as Coleman helped himself for two decades by bashing Brooks right back.

Brooks has mellowed, and his racial politics were always more a matter of calculation than hatred. Yet he has always had an unerring sense for a sound bite, and knows how to please a crowd. "I'd rather own a '48 Buick than own Barbara-Rose Collins," said he.

Frankly, I thought that was very funny — and totally appropriate, given that the councilwoman had inappropriately dragged slavery into this. I didn't think he was racist at all. But I am white man, and this was another illustration of how we are two nations with a giant wall between us.

I got an e-mail from a prominent black Detroiter, who was almost shaking with rage. "Are any of you in the media going to deal with that! Own a human being? What? How can you let him say that? This is outright racist to allow him to do that and not attack him for it."

And on and on we go, sailing into the racial whirlpool leading to our own self-made abyss. There is more, much more, from the racist e-mails sent from blue-collar Madison Heights to a council member, to the illiterate e-mail ravings of a black group called the "Men of Wisdom." But you get the idea.

By the way, remember how this all started? Our society's biggest festering wound was ripped open this time, not by a lynching, not by a poll tax, but by a proposed, essentially bureaucratic, boring and invisible transfer of operations to the Detroit Zoological Society.

That's how poisoned we all are. We need to fix ourselves, pronto. In the final analysis, nobody should worry too much about the zoo.

For, as it now stands, we are the zoo.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]