Toughing it out

Not long after I wrote the column listing my frustrations with Detroit and wondering whether it was worth living here anymore, I ran into a friend who used to work for one of the local dailies but has since moved into the corporate world. He said he thought I’d raised some valid points, but nonetheless, "Detroit is worth saving," he said.

In other words, I should stay and fight rather than shrug my shoulders and take flight (my apologies to Jesse Jackson for the rhyme). After all, what if everybody with the resources to make any sort of positive difference in this city heads for the hills? Detroit needs foot soldiers — that’s what he was telling me, and I can’t argue with that.

Despite my anger at what I believe has gone wrong with Detroit — and that’s not ignoring the things that have gone right — I still have a deep love for this city that will never die no matter where I end up. Detroit has been good to me in many ways, and I have managed to achieve some successes here that I’m not so sure I would have been able to pull off in too many other places. Having said that, it would be hard for me to ignore many of the letters I got in response to the column from readers who said they essentially felt the same way. Of all the letters I received, and I received much more feedback from that column than most, only one attacked me as an anti-Detroit outsider who should pack his bags and get the hell out of town before sundown.

To be honest, knowing how sensitive Detroiters can be about their city — understandably so — I expected many more letters like that one. I was surprised, and more saddened than relieved, to get so many letters from both former Detroiters who had long ago come to the same negative conclusion about Detroit, and current Detroiters making plans to hit the road. These weren’t bashers, but people who loved Detroit but, for any number of reasons, decided not to put their families at risk and hang on to the hope that Detroit just might turn around someday. Between loyalty to a city and loyalty to family, there really is no choice.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has repeatedly stressed that there are many positive things going on in the city that virtually never get reported because of the media’s fascination with his administration’s scandal du jour. One day it’s Navigatorgate, the next it’s credit cardgate. This being an election year, his challengers are making the most out of each and every one of those issues to paint Kilpatrick as not only unfit for, but an embarrassment to the office. That’s the nature of politics, and it will never change.

The unfortunate truth is that Kilpatrick has too often opened the door for Kwame-bashers to rush right on through and set fire to his reputation. Meanwhile, this narrow focus on the mayor has tended to pull attention away from the considerably larger and more important issue of how to rescue this city.

To be honest, the mayor is right when he says not much ink has been devoted to the things that Detroit is doing right — or at least better than it used to. Exposing the dirt is only fair game; Kilpatrick has to know this. And former Mayor Dennis Archer must certainly be given credit for starting the redevelopment that we’re seeing in new housing construction, new parks and a more revitalized downtown with popular clubs, restaurants and fast-selling condos and lofts. But we’ve had three-plus years of development under Kilpatrick now, and it’s hard to argue that he’s still coasting on Archer’s wave.

Some might argue the continued exposure of Kilpatrick’s sins — both real and perceived — is crucial in helping voters to make an informed decision come the August primary. In other words, if Detroiters don’t know how bad Kilpatrick really is, then they might just re-elect him, and then the city will really go to hell. I’m not interested in telling Detroiters how to vote, so long as they vote and that they vote not on name recognition or what they heard a neighbor say, but on what they actually know.

Detroiters must fully appreciate the magnitude of the crisis this city is facing and what it means for each and every one of them — and then cast their votes accordingly come August and November. This is not the time to stay at home because you think it doesn’t matter who gets elected, and I’m saying this only because Detroit — like much of the rest of the country — has such a sorry history of showing up at the polls. Last year’s presidential election was a welcome exception to that rule, and I’ve never been so happy to stand in a long line in my life. I just hope Detroiters understand that this upcoming election may in many ways be even more important to them than last year’s.

We’re dealing with an extremely volatile mixture of problems that have been faithfully and relentlessly documented in this paper and elsewhere for months: a struggling and embattled school system, a budgetary crisis accompanied by the very real threat of receivership (although I’m sure Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who cannot win re-election next year without a strong Detroit turnout, will do her best to avoid that as long as possible), a rapidly eroding tax base caused largely by a rapidly disappearing middle-class population, and police and fire departments that will be forced to lay off hundreds of workers at the worst possible time. To top it off, we had a story in the Free Press last week about how Detroiters are hated by Virginians who blame our young people for bringing the drug problem to their front doorstep.

So where we were once known as the exporters of cars and the Motown sound (and so many other sounds), we’re now apparently gaining recognition as the exporters of drug culture. All of us who live in this city know that, even in these tough times, this is not who we are as a community or as a people. Collectively we’re so much better than that, and we always have been. But if perception is reality, then it’s time for us to manufacture a new reality. Whoever we elect to represent us as mayor and as city councilmembers will have a lot to do with the shape and substance of that new reality. This isn’t about whether Kilpatrick or the council members deserve another chance, because this is much bigger than all of them. This is about what Detroit deserves, and Detroit deserves a hell of a lot better than what it’s been getting.

In that earlier column ranting against the frustrations of living here, I said, "Maybe Detroit just isn’t worth it anymore." I shouldn’t have said that. That’s wrong. I’m still pissed off and very frustrated — believe me, that hasn’t changed. But there are nearly 900,000 people living in this city, many of whom don’t have the option of leaving, and if Detroit isn’t worth it, that means they aren’t worth it, and nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth is that Detroit is indeed a city worth saving.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit editor, writer and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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