They just don’t get it

May 28, 2003 at 12:00 am

Imagine that the entire nation was in the state Detroit is in today, or worse. Rotting buildings falling down, people out of work, kids without prospects for a decent future, fathers abandoning their families, general despair.

That was once exactly the case. Seventy years ago, during the Great Depression, plenty of those in the know figured that our system was dying. The only question seemed to be whether communism or fascism would replace it.

Democracy was saved, however, by Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he famously said. It wasn’t so much what he did but that he did something — and that he inspired people to believe they could make things better.

Well, that’s exactly what Detroit needs, now. Namely, leadership. Somebody who can make us all think we can be better than we are. FDR did that — it didn’t matter that he made some dumb mistakes, or that the effects of the Depression really lingered until Pearl Harbor. What mattered is that he made people believe in him and themselves.

Martin Luther King Jr. did that too, as did John F. Kennedy, which is why people still revere them, no matter how many former lovers drag themselves out of the closet.

They were leaders. But sadly, Kwame Kilpatrick doesn’t get it.

Coleman Young and Dennis Archer, love them or hate them (almost nobody feels the same way about both), each got at least part of the leadership thing. They each had a vision, very different though they were. Both communicated that vision, and were somewhat successful in making people share their vision, and make it become reality.

Young wanted to give blacks a sense that they had a level playing field, that this city was theirs too, and he succeeded. Unfortunately — and I don’t think he meant for this to happen, at least not at the start — whites concluded it was no longer their city, and so they skedaddled and bad-mouthed Detroit.

Archer wanted to spark a downtown revival. He wanted to make those with money to invest no longer afraid of investing in or spending time in Detroit. To a large extent he succeeded too, mainly because everyone, in the city and elsewhere, knew the situation was so bad there had to be an easing of tensions.

Nobody loved him — he didn’t stir men’s hearts — but they agreed with him.

But what both of those mayors failed to do was anything that made life significantly better for the poor and the lower middle class, the vast majority of the people living in Detroit amid crumbling neighborhoods with bad schools.

Archer didn’t even try. Young lashed out at anybody who attacked Detroit, but in terms that seemed like he was defending the choice to be dysfunctional. Several months ago, this column attempted to candidly note that we were all avoiding writing the truth about Detroit, which is that much of it is — in my famous inflammatory phrase — a rotting black ghetto.

Naturally, that got me a lot of hate mail, about half of which came from white liberals, as well as a few letters from black people in city neighborhoods who said, “it’s about time someone told the damn truth.” What was significant was that nobody wrote to say, “You’re nuts. I like living next to a crack house, having a pimp as the only male role model for my son, and who needs streetlights anyway?”

Pete Karmanos, who is building Compuware’s new headquarters downtown and moving thousands of suburban workers there, once told me the trouble with Young was that he didn’t see that his folks largely wanted the same as Ward and June Cleaver, which was a better life for themselves and their kids.

Kilpatrick appears to want to do things, like sign casino deals and his former goal of tearing down abandoned houses.

What he doesn’t have, so far as I can see, is a carefully articulated vision — one everybody can understand — for what this city should be and how it should get there, how we can make this a fully livable place with good neighborhoods and schools again.

That’s the real problem.

Accomplishing something like that is also the only reason anyone should want to be mayor or governor or president. Yes, you do get an entourage and limousines, and you do get to go to Pistons games in high style, and there is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying all those things. As long as you don’t think that’s what the job is about.


New York Times follies: For the past two weeks, everybody has been running their mouths and keyboards about the great scandal in which a slimy little con man made up chunks of stories and plagiarized others, and generally committed massive fraud.

This has been billed as a huge crisis for journalism, and for affirmative action hiring. Nonsense. If I climbed over the gate of Max Jacob House this afternoon and attacked Wayne State President Irvin Reid with a colander, it would not say anything about ethics in college teaching, or race relations. It would say I had gone nuts.

But what the Jayson Blair episode says is something about the arrogance and insensitivity of the New York Times managers, who refused to listen to the warnings of editors who knew Blair was a loose cannon.

If Howell Raines had class, he would offer to resign. But he won’t.

What is more alarming is what’s happened to society. When Janet Cooke was found to have invented her Pulitzer Prize-winning story in 1981 it was universally seen as a shameful thing by everyone, including Cooke, who disappeared from view. Today, Blair is reportedly bragging about his crimes, and there is talk of a book deal and a movie. Don’t be surprised if he turns up as co-host of Monica Lewinsky’s show soon.

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