State of the gritty

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It's easy to be cynical about grand plans to fix Detroit — especially when you've been hearing them for 30 years.

Tiger Stadium is still rotting. And there is no new police headquarters in the old Michigan Central train station. And nothing is happening on the piece of riverfront land adjacent to Belle Isle's MacArthur Bridge where still another developer is stuck in the wrangle over who is responsible for cleaning up the pollution there. And enlarging Cobo Center? Well, that's been kicked around for a couple of years now and nobody seems to be scoring any points.

So I bring a jaded ear to the annual state of the city address. It's a cheerleading event.

However, second-term Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick didn't wear tights, do backflips or wave pompoms as he yelled out "Gimme a D" to the assembled crowd.

Instead, our no-earring, no-nonsense mayor preached a sobering sermon. He told Detroiters that we were having some "hard times," that we need "strategies for stimulating our economy" and "radically reducing crime."

The mayor said he was going to hire 200 additional police officers and put gang squads near schools. He vowed that the Workforce Development Department will develop programs to coach Detroiters on how to get jobs — including "being able to pass a drug test."

Ah, clean urine and a clean city.

But wait, there's more. Since Detroit's recent mayoral elections tend to include a who-is-blacker huffing contest, Kilpatrick reminded us that he is black, saying, "I truly understand the history of African-American people in this country." He even cited an Ashanti proverb in calling on city residents to step up to the plate against crime and blight.

The mayor touched on all the subjects one expects — crime, education, the economy, neighborhood development and personal responsibility. And Kilpatrick delivered it all well. Even Detroit's daily newspapers, which helped make Kilpatrick's first term a living hell at times, showered praise on him.

"It was a very good speech," says City Council President Ken Cockrel. "Ultimately it comes down to what comes after the speech. ... The state of the city address, the county, the state, the union, they're an opportunity for the executive to paint the broad brushstrokes and you don't get to see the fine details until the budget process starts. That's when we get all the numbers and get to crunch those numbers and do the math and see if it all makes sense."

Ah, the devil is in the details. And the devil's hot little pitchfork will no doubt be poking into some very sensitive subjects as the details are ironed out. The mayor is scheduled to address the council about his proposed budget on April 12. That's when we find out whom and what the mayor wants to cut in order to maintain a balanced budget.

Members of AFSCME, the union that represents many city workers, leafleted outside the Max Fisher Music Center, where the mayor spoke. Unions representing city workers are concerned that the mayor will propose more cutbacks in jobs, benefits and wages, reduced work hours and a possible privatization of the water department. If so, things will be a lot less warm and fuzzy as those fights ensue.

Even something seemingly as welcome as hiring an additional 200 police officers will be difficult.

"One reaction to hiring 200 police officers is where is he going to get the money to do it?" questions Cockrel. "The mayor laid out his vision and I accept his vision with an open mind, but I've got to see how the budget is going to work out."

In day-after reports, the mayor's biggest kudos came for his call for Detroiters to take responsibility for the city themselves. Headlines, columns and editorials commended him as if he had spanked an errant child. It's the kind of pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps talk that has dominated the racial-social debate for years — from the Million Man March to Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union gatherings.

"Certainly I support the call that he made," Cockrel says. "On the other hand a lot of it is common sense, and, if you've got a good head about you, it's stuff that you're doing already. I didn't think there was anything new or revolutionary there."

As I said, it's easy to be cynical, but I'd rather not. I'm a Detroiter born and bred. I want the city to do well. And for all the past failures, I see more good things going on at one time than I've seen in my adult life. You can't walk around downtown without seeing construction. There are more new housing developments around town than I can keep track of.

I live in Greenacres, part of the Seven Mile-Livernois area targeted for improvement by the mayor's Next Detroit initiative. Things are pretty good here. According to the 2000 census, the Seven Mile-Livernois population has the lowest poverty rate and the highest level of education among the six neighborhoods included in the initiative. I moved here from Brightmoor — another targeted neighborhood, but one with the highest poverty rate and one of the lowest education levels.

Last year the city repaved Livernois from just south of McNichols to Eight Mile Road. The avenue is more pedestrian-friendly with a median in the middle to make crossing less dangerous. Some residents complain that the median makes it harder to get around, but I'm getting used to it, and the green space in the middle is friendly to the eye.

But more people worry about crime. We have break-ins, assaults and drug activity in a neighborhood considered one of the city's safer ones. We have empty houses, although far fewer than Brightmoor.

We also have a very active community association and a volunteer radio patrol that cruises the neighborhood most nights. I go out on patrol one evening a month. We keep an eye out for criminal activity. We watch when someone arrives home to make sure they get inside safely. If we see a problem, we call the police. It's never happened on my shift.

"We're not taking the neighborhood back, but we're not giving it up," says radio patrol president James Ward.

I've learned that the No. 1 deterrent to neighborhood crime is to turn your porch light on. And while the e-mail alerts that circulate among neighbors sometimes scare me, it's good to know that folks are keeping their eyes open and letting others know what they see.

It's a nice place. We need to be able to say that about the entire city.


Out in front ... U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.(D-Mich.) spoke recently at the 78th Buck Dinner, a yearly event where local progressives gather to raise bucks for causes near and dear to their hearts. While discussing the Dems vying for the 2008 presidential nomination, Conyers opined that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former South Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich were worthiest. While Kucinich rates low in the polls, Conyers pointed out that the Ohio representative's voting record was closest to his own. However, in a nod to practicality, Conyers said he'd support a Clinton-Obama ticket.

Whoa! New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama would be an unprecedented pairing. It's a bit early to start putting running mates together. Still, regardless of their politics, the mere suggestion was unthinkable 20 years ago.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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